Enya - Watermark
One record which managed to stand out from the crowd last year was 'Orinoco Flow' by Irish singer Enya - a hauntingly atmospheric song whose success brought a welcome relief from the chart domination of Stock, Aitken and Waterman. To discover more about the track, and the Watermark album, Mike Collins caught up with the producer, Nicky Ryan, at WEA Records' headquarters in London.
The credit on the record sleeve revealed that the album had been recorded at Orinoco Studios in London, which seemed to suggest that the studio's name had provided the source of inspiration for the song's unusual title. Producer Nicky Ryan explained to me how the track came about.
They had almost finished recording the album, but still had some studio time remaining, and there was a general feeling amongst all concerned that the album needed another strong track to complete it. They had a chord sequence everyone liked, which had been worked out earlier in the project but had not been used. So, using the pizzicato strings preset on a hired Roland D50 synth, an idea for a chorus and a bridge section for a new piece was quickly developed. Enya had used similar sounds on her previous Celts album, and felt that this pizzicato feel was particularly representative of her 'sound'.
The only lyric idea they had at that time was the phrase 'sail away', so it was decided to fly Roma Ryan (Nicky's wife) over from Dublin to complete the lyrics. Enya, Nicky, and Roma have been working together as a team for some time now, taking their respective roles as artist/musician, producer/arranger, and lyricist/business administrator.
At this point, they discussed the idea of developing the basic piece into a finished track with the engineer, Ross Collum. Ross liked it very much, so they then approached Rob Dickens (A&R) at WEA for his reactions. Rob felt that the piece was "a bit linear" in its present form, which pointed to a need for some changes. He was generally enthusiastic, however, for if this track could be brought to life it would provide a second uptempo song on an album of otherwise very slow tempos. Rob's input was invaluable, I was told, particularly his suggestion about how to cut down the length of the 'sail away' sections, which were originally far too long. Clearly a case of an A&R man doing his job the right way - helping to create a hit by offering constructive feedback to an artist and her producer about their repertoire!
The track grew and grew as a result of everyone's input. The word 'Orinoco' just seemed to fit rhythmically to the music, and it was a word that was naturally on everyone's lips because they were recording in a studio of that name. So it was used! Rob also suggested that the track sounded like a children's skipping song, and this seemed to help focus the direction of the track during the recording. Enya then included a lyrical reference to Rob "at the wheel", with the idea of Rob 'steering the course' of WEA Records, which he was obviously doing with this particular record.
Talking about significance in the lyrics, Nicky told me that the engineer who mixed the track at Wessex Studios, Jim Barton, asked if there was any deep meaning in the lines 'the North to the South' (a possible reference to the divided country of Ireland?) and 'the shores of Tripoli' (a possible reference to Gadaffi's rumoured involvement with the IRA?). Nicky laughed at this suggestion, saying that nothing of the sort was ever intended.
Whilst explaining some of the technical aspects of the recording, I fully expected Nicky to rattle off the usual list of sequencers and samplers used on the majority of today's pop tracks; instead, he revealed that no samplers were used to create the vocal sounds on the Enya recording sessions! All the vocal sounds, which are used to great effect throughout the Watermark album, were recorded in real time, direct to multitrack tape. Two Mitsubishi 32-track digital tape machines were used during the two months of recording at Orinoco. Hundreds of different vocal tracks were recorded on one machine, then mixes and layers of these were 'bounced' on to a handful of tracks on the second machine, to be used for the final mix. At one point there was a thread of 'ahh' sounds running throughout one of the tracks, which didn't sound quite right to Nicky's ears, so he made the brave decision to erase them and start over to achieve the perfection everyone was looking for.
No sequencers were used anywhere on the album, and Enya played all the keyboard parts herself, multitracking and overdubbing lines to achieve the tight sounding results which had fooled me into believing that some of the tracks - such as 'Orinoco Flow' itself - were sequenced. Nicky reassured me that they were not. In contrast to the more rhythmic songs, about half the tracks on the album are actually played in a characteristic 'rubato' style, where the tempo increases or decreases within a single bar of the music and at several points within the piece, to create a very moody effect. Enya certainly sounds like a master of this style of playing, and uses it to great effect - especially on the slowest album tracks, which are played at unusually slow tempos.
Instrumentation-wise, the Roland D50 is featured heavily on the album: the preset voices were mostly edited and then layered on top of one another using conventional multitracking techniques to create 'bigger' sounds and richer textures. A Yamaha KX88 acted as the main master keyboard. Apart from the D50, Enya played a Roland Juno 60 on many tracks, an Akai S900 sampler, and there is a Yamaha TX802 used in a few places. A conscious decision was taken to avoid the use of sequencers to provide a balance to the amount of synthesized sounds used on the album. Everyone felt that sequencers would have been "too robotic, and boring", and that live playing would inject a more human feel into the recordings. In line with this philosophy, no compressors were used either.
The main reverb unit was a Lexicon 224XL, although producer Nicky Ryan found it a bit "characterless" and too "squeaky clean" for his tastes, and there was an inherent "honkiness" in the effect which he did not like either. He explained that when he put lots of choral sounds through the Lexicon he could not achieve the "warmth" in the sound that he was looking for, although he felt that a traditional plate reverb would not be right for these sounds either. He also felt that the AMS digital delay unit was similarly lacking in character, and preferred to use tape delays instead. Nicky's favourite digital delay is actually the Roland SDE3000 (a much cheaper device than the AMS), which he uses in his home studio in Dublin.
