Behind the Song: “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)” by Enya

The late 1980s were a time of change on the charts – most of the hair bands were on their way out, with Michael Jackson still in command at MTV and female singers like Whitney Houston and Taylor Dayne selling dance-pop platinum. Then a sound so new, from someone who valued vocals and production above image and danceability, came from out of nowhere, as Irish singer/keyboardist Eithne Ní Bhraonáin – better known as Enya – emerged with her second album, Watermark, and the single “Orinoco Flow,” which climbed the charts in over a dozen countries, reaching number one in several of them.

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A former member of the legendary Irish family band Clannad, Enya, the notoriously private singer who doesn’t tour and rarely performs in public, has sold some 80,000,000 records worldwide, more than 25,000,000 of them in the U.S. alone, an amazing feat considering that she doesn’t undertake a live tour for each new album. Watermark has sold over 11,000,000 copies (depending on whose numbers you believe), and has been reissued three times. “Orinoco Flow,” sometimes known as “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away),” helped make her a household name in the genre of new age music, though Enya herself reportedly has never been fond of the “new age” label.

“Enya” is the most pronounceable version of the singer’s real name, but the name is more than only that. It represents the trio of people who have made her sound and success possible: the artist herself, her manager/producer/arranger Nicky Ryan, and Ryan’s wife, poet Roma Ryan, who writes the lyrics. The three are responsible for eight highly successful albums so far. Enya broke through with “Orinoco Flow” and its dreamy, ethereal Celtic attitude with an unforgettable sound that some listeners loved, and some critics loved to trash.

The vibe of “Orinoco Flow” was achieved by layering Enya’s vocals in a Phil Spector-like “wall of sound,” and by taking full advantage of the emerging digital technologies of the day, as well as manipulating synth sounds to create the pizzicato stabs that sound almost like a harp being plucked. Enya sang take after take, harmonizing with herself to arrive at what ended up being a revolutionary choral sound awash in just the right amount of reverb.

The vocals and production are what’s important here, the lyrics maybe less so; if this were just performed as an acoustic song, the melody would certainly be arresting, but lyrically, the song isn’t all that deep in its motives. It’s basically a piece about wanting to leave it all behind and sail away to various ports of the world. But the prosody is perfect, with the lyrical intent matching the overall feel of the production beautifully.

The song is a global geography lesson, and name-checks over a dozen locations to “sail away” to: From Bissau to Palau, in the shade of Avalon/From Fiji to Tiree and the Isles of Ebony/From Peru to Cebu hear the power of Babylon/From Bali to Cali, far beneath the Coral Sea, and so on. The song’s title comes from the name of the London studio where it was recorded, though it’s also the name of a 1,400-mile river in South America.  

And the lyric contains a little tongue-in-cheek fun with the line We can steer, we can near/with Rob Dickins at the wheel, a nod to the Warner/Elektra/Asylum executive who was the executive producer of Watermark, and since 2002 has been known as Rob Dickins CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire). The song also contains the line We can sigh, say goodbye/Ross and his dependencies, a poke at co-producer Ross Cullum (Paul McCartney, Robert Plant); as a location, the Ross Dependency is actually a New Zealand-claimed region of Antarctica.

“Orinoco Flow” gained even greater exposure – and helped provide a multi-platinum bonanza for Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Records – on countless late-night TV commercials when it was included in the 1994 new age compilation Pure Moods, which included instrumentals like Jan Hammer’s Miami Vice theme and Angelo Badalamenti’s theme from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. The song has also been used in movies like Shrek Forever After and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and TV shows like South Park and Black Mirror. “Orinoco Flow” does exactly what a successful song is supposed to do: It sticks in a listener’s head whether they want it to or not. And it’s been doing it for over three decades now.

By the way, Enya the artist is not affiliated with Enya the popular Houston-based ukulele company.

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