The Cosmos Of Enya

Enya Dark Sky Island
photo by Simon Fowler

When I was twelve, Enya released her oeuvre-establishing record A Day Without Rain. The album came out on November 21, 2000, went on to sell over 15 million copies, and became the top-selling New Age album of that entire decade. It won the Grammy for Best New Age Album, an honor she’s earned four separate times now, and spawned her highest-charting single to date, “Only Time.”

The song was released in November of 2000 as the lead single for the album, but unexpectedly rose to even higher prominence a year later in the wake of September 11th. Enya was one of the most prevalent artists in the zeitgeist, and news outlets began organically incorporating her healing-focused track into their reports on the tragedy. Remember, this was when user-generated videos and memes were just beginning to emerge; we did not yet know what this would bring, we did not yet know how loudly the caged hotline could bling. After this, the most devastating terrorist attack on America soil, many turned to a reclusive Irish folksinger’s soothing spirituality. She responded in kind, re-releasing the track as a remix and donating all the proceeds to the International Association of Firefighters. It reached No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and boosted the entire record back up to the No. 2 position on the album’s chart.

2000 was also the year I began public school for the first time, after my mother homeschooled me for K-5. Even before the poisonous aftermath of 9/11–which turned my father into a staunchly aggressive, conspiracy-obsessed conservative–Enya’s music comforted me. As a shy sixth grader who felt ill-equipped and ill at ease among my peers, the only thing worse than going back to school each day was the thought of returning to the suffocation of homeschooling. I fell asleep listening to A Day Without Rain almost every night, gaining courage to face whatever tiny aggressions, gossip and lunchroom drama another day of middle school would hold. As soon as I heard the first airy piano notes of the instrumental title track, it calmed my anxiety. I felt safe. I could fall asleep in peace.

On Saturday mornings I woke up at 6am to do my paper route, bringing Enya along via Discman and a CD-RW full of mp3s. I felt smug knowing the term “mp3” at all, and what it meant. I’d still say the entire word–CD Rewritable–to prove to people that I knew a lot about technology. Enya went with me everywhere. I loved her unconditionally. It didn’t even occur to me that she was human. She was a goddess, a pure and fearless soul. My favorite song on the album was “Wild Child,” and when I listened to it I could tell we were the same kind of being. We were spirits. “Wild Child” is probably the closest Enya gets to upbeat; it’s a track about a moment of pure, unexpected joy. I listened to it and imagined what freedom would feel like. I wanted to be wild and rebellious. Instead, I was obedient to a fault. But when the song was on I felt wild, the sweet stoicism of Enya was my defiance.

Of course, we have to establish that the critical consensus did not align with the public reception, or my own personal adoration. Then again, these evaluations were obviously being done by older white men. In the Village Voice, Robert Christgau went so far as to mark A Day Without Rain an album to avoid. He only reviewed it after it jumped back into Billboard’s Top 10 a year later, calling it “goopier and more simplistic” than Watermark, and sneering that Enya “tests one’s faith in democracy itself.” Yet, it’s hard to imagine Christgau’s vision of democracy ever included music that appealed to moms and twelve-year-old girls, or that he regards the taste of those members of society as valuable at all. Critics valued Springsteen’s unassailable masculine grit, a righteous fury, while Enya’s populist velvet tranquility is regarded as siege. Her music surges toward a collectivity that democracy is unable to encompass–few are lucky enough to live governed in this way at all.

Stephen Thompson writing for The A.V. Club at the time, said it “recycled ideas relentlessly” and praised her old albums instead, specifically grinding at “Only Time” which he thought “could just as easily have been duped from an earlier album and retitled.” Instead, it rivaled, then surpassed “Orinoco Flow” (you know it as “Sail Away”) as her most popular song, appearing in countless commercials, TV shows and movies, even as recently as 2013. That classic “their old stuff was better” straw man suggests an inability to engage with the music itself, which was crisper and more streamlined than her previous albums. But I am not here to rehabilitate Enya’s reputation, nor do I think she needs it. Those of us who understand the flow swim in it, freely taking what we need from her music.

