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Sail Away: How Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” Went From a Hit to a Punch Line to a Pop Culture Anthem

Thirty years ago this week, a New Age classic was released into the world. What, exactly, has made “Orinoco Flow” so popular?

WMG/Ringer illustration

There I was, minding my own business, catching up on Season 4 of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Jake (Andy Samberg) and Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz) were awaiting the fateful hearing in a trial for a crime they didn’t commit; the outlook was grim, and so, sitting in a parked car about to leave for the courthouse, a gloomy Jake makes a special request: “Just put on anything by Enya.” He corrects himself: “No, not anything—‘Orinoco Flow.’ On repeat.” Then, a witness suddenly appears and offers to testify and save the day. Cut to a full courtroom, and the judge impatiently asking where detective Peralta is ... when Jake theatrically bursts into court. His entrance music? Naturally, that ethereal chorus: “Sail away, sail away, sail away!”

Enya sailed into the culture’s consciousness on October 15, 1988, when “Orinoco Flow” first crested British airwaves. (It was the lead single off her proper debut album, Watermark, which dropped a few weeks earlier.) The song became a no. 1 hit in the U.K., and a few months later it charted in the U.S. for 17 weeks (where it rose to no. 24). MTV played the music video on rotation, both the single and video were nominated for Grammys, and the song became a bona fide phenomenon.

But after the initial wave of unironic popularity, it mostly stuck—at least in pop culture terms—as a punch line. From a Season 1 South Park parody (“It’s cheesy, but lame and eerily soothing at the same time!”), to Steve Coogan singing it in a 2002 episode of I’m Alan Partridge, to Shrek Forever After’s cheeky deployment under Rumpelstiltskin’s call for a mob to bring him Shrek, to the scene in David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo where Stellan Skarsgård turns on a reel-to-reel tape of it as he begins to torture a bound, mid-asphyxiation Daniel Craig ... it’s nearly always called upon for a laugh.

The last laugh, it should be said, belongs to Enya, who is one of the wealthiest musicians in Europe (£104 million)—despite having released only six albums since 1988, never touring, and hardly ever performing live. So why did “Orinoco Flow” become a punch line in the first place?

“Speaking frankly here, I do think it’s what happens when you have, in large part, anyone who can be best described as a ‘female auteur,’” says Ned Raggett, a music critic who gave Watermark its glowing review on AllMusic. “She’s someone who’s very clearly in control of her product and what she does.”

Enya got lumped into the “New Age” genre, which the Grammys canonized in 1987 and which quickly became a pejorative term—gobbling up everyone from Yanni to George Winston and John Tesh. Spa music, dentist office music … fake music. “Let’s say you’re an earnest rock ’n’ roller,” says Raggett. “This is not ‘real’ music. This is not like, I’m speaking to you with the heartland truth, and here’s my guitar. You’ve got a bias against the idea that a woman can be an independent creator. You’ve got a bias against the idea that this music is ‘soft.’ It is something that is soothing, rather than challenging, noisy, disruptive ... however you want to look at it.”

In a 2017 essay for NPR’s “Shocking Omissions” series, reporter Melissa Locker cited Robert Christgau’s D+ review of Watermark from 1988, in which he snidely said the album “makes hay of pop’s old reliable women-are-angels scam.” “It’s a fair assessment,” Locker responded, “but he says that like it’s a bad thing—when in fact, it’s why the album should be included in a canon of the greatest albums made by women.”

Enya, the Anglicized stage name of Eithne Ní Bhraonáin, was an anomaly from the start. Born into a large, Gaelic-speaking family in rural Ireland, she was playing piano by age 4—her parents were both church organists—and “as a child, music unlocked my imagination,” she wrote in a 2016 essay for The Wall Street Journal. “I still find music very visual. When I write, it’s like a journey. I never know where I’m going to go. It’s only at the end that I become aware of the song’s main inspiration.”

She joined her family’s neo-Celtic band, Clannad, when she was 19, and that’s where she first met manager and producer Nicky Ryan. When things went south between the band and Ryan, Enya chose to go with Nicky and his wife, Roma. “In front of me they said to Enya, ‘It’s up to you whether you go with the Ryans and be nobody or stay with us and be a star,” Ryan recalled in a 2015 Quietus interview.

