On the long drives through Ireland that peppered my childhood like bouts of flu, my father played songs from a small a pool of classic albums. Many of these would be familiar to any Irishman from that time. The cheerful ribaldry of the Dubliners, Christy Moore’s “Live at the Point” and the earnest, heart-tugging confessionals of Eleanor McEvoy and Mary Black all soundtracked our winding trips through the unending swatches of green that formed the Irish countryside. But none of those artists struck me like my father’s personal favorite, Enya.
My father’s fascination with Enya was mysterious. Her music wasn’t like anything else he listened to, but then, it’s not much like the music anyone else makes either. Enya’s music is suffused with an aura of mysticism so nebulous it borders on the occult; nevertheless it enraptured a man so Catholic he would interrupt family holidays with cheerful visits to Marian shrines. The global success of this mélange of Irish traditional music and new-age electronica was unlikely given that the bulwark of her fandom, in Ireland at least, appeared to be people like my father: rank traditionalists entering middle age, few of whom would have countenanced synthesizers, arpeggiated strings or heavy reverb in any other aural context.
I, a youthful devotee of ambient music, loved Enya for her place in that genre’s canon. I was mesmerized by the folding synthscapes of “Caribbean Blue” or “Sumiregusa (Wild Violet),” which hit my childhood ears like probes from a far-flung planet. Her melodies recursed and interwound; her vocals shimmered and shone, at once new and old, alien and familiar.
It just confused me to see my father similarly moved. After all, even Aphex Twin’s most soothing ambient works often made him unplug my CD player, as if their nontraditional musical forms might damage our wiring. How, then, could Enya reduce this same man to tears?
It helped that she was local. As a child, Eithne Brennan grew up not far from Mullennan, my home, in one of the most prestigious families in the history of Irish traditional music. She departed from the Brennans’ band, Clannad, at a young age, boned up on Japanese synths and crafted a strange musical form that was all her own. By the time I was an adolescent, the shy little sister of Clannad had become one of the biggest-selling recording artists on Earth.
Within the spiraling melody of ‘Aldebaran’ there is euphoria and gravitas, as well as something approaching dread.
When I was a teenager, Enya was hugely famous but never especially cool, at least not among people my age. I adored Enya for the sonic worlds she charted for her listeners: filled with pomp and grandiosity, yes, but also rivers of deep and intense wonder. I found in her music that same pinch of the infinite I felt listening to “An Ending (Ascent),” by Brian Eno, or “Polynomial-C,” by Aphex Twin. Yet when I tried to posit her as a peer of those artists, the stares I received were blank and pitying. The images blaring out from Enya’s album covers and videos were unerringly earnest, simultaneously too camp to be serious and too serious to be camp. For all her peculiar complexity, my classmates wrote Enya off as easy listening, on par with panpipe Muzak.
This skepticism was probably because of the mythological visual style that Enya built around herself: She lived in a castle, rarely gave interviews or performed live. Her videos present her as an ethereal being, surrounded at all times by 400 lit candles, wearing a wardrobe bequeathed to her by a faerie queen who had too many velvet capes lying around and hated to see them go to waste. This imagery made Enya a world unto herself.
Nothing typifies this more than my favorite Enya track, the beguiling “Aldebaran.” It first found fame as part of the soundtrack she composed for the BBC documentary “The Celts,” a 10-episode series that told the story of the Celtic people from prehistory to 1987. Featuring Irish-language vocals delivered at Enya’s most breathy, “Aldebaran” marries the Irish past to the future through a bonkers tale of intergalactic travel. The production is beatless and ever-winding, girded by a coruscating, arpeggiated riff that tumbles through major and minor chords in a cycle of atmospheric tumult. Within its spiraling melody there is euphoria and gravitas, as well as something approaching dread (she dedicated the song to Ridley Scott). Beneath the song’s soaring chords and breathy vocals, an alien undercurrent has smuggled itself aboard — a reminder that, in space, no one can hear you sing.
Enya’s music has other unique attractions. If you visit her Twitter page, you might be recommended not just Phil Collins and Tina Turner but also Bob Ross: Even the algorithm seems to know her work is contemplative and therapeutic. Enya’s hallmarks — the angelic wash of reverb, ASMR-ready vocals; her deeply textured and layered synths — were soothing for me on long journeys as a child. They still provide a portal to long-dead worlds and distant stars, but also a town a few parishes over from my own.
Nowadays, when I recommend Enya, and “Aldebaran” in particular, ears aren’t quite as deaf as they once were. The cosmos may now be heeding her whispered call to awaken, whether she knows it or not. I hope she does, and that somewhere, dressed in velvet, Enya sometimes plays “Aldebaran” still. Bringing another candle to another window, might she look out from the stone walls of her castle, and once more point her face toward the stars?