Enya On New Album ‘Dark Sky Island’ And The Wide Generational Appeal Of Her Music: Idolator Interview
There are several iconic one-name singers throughout pop — think Madonna, Beyonce, Cher and Adele — but only one has sold 80 million records over the past three decades after essentially creating their own genre of music: Enya. With her transcendent, dream-like soundscapes and layered, ethereal vocals, Enya’s influence can be heard in songs by artists ranging from M83 to Imogen Heap to, yes, even Nicki Minaj.
What most listeners don’t realize is that each of Enya’s multi-million-selling albums she’s released since breaking out globally with Watermark in 1988 took three years to record, given that the Irish singer writes the melodies, plays all the instruments and performs each vocal herself. Rounding out the creative force behind Enya’s music is producer Nicky Ryan and lyricist Roma Ryan.
Following a seven-year gap in releases, Enya’s eighth studio LP, Dark Sky Island, will arrive on November 20. The first single, “Echoes In Rain,” fits in seamlessly with the timeless sound of any of the Grammy-winning singer’s classics — think especially “Orinoco Flow,” but also “Book Of Days,” “Caribbean Blue,” “Anywhere Is” and “Only Time.”
During a recent visit she made to New York, we jumped at the opportunity to sit down with Enya and discuss the inspiration behind Dark Sky Island, plus how making the album pulled her out of a three-year break from recording.
I’m seeing you two days in a row now, after first attending the album listening session. What did you make of being in a room full of writers who just heard your new music last night? ENYA: To get a reaction from something that I lived with, and lived with for three years, and to get a reaction so soon — but a very positive reaction — was so fascinating.
What was the inspiration for “Dark Sky Island,” the title song on this new album? ENYA: While we were on a break, Roma [Ryan] continued to write. She writes a lot of poetry in her own time, and she was writing poems about these islands — and one in particular, Sark Island. That’s when she told me the story about Sark Island, where it’s a designated dark sky area. There are quite a few designated dark sky areas in the world, but this is the first designated island. There are only 600 people that live on the island. What they decided was to not have any cars allowed on the island. The only means of getting there is by boat. They also restrict the hours there are lights on in their homes. It enables whoever it is to really witness a perfect sky. What I was told is that it’s unrecognizable to us, because what we know of the sky is there are a lot of landmarks. But with this, there are so many stars, it’s unrecognizable. That was an inspiration for the first song, “Dark Sky Island.” Then we ended up with that as the title of the album.
Have you personally been able to visit Sark Island? ENYA: No I haven’t, because I’d taken a break for three years. Unfortunately, I was only told the story about the island when I was going back into the studio. It’s on my list now. I must go and witness this beautiful sky.
You’ve said that it takes about three years to record an album, and you’d been steadily releasing music for about 20 years up to your previous album, And Winter Came... What did you get up to on your break? Did you do any work? ENYA: No work whatsoever. I bought a place in the south of France and I traveled Australia and right around Europe. It went relatively fast. It sounds to me, when I looked at the time, like, “Three years?” It just felt like six months! I would go to France and stay two months, come back home visiting Donegal; visiting my family, my parents. Just in general, [I was] really catching up on life in general.
At what point did you begin work on Dark Sky Island? ENYA: At the beginning of 2012 I felt the need to be back in the studio. That means that the inspirations are all there. To me, if there was an inspiration — a moment that was beautiful; a landscape; a story I was told; any encounters like that — I feel I don’t need to write a song right there and then. It’s too much to try and impose it on the music. I feel if it’s strong enough then it will come with me into the studio. I want to sit in the studio then and see what are the influences that are strong enough. In the beginning I sit on my own, writing the songs. It’s very therapeutic. It’s like a little diary, to [revisit] all the influences you’ve encountered, and you sort of see what’s going to evolve. What was the strongest aspect? What’s going to be first? And the first one was “Dark Sky Island.”
So for a song to make it onto your album, that means the story and emotion behind it, whenever it first occurred, was strong enough to last through the writing and recording process. ENYA: The achievement for me to write a melody is quite overwhelming, because it’s a long, slow process for me. Someone asked me, “Do you have a library of a lot of [unreleased] music?” I said, “What you are listening to is all I’ve written.” There are 11 songs on the album and there are three bonus tracks that will be released. But that’s it. That’s all I’ve written. Some pieces I’ve written and thought it wasn’t going to work, forgot about it, didn’t even record the idea. Then, say six months later, it comes back again, but I know what it requires to finish that idea. It’s kind of like a circle, and you’re going around thinking, why is it not working? Then all of a sudden you realize you need to change this one little part or rewrite a part. And then you have your song.
You’ve sold 80 million albums over the years, and have quite a loyal fan base. Did you feel any pressure from or obligation to your fans to eventually begin working on a new album following your break? ENYA: No. I have the most wonderful fans. In all the letters and all the messages sent to me, they’re always so patient and they say, “We know you need a lot of time,” and, “Thank you for the music. We look forward to the next album.” I have to say, their loyalty is overwhelming to me at this stage. I felt it with the success of Watermark, and there were three years before Shepherd Moons was released. To have the loyalty at that stage overwhelmed me. [Dark Sky Island] is still a very different album, commercially. It’s not like anything anybody else does — it’s songs in Gaelic, songs in Latin and in Loxian. It’s all different languages, and I always think, Will anybody listen to the music? You’re always quite anxious when you finish an album. I never take it for granted that there is an audience ready-made for any album. In this regard, with taking such a long break, I think, Where have they gone now? And what I’ve noticed is that the teenagers and children that were listening to [my previous albums] are now married, and their children are listening to the music. It always had a vast generational appeal. And it’s still there, from what I heard [from various people] over the past few days. I cannot believe it.
The first song released from this album is “Echoes In Rain.” What was the inspiration for that song in particular? ENYA: It’s a continuation of “Orinoco Flow.” To the lyric and to the melody, it’s like “Orinoco” was a journey — you went to all these places like Bissau to Palau to Peru to Cebu — but this is the journey home. It’s the excitement of that journey. It’s a long journey, coming home, because if you look at it, there’s day time and nighttime; you don’t know whether it’s a year or a month. But the nostalgia, the memories, all of that is with you. That’s very exciting. [And it’s] whatever home is. It could just be coming back to a country. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a home. [The continuation of “Orinoco Flow”] wasn’t something that was obvious to us at the beginning. The chorus came first and it was like, this is quite positive. But then, the end bit is intentional; the little vocal part, “Aaaaaaah.” That was in “Orinoco” so we though, why don’t we do this — it’s so “Orinoco.”
The song from the album that jumps out to me the most is “Even In The Shadows.” ENYA: It’s, for me, one of the more emotional-journey songs. It’s about love, and where it hasn’t worked out – the anger and disappointment you feel. “I could call, I keep on calling, I could fall, I keep on falling.” Everybody goes through it. I’m no different than anybody else. This is what the song is, and it’s more about the healing aspect of it. You experienced it and you’re saying, “Life goes on, but why did I have to experience this?” You learn from it. You really do have to pick yourself up and get on with life. We felt like instead of it being a slow song, it needed more of a beat to accentuate that it will get better. At the end it’s more positive, because when you vent your anger that’s a really great way of getting over a moment like that.
Dark Sky Island will be released on November 20. “Echoes In Rain” is available now on iTunes.