I compared Nicky's use of low pitched drum sounds and large, cavernous reverb (so evident on the single 'Orinoco Flow') to Phil Spector's masterful work on classic sixties hits like 'River Deep, Mountain High'. While he had not consciously set out to emulate Phil Spector, Nicky revealed that he was a long-time admirer of this famous producer's work, and could readily accept that he had been influenced in his musical tastes by Spector's production techniques.
Nicky also explained that he had begun his career teaching deaf children, and regarded music as just a subset of all the possible sounds which may be heard in the world. His liking for low bass sounds stems from this time. Apparently, these deaf children could only hear sounds up to about 1 kHz in frequency, so Nicky had developed a special bass-emphasising disco speaker system for the kids to dance to, which had proven to be quite successful. As a result, he has acquired a fondness for the low end of the audio spectrum, and this has led to his current interest in accentuating the bass frequencies in recent recording work.
Nicky prefers to record albums with CD in mind, as there is no problem in cutting these very low frequencies, unlike mastering onto vinyl, where modulation problems can easily occur.
We then discussed a few of the other tracks on the album, more briefly. Nicky thought that the title song 'Watermark' could possibly be unique in that the lyric consists of just one word! The song is dedicated to 'Bones' Howe, an American arranger who Nicky had become friends with, and Enya just sings this word, 'Howe', once in the song.
'Storms In Africa' was named after it had been recorded, because that was the image the music conjured up once the track had been finished. 'The River' was played straight off to tape, and took about 10 minutes in all to record! Hard to believe when you listen to the finished track. The main keyboard part featured a combination of Roland D50, Yamaha TX802, and Oberheim Matrix 6R all MIDI'd together. After the main part was recorded, a PPG Wave was used to "add some colours", as Nicky put it.
Songwriting, it turns out, is very much a team effort. Enya works out most of the music and the basic melodies, and then Roma writes most of the lyrics. Nicky helps to structure the arrangements into finished recordings, and said that he would like every 'demo' to be a 'master' to preserve the spontaneity which they always seem to achieve on the demos, and which, as we all know, can tend to be lost when recording masters.
Enya, Roma and Nicky work as a three-way team, without any pressure from outside influences. When they need objectivity, Roma is usually the one to supply it. I asked Nicky if they really felt that they had complete artistic freedom within the terms of their recording contract with WEA, and Nicky assured me that that was in fact the case. He added that he would often play things over the phone to Rob Dickens, who would throw his comments in when he felt they were needed (a slight contradiction when denying any outside influences), but he feels that they have Rob's and WEA's wholehearted support to follow their own feelings as far as musical direction is concerned. I commented that it seemed unusual in this day and age for a large record company to allow such artistic freedom, and Nicky replied that he figured WEA had to be about the best company around in this respect!
Many of you will have seen the imaginative video for 'Orinoco Flow' on television, and I am sure most people will agree that it is very tastefully and artistically produced. The details of how it was made are rather interesting, so I will relate the main points here.
Enya was filmed singing the song against a standard blue background, to allow the shots of her face to be electronically mixed in with the specially created effects that form the most interesting part of the video. Four artists were then employed for four weeks to paint the backgrounds, special artwork, Enya's dress, the hummingbird, and so on. Next, 2500 individual 10" by 8" photographs of this artwork were shot and placed against the background. These were then photographed as separate film frames, and the whole sequence was run as a film, from which the video was produced! Laborious and meticulous techniques, I think you will agree, but the end result certainly seems to have proved a success.
As already mentioned, the Watermark album was recorded entirely at Orinoco Studios, which Nicky informed me "seemed to be designed in a completely mad way" compared to other studios he had worked in, but he and Enya liked it for this and found it to be less intimidating as a result.
He mixed the album at Wessex Studios, but didn't like the EQ on the SSL console there, and would have much preferred to have worked on a Neve desk. He was also unsure about the Urei monitors in the large studio at Wessex, and would have preferred to mix using the monitors in the smaller studio at Wessex, which were much more to his taste. Again, he stressed that Enya's music needed a "warmth", which he had found difficult to bring out using SSL equipment. He added that his ideal setup would probably be to use an analogue multitrack recorder with Dolby SR noise reduction, to take advantage of the inherent compression and soft distortion characteristics of this medium; then he would combine tracks from the analogue multitrack onto a digital multitrack, then mix to DAT.
I asked about microphones, and Nicky mentioned that AMS had loaned them a Calrec Soundfield for a while, which they had used successfully to record some of the layered vocal tracks on the album. Apart from the Calrec, he singled out the Sennheiser MD421 as being a particularly "clean-sounding" microphone.
So how did it feel to have a hit record?
Well, as far as Enya, Nicky, and Roma were all concerned, 'Orinoco Flow' was a totally unexpected hit, but they were all obviously extremely happy about the way it had turned out! As Nicky said, "It shows that people want something new, and it looks like this week it was the turn of something warm-sounding and different, instead of yet another Stock-Aitken-Waterman hit."
He was very obviously pleased that he had been involved in making a number one hit record that gave music lovers a highly enjoyable alternative to SAW, and which also proved that at least one major record company had been able to 'suss out' an unlikely sounding record as a hit, and provide the necessary support and promotion for it to become one!