Enya moved in with the couple at their home in suburban Dublin, and Nicky built a home studio, where Enya (who plays the piano, saxophone, and cello) began making instrumental pieces, spurred on by Nicky, “who had this idea for years and years of using the voice as an instrument,” she told Quietus—“not just layering string parts, but he knew I had a great love of harmony and he said, ‘What would it be like to have the same voice, what would evolve?’ The only way to know would be to actually record it.”

They made a demo tape and sent it to film producer David Putnam, who hired the trio—“Enya” is both the angelic artist herself, and a name for the Enya-Ryan trinity—to score the romantic-comedy The Frog Prince and the BBC documentary series The Celts.

Nicky Ryan bought a digital reverb unit (“It was really dreadful reverb,” he said, “but there was something in it—it was very dark, it gave this atmosphere to the sound”), and they voyaged into what would become Enya’s signature sound: a densely layered chorus of voices, influenced by Phil Spector’s famous “wall of sound” production style—one-woman hymns bouncing around inside a cathedral of reverb. The music itself was unapologetically Celtic, but fused with the synthesizer-led, cinematic style of “New Age” film composers like Vangelis and Tangerine Dream.

It was “this very in-depth, electronic, lush thing that draws on this idea of Irish folk music,” explains Raggett, “but takes it to another realm. It’s not something you’d sit around the campfire singing. Instead it’s this sort of dreamy approach. There’s this association with not only her own Irish background, but the idea that it’s meant to be suggestive of something—suggestive of a past. You’re using very modern electronics; you’re using this very elaborate way of arranging and producing—especially in the layering of the voice—to create something that’s looking back.”

After The Celts, Enya was signed by Warner Music. “When I signed Enya,” then-chairman Rob Dickins recalled in a 2008 interview with The Guardian, “Nicky Ryan said, ‘You’re not going to push us for singles, are you?’ It wasn’t that kind of music. After we’d made the Watermark album, I said as a joke, ‘Nicky, where’s the single?’ A week later Nicky rang up and said, ‘We’ve got it!’ Got what? ‘We’ve got the single!’ He sent over what became ‘Orinoco Flow.’ There was no middle eight, and ‘Sail away’ was after every line. It drove me crazy, but there was something there that could be worked on.”

In the song, Enya shouts out both Dickins (“We can steer, we can near with Rob Dickins at the wheel”) and her engineer Ross Cullum (“We can sigh, say goodbye, to Ross and his dependencies”). “Orinoco was the name of the studio,” said Dickins, “and I think they saw me as the captain of the ship. The whole thing was a metaphor for a journey for all of us.”

Enya—the entity—had a minor falling-out with Cullum and co-engineer Chris Hughes (who produced the early Tears for Fears albums) during the making of the record, and they brought “Orinoco Flow” to mixer James “Jimbo” Barton. “I never got the full story,” Barton told me. (Enya did not respond to an interview request for this piece.) “When I first got into the studio [Wessex Sound Studios in London], it was before they arrived and I had the multi-tracks. I was playing it and just thinking: ‘Wow, what an interesting track. OK ... let’s have a think about how we’re going to do this.’ Nicky arrived a couple of days later and said, ‘Don’t go too far—we’ve still got to add some strings and some vocals.’ I’d been doing some stuff with Freddie Mercury, and it had both of those things on it and turned out really well.”

Barton had engineered the sessions for Mercury’s guest spot on Billy Squier’s “Love Is the Hero,” where he observed the Queen front man’s legendary vocal-stacking prowess. “Freddie would fill 48 tracks on a multi-track, with all the layered harmonies and melodies and things like that, and then come in and listen twice and say, ‘No, scrap it—let’s start again. I don’t like it.’” Similarly, he says, “Enya’s great at building chords with her vocals. In fact, she’s quite amazing at it. It was discussed in the control room, and then she’d just go out and start singing it. And she sings like an angel. She would lay down the first part, her and Nicky would get on the talk-back, second part, third part, fourth part. And sometimes Nicky would have a guitar, so he’d strum the chord and then he could just show her what the notes were to build the chord.”

