This post ran originally on THUMP UK.
The clock strikes two. The sound rouses you from the half-sleep you semi-slipped into a few hours before. You've been having trouble with your sleeping recently, but you're trying not to worry about it too much. It's nothing, you tell yourself and others, it'll pass because these things always do. Now awake, you stumble through the dark, head towards the bathroom where muscle memory kicks in and you find the light switch first time. Your face is reflected in gold and the gold makes an impression on the marble and the Lusso Stone Mardan Solid Surface Freestanding Stone Resin Bath. The 1760s never looked brighter and whiter. You are Enya and you live in Manderley Castle, Killiney, Ireland, and every single day you wonder how you ended up here.
She's not the only one asking that either. After all, it's not everyday that a reclusive, publicity-shy Irish new age musician sells 75 million albums worldwide and amasses a fortune of nearly one hundred million pounds, is it? Record sales alone put her above Duran Duran and Black Sabbath, and she's on par with the unlikely trio of Bob Marley, Kiss, and Kenny G. Somehow this quiet, unobtrusive artist, who seems to have insulated themselves from the rigours of the industry, has transformed herself into a powerhouse, whilst remaining mythical, unknowable, distant and barely-there all while selling more records than pretty much anyone else out there.
The phone rings, and the morse code echoes through the house. You make it to the receiver just in time but because the phone rings so rarely these days you momentarily forget that you're meant to be the person who says "Hello" first. So there is near silence, just the sound of two breaths transmitting themselves into the blank nothingness of the gap between telephones. The voice on the other end murmurs into hearing. The voice is rich, commanding, Antipodean, and it belongs to the film director Peter Jackson. He wants you to record a song for his upcoming Lord of the Rings film. The prospect is exciting and you arrange to make the trip over to New Zealand. You do not know at that time that you'll eventually garner an Oscar nomination for the resulting song, nor do you know that you'll perform it at the ceremony itself. The news that it'll eventually hit 47 in the Austrian charts remains somewhere in the distant future.
Enya makes the kind of music that shouldn't shift such a voluminous amount of units. That isn't to say that she isn't deserving of her untold riches, nor is it a value judgement against her large and loyal fanbase, but rather how fantastically unexpected her success and longevity is. You can see why Adele or One Direction or the Rolling Stones have such industry clout—as any precocious teen would happily tell you. Similarly your U2s, Eagles, or Aerosmiths obviously appeal to the base instincts of the man on the street, or in this case, the man in the expensive seats at the O2 who snoozes through the Springsteen set because he's stuffed himself silly at Las Iguanas before the show. Enya, though, is a bit different. Enya, quite pointedly, isn't Phil Collins.
Things were changing quickly. Too quickly in fact. Far quicker than anyone could be expected to handle. The band hadn't worked, the bank turned your loan application down, and now you'd had to sell your saxophone just to get by. When you were packed off to boarding school with the nuns you never saw things unspooling like this. You were never meant to sell the saxophone and you were never meant to leave Clannad either, and yet here you are bandless and saxless, questioning and wavering, wondering where life goes from here, where you and your music will end up. This wasn't how things were meant to pan out, no. Not at all. Not like this.
What is Enya, then? Why does Eithne Pádraigín Ní Bhraonáin occupy such an elevated place in the pantheon of music's highest rollers? The most obvious answer to that comes in the form of an exoticism that'll see us caked in mud, braving the elements, and gamboling backwards through civilization. For the rest of the day, we'll be naked as the day we were born, rampaging round Ireland, wearing nothing but a grimace and a handsome, blue daubing of woad. Enya's big break came in 1987, after she was asked to provide a soundtrack for a BBC series called, quite simply, The Celts. As the name suggests, the programme was an exploration of Celtic culture and mythology, and Enya's oddly timeless artistic output made a suitably spooky, defiantly un-contemporary accompaniment. Having flirted with fame during a short-lived spell in Gregorian-chant-merchants, Clannad, Enya's time to shine had come. It turned out that in the Cold War world, ravaged—as ever—by political instability and social corrosion, it was a cod-mystical Irish singer with a very low profile and a propensity to dress in motorcycle leathers who provided much needed aural comfort. Two years later and Enya would release the record that cemented her place in the (very much metaphorical) New Age Hall of Fame. But we'll get to that.
The English are in revolt for they have been broached by malevolent forces intent on causing as much disruption as is physically possible: the irreversible 5p charge for plastic bags in shops has come into play, and citizens face up to spending an additional six pounds over the course of a year. You read about this in a newspaper in the lobby of an expensive hotel in central London and try and recall the last time you walked down the street clutching a pair of thin-handled plastic bags; the memory evades you. The smell of warm pastry fills the room, mingling with the perfume that atomises itself into nooks and crannies, and combined with the pleasant heat in the room, with one's eyes shut, it is all too easy to imagine being in the back room of the kind of bakery that only exists in the movies. You are sat in the room-cum-bakery because you know that shortly, very shortly actually, Ken Bruce is going to play your latest single for first time. You won't actually be joining Ken in the BBC studios and nor does Ken or anyone at Radio 2 know you're ensconced in London. You just wanted to be able to hear "Echoes in Rain" at the same time as the lorry drivers and office workers do.
Despite having released nine albums and 21 singles over a three decade span, picking up BRITs, Grammys, Ivor Novellos, and Billboards along the way, Enya is still known to most people for "Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)". "Orinoco Flow" is one of those strange pop culture objects that is proof that mass enjoyment doesn't always equate to dunderheaded stupidity. I'm not arguing that listening to it is akin to spending three days locked in a conservatoire with Xenakis and Stockhausen for company, but go back and listen to it right now, three times in a row, and then come back and tell me that it's not one of the strangest UK no.1 singles you've ever heard. It lilts, meanders, bobs and weaves through its own watery passageway—a song that follows nothing but its own instincts, sailing away on and on into the terrifying blankness of the endless blue sea. It also sailed its creator into an enviable fortune, and cemented her as a musician capable of selling the unsellable—this mystic-Christian music, these choral-anachronisms—to audiences bigger than anyone had ever dreamed of.
One of the biggest mistakes you've ever made was to spend years and years and years dreaming about swimming in a pool of money. The vision came to you as a child—you could almost feel the gold and silver whipping against skin and bone every time you closed your eyes. The vision stuck with you as a teenager—an inner life the nun's would never be privy to, never have access to, never admonish you or punish you for. It came to you in flashes, even recently. You saw the gold and felt the cold. And then one morning you saw that your dream had become a reality: someone had deposited eight million coins into a swimming pool. The dream was yours no longer.
Enya's continued success, her ever-present presence in the annals of music history, is, I think at least, reliant on a combination of raw talent—she's an absurdly gifted musician, lyricist, and arranger, with a seemingly innate ability to stumble across melodies that are both contemporary and seemingly etched into ancient Irish lands—and a refusal to play the very game she's watching over, just as much as the Celt thing. All-too-real times call for unreal cultural measures—when even the Pope thinks that the world resembles an "immense pile of filth" it is understandable that millions and millions of us seek solace in the fantastic.
Enya is as much of a by-product of the inexorable rise of the unreal as the Marvel movies, J.K. Rowling, and Minecraft, but more importantly than that, she is the ultimate castle-dwelling proof that you can shield yourself from the unrelenting horrors of life with art. An ethereal presence who doesn't want to play the fame game and has built up such a fanbase that she doesn't have to do so, Enya is, in her own cosmic-Celtic way, the perfect embodiment of music's womb-like power to deliver us from evil. And perhaps it's all as simple as that.