Few artist can paint a picture of tranquility like Enya. The Irish new age diva almost single-handedly took the sleepy late night music of Hearts of Space into the mainstream with her second album Watermark. Much of the world was exposed to Enya Brennan as a member of Clannad in the mid ’80s. The Bono duet called “In a Lifetime”, she gave audiences a taste of the Celtic music that would influence her career as a solo artist.
Her first album was nearly ignored in the US, it’s rougher style sounded like something like a cross between Celtic pop and Gregorian chant. It would be the next album Watermark that would define a genre with a softer more refined version of her new age sound. Watermark had already become an international smash by the time it was released in America three months after its English premier in 1988. It is widely regarded as the album that launched Enya’s career and pushed new age music into the commercial mainstream. Many of Watermark’s elements were familiar to fans of ambient music like the use of synthesizers and layered melodies. Unfamiliar and perhaps new to everyone except to fans of the Cocteau Twins, was the warmth Enya added to her arrangements. The organic feel came courtesy of layered vocals and a mix of traditional Irish/Celtic instruments.
A protracted period of popularity saw the album’s four singles spread out from the fall of 1988 to well into 1991. The biggest of the singles “Orinoco Flow” (better known as “Sail Away”) managed to enter the American, pop, adult contemporary and modern rock charts.
Dramatic “oh ahs” and vocal phrasing in songs like “Cursum Perficio” gave the album a cinematic quality. It was the kind of vocal drama you might hear in a Exorcist film. To this day that’s what I remember most about Watermark. One of my favorite local bookstores The Book Loft, here in Columbus seemed to play something from Watermark every time I went in during the height of the album’s popularity. Watermark had touched a nerve with the public and was clearly on to something.
Enya’s songs followed a distinct pattern during this time and became the preferred background soundtrack for many independent bookstores or shops that sold items promising spiritual enlightenment. The clean ethereal nature of Watermark appealed mostly to the more educated and affluent music fan, if not the stereotypical ex-hippie spiritualist with a beat up Volvo. In reality, Watermark was varied enough in its influences that it had the potential to appeal to everyone from goth type Dead Can Dance to traditional church music fans. It was a unusual a kind of anti-pop without the unsavory bits of rock angst, yet it had its appeal to a certain spectrum of the indie rock crowd.
The contrast to teen centered pop music of the day was even more apparent in how Watermark was promoted. Enya would become something of a regular on PBS with lavish concerts featuring Celtic dance performances – usually designed to appeal to her affluent fans around fund drive time.
The tremendous success created a backlash, making Enya the subject of parodies on shows like on Saturday Night Live. Undaunted, Enya and new age music in general would prosper as new forms of ‘ancient modern’ would appear on the charts. Chant, an album recorded in the early ’70s by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos was dug up and released in response to the popularity of Enya. It became a hit in 1994 while opening the doors to bands like Dead Can Dance, who had been making their version of ancient modern music for well over a decade by the mid ’90s .
Enya still records, but her sphere of her popularity has subsided to the smaller demographic of well heeled and educated core audience of the past. So when you go to a spa or other relaxing place and hear soothing bagpipes or the sounds of falling water behind a wall of synths, you can thank Enya for setting up the template of tranquility and bliss.