With her four studio albums of singer-songwriter pop, Runga has straddled the line between auteur and commercially successful pop star well. She is part of New Zealand’s music establishment, one of our highest-selling artists, and her incarnation as part of the alt-pop/indie Opossom has added a new string to her bow.
Hornby, Christchurch was where Briolette Kah Bic Runga, and her sisters Boh (Stellar*) and Pearl were raised, the musical daughters of Sophia, a Chinese-Malay 60s cabaret singer, and Joe, a Māori soldier. Runga’s parents’ record collection of The Carpenters, Cliff Richard, and Shirley Bassey was important in forming her particular tastes, though her discovery of The Smiths crystallised her decision to be a musician.
A prolific instrumentalist, Runga learnt drums, guitar and keyboards at school, and later played in jazz groups and bands at Cashmere High School. Her first break came when she won third place in 1993’s Smoke Free Rockquest with Kelly Horgan in the duo Love Soup. Pagan Records' Trevor Reekie approached Runga to record. A QEII Arts Council Grant allowed her to record the first Drive EP in Wellington.
Making the move to Auckland in 1994 allowed Runga to develop her craft for a year before sending a demo of the song ‘Drive’ to Sony Records and others. Following an intense bidding war between the major labels, Sony signed her in 1995, recompensing Pagan Records for its initial outlay. Runga returned to ‘Drive’, re-recording the song with more instruments, though she used her original demo for the eventual release. The song ‘Drive’ won the APRA Silver Scroll award in 1996 – Bic Runga was 20 years old, and had yet to release her first album.
‘DRive’, The album, infiltrated radio and television, and charted at No.1.
When she did release her debut album, Drive, it was massive, and heard everywhere in 1997. The album infiltrated radio and television, charted at No.1, and sold enough copies to go seven times platinum. Seven singles were released from Drive, the most commercially successful being ‘Sway’, which she is still strongly associated with. ‘Sway’ was used on the soundtracks of American Pie and Cruel Intentions, both released in 1999. For the American Pie soundtrack, Runga collaborated on ‘Good Morning Baby’ with Dan Wilson from US band Semisonic.
Drive propelled Runga into the international market. A tour of the United States included performing at Lilith Fair, with some artists she was being compared to. After experiencing the US touring scene, Runga was next heard locally on Strawpeople’s album No New Messages, covering none other than The Cars’ song ‘Drive’. She followed this by touring with two local luminaries: Tim Finn and Dave Dobbyn. The tour was captured on the 2000 album Together in Concert: Live, and was a successful venture for all involved. The album was re-released in 2010.
Runga’s “difficult” second album, Beautiful Collision appeared in 2002. Initially envisioned as a beats-oriented record, Beautiful Collision had two false starts. The album germinated in 1999, with Runga attempting to record it as a drum and bass work, and she later tried again with a real drummer and bassist. When both attempts failed, she returned to her singer-songwriter roots, recording tracks with Milan Borich (vocals) and Tim Arnold (guitars, vocals) from Pluto. Self-produced, with a cast of famous artists performing on the album, Beautiful Collision was melodic and conversational, with autobiographical first single ