In a year pitched to endless anxiety and rife with perilous unknowns, I have spent a tremendous amount of time thinking about Enya. Maybe it is because the Irish musician born Eithne Pádraigín Ní Bhraonáin, who has never toured and yet has become her own enchanted genre over the last 33 years, moved to a 19th-century Victorian castle just south of Dublin at the turn of the century and has been a practitioner of self-isolation ever since. Maybe it is because her atmospheric compositions are full of imagination, of openness, each note like a new horizon coming into focus. Maybe it is because her many-layered catalog is so sad and healing at once, or because it makes the complex work of being indefinitely alone sound easy.
Last December, after noticing a substantial uptick in the number of effusive Enya fans in my orbit—both friends and musicians I follow—I finally asked someone for a mix of her best work. I now feel that the 19-song Enya primer I received in the final days of 2019 was cosmically tailored to prepare me for the impending hell of 2020. From the windswept dream pop of “I Want Tomorrow” to the skylike chorus on “Anywhere Is,” from the wild arpeggiations of “Aldebaran” to the shaded beats and Gaelic lyrics on “Ebudae,” my journey with Enya became a reminder of how music could hold the days together when it felt like reality was in a free fall.
At 59, Enya has now released eight studio albums. Most popular among them are the earliest: her cinematic 1987 debut, The Celts; 1988’s Watermark, the unlikeliest of pop smashes; and 1991’s oceanic Shepherd Moons, which sold even more. Each mixes the ancient with the modern, folklore and ambience, the human and the electronic, containing hundreds of ornate layers of Enya’s own vocals and rhythms woven like cloth. She and longtime collaborators Nicky and Roma Ryan turned this choral synthesizer music into the obsessive sound of serenity.
But what especially intrigued me on that mix was a song called “Even in the Shadows.” Amid Enya’s many decades of candlelit mystique and mythological lyrics, it’s an outlier—an inquisitive ode to love lost, like an ambient girl-group 45—and as it snuck up on me, its pull became overwhelming. “Even in the Shadows” reminded me of music by younger artists whom I knew Enya inspired, like Ioanna Gika, but it was, beguilingly, from her most recent album, 2015’s Dark Sky Island. “That song is me exposing myself,” Enya said then. “It’s a heartbreak song. I’ve never done a heartbreak song before.” She was 54.
Last year, when the ambient artist and Florist songwriter Emily Sprague told me that “Even in the Shadows” was her favorite song of all time, I had no idea it was so recent—that Enya was continuing to do her best work 30 years on. It only affirmed my idea that Enya and the present had formed a perfect eclipse. Sprague, who is 26, said that, despite Enya’s cultural ubiquity, she can feel like “a strange cult classic” among her peer group. She said the allure of “Even in the Shadows” lies in how it’s a comfort even as it gives voice to “loss and failure and searching and desire and the ultimate impermanence” of it all. “It makes me feel great!” Sprague said. “And what I’m feeling great about is an existence with everything on the table.”
I began to see Enya everywhere. And as I did, I came to think of her like a Rosetta Stone for a particular thread of modern pop—music that is slow and hypnotic and restorative, with operatic melancholy, solitary strength, and a discernibly feminine sense of craft. Natalie Mering, who records as Weyes Blood, has called Enya a “matriarchal force.” When FKA twigs mentioned how Enya inspired her song “thousand eyes” last year, she went as far as to compare her to the queens of art pop, Björk and Kate Bush, calling her “a mother.” Current mother-to-be Nicki Minaj listened to Enya in the studio while making 2014’s The Pinkprint. Grimes once included 1987’s “Boadicea” on a list of her personal greatest songs of all time. Last October, Angel Olsen listened to Enya’s epochal hit “Orinoco Flow” with a radio host and said, “I told my manager this is going to be my next move.” Back in March, Mike Hadreas of Perfume Genius inquired on Twitter: “Was Enya the first to ever pop off.”