I was amazed to learn that there is, in fact, very little synthesizer on this track. Barton recorded a 30-piece ensemble of live strings, as well as live timpani, and most of the rest of the layers—even the “pads”—are Enya’s voice. “I do remember hiring in two extra 480Ls,” says Barton. “So we had three reverb units, so that it wouldn’t all become just one mush. And because there were not really any drums, I made sure that the bottom end of the orchestra kind of filled in where, say, a kick drum would on a regular piece of music.”

Barton admits that he never in his “wildest dreams” would have picked that song to be a single—and really no one would have. But Dickins decided to send the retooled version out into the market ... where it proceeded to sell like hotcakes. “In the week of release, Tower Records phoned up to say that when they played the album in the shop they sold 45 copies—almost everyone in the shop had bought the record,” Dickins told The Guardian. “It was unheard of. It went from 29 to 5, then to no. 1, and we sold bucketloads of albums. It was totally rags to riches. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of. ... All these years later, if I heard that line ‘Rob Dickins at the wheel,’ I can’t help smiling.”

Enya was far from a one-hit wonder. She followed Watermark with Shepherd Moon, which went quintuple platinum and featured the song “Book of Days,” used (non-ironically) on the soundtracks for everything from Far and Away to Baywatch. She had another massive hit with “Only Time” in 2000, which then became a national balm after 9/11 and spent 32 weeks on the Billboard charts. She’s sold more than 80 million albums in total, won four Grammys, and in 2002 she was even nominated for an Oscar for the song “May It Be” from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. (There’s a good chance she might have won an Oscar in 1997: James Cameron asked her to write the score for Titanic, but she turned it down because there wasn’t enough creative independence. The resulting score, by James Horner, sounds an awful lot like Enya.)

No matter her commercial success or legion of fans, she’s often been derided by critics—like Christgau, who in his review of the 2000 album A Day Without Rain wrote: “Yanni is Tchaikovsky by comparison, Sarah McLachlan Ella Fitzgerald, treacle Smithfield ham.” Reviewing the 2015 album Dark Sky Island for The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert noted that “there’s something enormously soothing about Enya’s music—possibly because it sounds like a humanized version of the whale song they play when you’re getting a massage, or because her lyrics are poetic gibberish, or because her slightly distorted vocals make it sound like Mother Earth herself is struggling to be heard over the bells and the 57 violinists playing the same note.”

But we may now be living in an Enya-ssaince. Beyond NPR’s recent re-reckoning, Quietus has called Watermark “an underrated masterpiece”; her music is frequently sampled; notable fans include Nicki Minaj, who told Stephen Colbert “I listen to her the most out of everyone. It’s so peaceful, and it helps me with harmonies and just like sounds and stuff. ... I love her so much.” And the most recent movie use of “Orinoco Flow” wasn’t played for laughs. In the coming-of-age film Eighth Grade, it plays over a montage of Kayla (Elsie Fisher) sailing on the high seas of social media.

“I listened to ‘Orinoco Flow’ and was like, This song is so weird. This song is so much cooler and stranger than I remember it being, and it’s also very deep,” writer-director Bo Burnham recently told HuffPost. He wrote a letter to Enya asking for permission to use the song, which must have been a refreshing request after all of those sarcastic needle-drops over the years. For Burnham, the song felt religious. “Browsing the internet for [Kayla] is, like, spiritual.”

Enya herself has called “Orinoco Flow” the favorite song of her career—“because of introducing the music worldwide. … A song in Gaelic, Latin, instrumental ... it helped to have the album be listened to.”

After 30 years, it’s time to reclaim the song from the realm of cliché, of mocking irony, of easy, cheesy “New Age” shorthand humor. “Orinoco Flow” is, in fact, the defining anthem of a singular artist and a powerful fusion of infectious pop and serenity. Although Enya herself, who laughingly lent her song “Only Time” to the Jean-Claude Van Damme “The Epic Split” commercial for Volvo, doesn’t seem too worried about how her music is remembered. As she put in in a 2015 interview with The Irish Times: “Longevity is all any artist dreams of.”

Tim Greiving is a film music journalist in Los Angeles and a regular contributor to NPR, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. Find him at timgreiving.com.

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