Enya Essay

In two days, on November 20, 2015, Enya will release Dark Sky Island, her first album in seven years. She gave us Amaratine in 2005 and the holiday-themed A Winter Came… in 2008, so it’s not the only thing she’s put out since her record-breaking 2000 release. Yet, the timing of Dark Sky Island and A Day without Rain makes them feel kindred. This weekend marks exactly fifteen years since A Day Without Rain came out. And though the attacks of September 11th fell a year after its release, that Paris has so recently endured an attack of similarly calculated, enormous violence is oddly chilling. Time may heal us, but if the systems that allow our pain to occur remain in place, when will we actually recover? There is no good answer to that question. I take most of my unanswerable pain to music and try to throw it inside, so I found myself listening to Dark Sky Island for comfort as the tragedy in Paris began to unfold last Friday.

Enya’s new album derives its name from a remote island off the coast of Normandy called Sark. The tiny island community has almost no light pollution, and was officially dubbed the world’s first “dark sky island” in 2011. I learned this at a listening party for the album held several weeks ago at the historic Burden James Mansion in Manhattan. At the listening, Enya herself appeared when the album concluded and the crowd was allowed to approach her for conversation one by one. We weren’t allowed to take selfies, though. I considered asking for one anyway, but in the end decided against it, rebuffed by an uncanny aura of authority she emitted. It’s the same feeling I get when trying to surreptitiously take a selfie in church, as if my camera’s anticipation of the future mars my ability to be in the holy present.

Instead, I told her about my mother’s deep love for her music, and our silly minivan sing-alongs to the sophisticated multi-tracked vocals. I told Enya about the way A Day Without Rain had buoyed me through the most difficult transition of my adolescence. She must hear stories like this all the time, but I watched her kind, impassive mask falter a bit. She almost teared up, and thanked me for sharing my story. I watched my memories change how she felt about her own music; my experience deepened hers. This famous stranger intuitively felt empathy toward me, and joy that her music helped me through suffering. That is the connection between us my twelve-year-old self instinctively sensed: we are spirits. But not just her and I—our entire species, the human race. I don’t often think of us as a collective, but events like Paris force me—force us—to do that. We share this unspeakable, tenuous force that connects us to each other’s pain and joy. If calling it a soul or a spirit stops you from understanding what I mean, then call it anything you want. Our important, intangible essence–that is what Enya channels into her music. Later, her publicist told me that she couldn’t stop repeating my story. It wasn’t until weeks later that I realized my story was worth repeating, and preserving, here.

Beyond mine, Enya’s story is worth telling and preserving. Eithne Ní Bhraonáin is the sixth child of nine. She performed briefly with her family’s successful Celtic pop five-piece Clannad, before opting to become her own mononym. Eithne was shortened Enya, but she didn’t work completely alone. The entity of Enya is a trinity, producer Nicky Ryan and his wife, the lyricist Roma Ryan, work in constant tandem with her. Enya released Watermark, the album that truly launched her career, in 1988 (which, incidentally, is the year I was born). Following its success, she bought herself a castle in the late-nineties, naming it Manderley, an allusion lifted from her favorite novel, Daphne du Maurier’s macabre mystery romance Rebecca. She read Lord Of The Rings when she was 17, adored it, and later earned an Academy Award nomination for her work soundtracking Peter Jackson’s monumental film adaption. (I read Lord Of The Rings when I was eight, and refused to finish the book for a whole 24 hours, fiercely angry with Tolkien for letting an evil spider kill Frodo. Spoiler alert: It was only a “death-like coma” and Sam eventually saves him).

Enya is a recluse who almost never performs, never tours, and only does press out of absolute necessity. She has sold over 80 million albums worldwide, but when Dark Sky Island comes out on Friday, it won’t receive the fanfare that Adele garners, or even the indie buzz that Grimes–an artist deeply influenced by her–grabbed last week. Adele is an artist who specializes in making heartache seem like a galaxy, it’s only when faced with real tragedy that we’re jolted into realizing it isn’t. Our failed romance is just a tiny black hole, stars are shining all around as we stare into the dimness of ourselves and find it gaping and small. After catastrophe strikes, it is to Enya, not Adele whom I turn. Dark Sky Island is large and expansive enough for the collective unconscious. It is the tiny island with bright skies, and the sweeping ocean all around. Enya’s music grounds me in myself, then urges me to look further out, into the sky, where amid all the darkness, I know there is light.

Dark Sky Island is out 11/20 via Aigle Music/Warner. Pre-order it here.