In a recent interview with The Guardian, R&B icon Brandy—herself an influence on the likes of Frank Ocean and Solange—also proudly asserted her fandom, reflecting on how Enya’s stacked vocals particularly influenced her 2002 album Full Moon. When the Guardian reporter questioned her taste, Brandy defensively arched both brows: “Enya’s a joke to you?”
Brandy’s question is a pointed one. How and why, like so many women artists of the ’90s, was an innovator like Enya once so widely reduced to a cultural punchline? What has finally broken that stigma down? To start, music at large has become a less patriarchal place than it was when she debuted in the late ’80s. And new age—which Enya herself helped popularize but has long rejected as a marketing term—has largely been artistically redeemed, no longer relegated to the status of patchouli-scented muzak. But more to the point, internet-raised music fans have learned to listen adventurously, beyond the borders of genre, and Enya—despite having won four Grammy Awards for Best New Age Album—has always transcended them. Perhaps it is a prevailing ethos of open-mindedness in music that makes her stirring melodies and enveloping textures as beloved today by mainstream rappers and independent singer-songwriters as by the heavier reaches of the avant-garde. A generation of artists who grew up on Enya have now arrived to recover the nuances of her artistry and reclaim her as a role model.
This shift is not lost on the ambient artist Julianna Barwick. With her ecstatic, richly layered, often wordless sound, Barwick has been likened to Enya since at least 2009, when The New York Times dubbed her “The New Enya” (with the clarification that “there’s no shame whatsoever” in such a distinction). She calls Enya a formative, if subconscious, influence. But even for a noted fan like Barwick—who taught herself to play Watermark’s “Evening Falls” on piano at age 8, and says she has “every single nuance to every single song” in the early Enya catalog ingrained in her memory—the comparison, back then, was complicated. “Ten years ago, it was like: ugggh,” she recalls. “But the uncoolness factor has definitely diminished.”
To move beyond the stereotype, Barwick encourages a closer listen. “With Enya, or artists like myself and Sigur Rós, we’ll get stuck with this ‘ethereal’ word,” she says. “It’s a common misconception that Enya’s music is all floaty shit. It’s not. Some of her songs are dark and goth and badass.” She cites “Boadicea” in particular as “very sinister.” A deep cut from The Celts that is comprised solely of synths and humming, “Boadicea” was famously sampled by the Fugees on 1996’s “Ready or Not,” brooding beneath Lauryn Hill’s bars. The sample has since traveled to P. Diddy and Mario Winans’ 2004 track “I Don’t Wanna Know,” and it can currently be heard on the radio via Rotimi and Wale’s “In My Bed.”
Enya’s doomier atmospheres are alive in the work of the Denver death metal band Blood Incantation, who have thanked her in the credits of both 2016’s Starspawn and 2019’s Hidden History of the Human Race. Like Barwick, vocalist and guitarist Paul Riedl has spent most of his life absorbing Enya’s otherworldly productions, which he says transport the listener “to a pastoral heathen realm beyond linear time.” Riedl has the Enya logo painted onto his leather jacket alongside those of doom metal bands like Mournful Congregation, and says that Watermark’s “Exile” is on his “funeral mixtape.” In Riedl’s view, “Anyone claiming to worship at the altar of deep, dark, atmospheric, and most importantly beautiful music is absolutely posing if they deny the power of Enya.”
For acolytes like Riedl and Barwick, Enya is foundational. “She’s been so omnipresent… she’s almost like the Beatles,” Barwick says. “It’s so rad that she wrote the music, she sang all of those parts, she played the instruments, and here’s this totally inimitable sound: She’s doing it all herself.”
Enya was born into a musical household in the rural Gweedore district of County Donegal in 1961. Her father was the former leader of the Slieve Foy Dance Band, who toured Irish ballrooms in the 1950s and ’60s, before going on to run a pub and venue. Her mother was a music teacher. Enya was the fifth of nine children in a family of “constant hustle and bustle and crying and chaos,” she once said, and she first played onstage with her siblings at the age of 3, in competitions of Irish balladry. Her noisy home life made her yearn for quiet. When she was finally sent to boarding school to study classical piano, she called it “a dream come true.” It was there she learned English; her first language was Irish.
