New Age music is easy listening at its drowsiest. Defined vaguely as ambient, often acoustic music designed to promote relaxation and stress relief, it’s usually rather forgettable…and faceless. Today we look at one of the few exceptions to that, perhaps the single most successful artist in the field – and one we know from a couple of mainstream hits – Enya. Happy birthday to the lady who’s second to only U2 in terms of international success among Irish artists. She turns 61 today.
Enya was born Eithne Bhraonein, a hint at her Gaelic background, but Anglicized it to Enya Brennan. She’s grew up in Ulster, at the northern tip of the Republic of Ireland, right next door to the British-controlled Northern Ireland. Her dad was a band leader and her mom a music teacher, so there’s little surprise in Enya being musical. She sang in local competitions and church from a young age and learned piano readily. English also in school, she quickly became bilingual. She was most a fan of classical and church music, but didn’t mind some of the jigs her dad apparently would play. However, even as she was completing high school, she dreamed of following her mother’s footsteps… a career in music but teaching, rather than performing.
Her family had some other ideas and when two of her brothers and a sister joined the Celtic band Clannad, they talked her into joining as a keyboardist and backing vocalist. Her fine Mezzo-soprano voice and skill on the keyboards (primarily though she seems to be able to play a number of other instruments including bagpipes!) got noticed and the BBC commissioned her to do some music for a miniseries they were doing in 1985; so impressed were they that they ended up turning over the entire project’s music to her then signing her to a record deal. That helped her get signed to Atlantic Records in North America simultaneously.
Her self-titled debut album came out in 1987, consisting largely of the music she’d done for the TV show The Celts. No one knew exactly what to make of it – allmusic summed it up as “a combination of Celtic traditionalism and distinctly modern approach (which) finds lush flower here”; others called it “new folk.” Either way, it was different but popular. Eventually it would top her homeland’s charts and make the top 10 in the UK and Canada but that was only a hint of the popularity she’d soon achieve.
In 1988, the lead single off her second album, “Orinoco Flow” became one of the decade’s most surprising, and unique-sounding hits, finding a spot on pop and college radio as well as just about every office and grocery store in the Western World, it would seem. It was a #1 hit in both Ireland and Britain and got to #4 in Canada, #2 in Germany and even broke into the American top 30.
Her reputation among New Age fans kept growing but it was the last most pop or rock listeners heard of her until the tragic aftermath of the Sep. 11 attacks in 2001. For reasons unknown several TV stations began playing her ethereal and somber “Only Time” as a theme to coverage of the terrorism. It soon became a sort of pseudo-anthem of mourning and Enya decided to donate the earnings of it (the single had been released nearly a year earlier ) to the families of New York firefighters who had died in the attack. The song catapulted up the charts to #1 in Canada and much of Europe and #10 in the States, and perhaps feeling in need of relaxation, helped the album it was from, A Day Without Rain, begin to sell wildly. It ended up at 7X platinum in the U.S. and with at least 16 million sold worldwide, it’s considered the genre’s biggest-ever record.
Since then, Enya’s worked sporadically, putting out new albums in 2005, ’08 and ’15 but she says she spent a lot of the pandemic renovating a home studio and is going to have new new age music soon.
For all the millions of records sold, Grammys won (including Best New Age Record four times) and fame – scientists even named a species of fish found in the Orinoco River after her – not a great deal is known about her personal life. She admits to being a “private” person and says “I derive from religion what I enjoy.” She’s said she’s hesitant to get into serious relationships because she’s both worried men would want her more for her money and fame than herself. Not to mention she’s had bad luck, attracting a couple of stalkers along the way and having her home in Ireland broken into twice in short order, with one of the burglars attacking her housekeeper. Sounds like she might need to listen to her own music more than most people.