She began her music career in earnest at 18 when she joined her older siblings and uncles in the Celtic folk-rock band Clannad. Enya made her mark on the group by updating the traditional sound of tunes like “Gathering Mushrooms” with harmonies and electronic keyboards. Two years later, though, Clannad had a falling out with its sound-engineer-turned-manager, Nicky Ryan, and when the split transpired, Enya decided to go with Ryan.
Broke and at a creative crossroads, she left her family behind, taking up residence with Ryan and his wife, Roma, at their house in Dublin. There, the Ryans spent their life savings transforming a shed into a small 16-track studio, where Enya spent four tentative years experimenting with an elemental sound—an expanding universe of singing and synthesizers conducted by the moods of one woman—that would go on to sell more than 80 million records.
In the Ryans’ studio, Enya drew from the elegance and drama of classical music and the melancholy of traditional Irish sounds; from church hymns and silence; from her own green world of cliff tops, rolling hills, and the vastness of the sea. She composed the stately melodies and performed nearly all of the instruments, while Ryan, 12 years her senior, produced. A devotee of Brian Wilson and Phil Spector who once toured with Thin Lizzy, Ryan channeled his pop predecessors’ harmonic splendor as well as their reclusiveness. He had an idea to create his own cathedral-scaling version of the Wall of Sound by overdubbing dozens of what he called “multi-vocals” into a “choir of one.” This intrigued Enya. The concept would eventually see Enya and Ryan record up to 500 individual takes of her hushed singing for a single song, layered slowly over weeks, or months, or even a year. Roma, a poet, observed this process, and wrote lyrics infused with the mythology of Ireland. A trinity was born, and it has continued ever since.
The first Enya releases were scores, including, when she was 24, the BBC docu-series The Celts: Rich Traditions and Ancient Myths. (She also appeared in it, and can be seen in bonus footage walking on the beach of her youth and discussing its proximity to the cemetery where her grandparents are buried, like a true ’80s goth.) An Irish Times article from 1986 described Enya’s “cherished dream [of] winning an Oscar for best film score.” She became a cryptic pop star instead.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Enya’s albums Watermark and Shepherd Moons became fixtures on the pop charts alongside the likes of Guns N’ Roses and fellow Irish ambassadors U2. “This is not mainstream music!” proclaimed a Good Morning America host during Enya’s first television interview in 1991, genuinely bewildered by how such an unusual sound would be so universally popular as to spawn international chart-busting hits. Enya’s guess was as good as hers.
Weyes Blood could have helped explain the first wave of Enya-mania, though she was only a small child back then. As one of the biggest Enya heads in modern music, Natalie Mering has been “trying to get everybody back on the Enya train” for well over a decade. “For people that remember when she was really popular, it was like mall music, adult contemporary—it wasn’t badass,” Mering says. “But I always thought it was.”
Growing up in the ’90s, Mering’s parents kept Watermark and Shepherd Moons in their five-disc CD changer and played them constantly. “It was such a huge part of my psyche,” she says. She’d twirl around the living room to the shimmering sorcery of “Caribbean Blue,” still her favorite: “I could blast that for all eternity.” Mering cites Enya’s influence on her exquisite 2016 breakthrough Front Row Seat to Earth as well as 2019’s baroque-pop epic Titanic Rising. She says she’s observed a new generation embrace Enya’s unique beauty—younger fans who don’t necessarily have the baggage of its past life as “doctor’s office music.”
When Mering first started playing music in the early 2000s, she struggled to find bandmates, and instead layered her voice on a loop pedal, in the spirit of her idol. Around 2006, she was traveling in noise and experimental music circles, and would try to play Enya for her male peers—explaining, as she puts it, how “Enya’s a drone artist, she’s like the most mainstream noise artist there ever was”—but the connection would elude them. A decade later, when Mering was making Front Row Seat to Earth with producer Chris Cohen, she layered vocals and harmonizer on the ballad “Generation Why.” “He couldn’t relate to the Enya quality,” Mering recalls. “He said, ‘Uh, it kind of sounds like Enya,’ like in a bad way. And I was like: Ohhh, you don’t get it. I was always coming up against people who didn’t go for it. And then all of a sudden, the coin flipped.”
As little kid, Perfume Genius’ Mike Hadreas yearned to be a part of something. And the immersive world of Enya made him feel included. “I immediately responded to it,” Hadreas says. “Something about Enya connected to the witchy part of my brain.” This occultish association makes sense: The circular, curative properties of Enya’s music recall some of the qualities that once made witches seem so threatening to society.
The young Hadreas was drawn in by the music’s “overtly magical” calm along with its haunting undercurrents, which seemed to validate a real darkness. Enya’s songs felt religious, but not in the “off-putting” way of Christianity, from which he already felt alienated. “It felt like a deeper thing, this secret,” Hadreas says, “like I know that I am connected to something, and I know the way I am is OK.” Hadreas cites his song “Gay Angels,” from 2010’s Learning, as especially Enya-inspired, and says the ambient, meditative textures throughout his catalog bear out her influence.
“There’s something about Enya being so mainstream that is really soothing to me,” Hadreas adds, recalling the times he would listen to her celestial sounds with his mother. “Everybody knows who Enya is, but there’s also this feeling that it’s something spiritual and strange.” That she was on television while maintaining a secretive aura only contributed to her many mysteries.
Despite her omnipresence for more than 30 years, Enya has managed to remain a relative enigma, rising to notoriety not through the usual mechanisms of celebrity but through something more ineffable. Despite her success, she can still go to the grocery store.
From the start, Enya wrote fame out of the equation, seeing it as false and a potential detriment to her process. When she was signed to Warner Brothers UK by exec Rob Dickins—who had previously signed Joni Mitchell, Prince, and the Sex Pistols (and oddly is shouted-out in the lyrics of “Orinoco Flow”)—she ensured that her contract allowed her three years between each album. Warner Brothers tried to make Enya’s image “more rock’n’roll,” but she rejected it. In the mid ’90s, she turned down an offer to score Titanic.
Enya was still unknown when Watermark exploded in 1988. “I had a career that wasn’t dependent on what I looked like,” she has said. She was 27 by then, and had been playing music professionally for nearly a decade, so she knew to avoid the games of the industry. To promote her personality seemed futile. “I realized, there’s no rulebook that says, ‘Your music is successful; you must now become famous,’” she later reflected.
This creative control has itself been a source of inspiration to many artists I spoke with. The world that Enya and the Ryans architected and protected has always been a closed one—the core trio in their own studios without a single other engineer, assistant, or friend—and perhaps it’s that self-contained environment that has resulted in such an intimate sound. Mering calls the effect “womblike” and “overtly feminine.” The effect is an audibly non-masculine one, an écriture féminine of electronic studio technique by way of Enya’s inexhaustible chorus of herself. “You can tell there’s not a guy pulling the strings in Enya’s studio,” Mering has observed. And it is no surprise that FKA twigs’ sensuous MAGDALENE ballad “daybed”—about a woman’s self-pleasure in the throes of depression—contained “a lot of our Enya conversations embedded in it,” according to collaborator Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never.
Enya’s epic studio innovations have not always been at the center of her narrative, but they are central to why Lopatin sees her “almost as a deity.” In the 2010s, Lopatin was at the forefront of an underground music culture that fused experimental electronic, noise, and new age. But he was only 6 years old in the late ’80s when he first saw Enya on television—performing “Boadicea” in the studio, her hands on the Roland Juno-6 keyboard—and had an epiphany: It was the same synth his dad had in the basement and used for his gigs. “But when I saw Enya play it on VH1, it created this really powerful rift in my mind: There are things that are possible with that instrument that are magical,” Lopatin says. “That’s the origin of my creativity.”
In college Lopatin would listen to Watermark in private—it was a world to enter—and his appreciation for the “formal rigor” of Enya and Ryan’s work as a team has only deepened over the years, mysterious as their methods may be. “I wish I could be a fly on the wall in the studio,” Lopatin says. “I still can’t totally wrap my head around it.” Their process of, as Lopatin puts it, “creating these unbelievably symphonic layers of almost microscopic details” has been a lasting influence. “It’s not simply that she’s making pretty stuff,” he says. “She mastered the art of making a very gentle, quiet thing sound absolutely ferocious.”
Lopatin sees a parallel between Enya and the director Stanley Kubrick in the meticulousness and patience with which they assemble their work. “Enya is a very private person, but there’s something in the music where, paradoxically, she allows you to come in really, really close,” he says. “You feel close because you’re hearing hundreds of multi-tracked looped vocals, and because it’s just her and a keyboard. It’s such a tight little private circle—you feel the specificity of it so deeply.”
Coupled with the audacity of her productions, Lopatin also senses humanity in her free-flowing melodies, her cinematic song structures, her decision to use synths but not sequence them: “You can feel her hands on the keys, her sense of timing that has a kind of natural chaos in it.” This duality has influenced him and his many collaborators, like twigs. Lopatin has also bonded with the Weeknd over their shared affinity for Enya. “The Weeknd loves Enya,” Lopatin says, adding that he and the singer recently dueted on an as-yet-unreleased, Enya-charged ballad.
After our interview, Lopatin sends me a photo of a framed The Memory of Trees-era Enya poster he once kept on prominent display at his studio. These days, he keeps it closer, at his home.
In June, as the pandemic came to coincide with the historic Black Lives Matter protests, I happened across a viral video on Twitter that compiled footage of racist statues being torn down around the world. It was soundtracked by Enya’s single “Only Time,” from 2000’s A Day Without Rain. The caption of the video read: “(destroys racist statues while Enya plays in the background).”
It was made by a 22-year-old psychology student named Ana, who has been listening to Enya since she was 7. “It’s like listening to catharsis,” she says. Ana wanted to illustrate the truly global nature of the current movement for Black lives, and to pay tribute to the activists coming together to take on racism and injustice. “She’s not an artist you’d immediately associate with rebellion,” Ana admits, but her music can “heighten the feeling behind those actions. Revolution is not just breaking the old, but also building a better new.” She says she used Enya’s music to inject the footage with the possibility of change. “I wanted to show where the road could go,” Ana says. “I have always associated her songs with new beginnings.”
In 2001, CNN used the soothing churn of “Only Time” to soundtrack the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, and the song became Enya’s only single to reach the Top 10 on the U.S. charts. The lyrics go:
Who can say where the road goes
Where the day flows, only time
And who can say if your love grows
As your heart chose, only time
Who can say why your heart sighs
As your love flies, only time
And who can say why your heart cries
When your love lies, only time [...]
Who knows? Only time
“Only Time” speaks to the act of reimagining doubt as energy, or seeing pain as temporary. Time is the revelator, Enya seems to say, and until then we inhabit an inevitable in-between, a space to change and dream. If “Only Time” tells a story of patience, maybe it also tells the story of Enya, whose influence has itself taken time to root and bloom.
Nearly every profile of Enya has pondered, to some extent, the fact that she has remained unwed and childless throughout her life, as if this fact were itself as mysterious as the angels singing inside of her castle. When A Day Without Rain came out, Enya, then 39, explained that it followed a period of reflection on this personal choice. “Three years ago, I was asking whether I should take time out to have a family,” she said. She stressed over the decision until she remembered that her dreams were just different. “I had to stop putting pressure on myself,” she said, adding that this realization is what “Only Time” was about. Through the recalibration of the years, Enya’s own road led her to become a mother to a generation of artists instead.
For more, listen to Pitchfork Editor Puja Patel and Contributing Editor Jenn Pelly discuss Enya’s artistry on The Pitchfork Review podcast below.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork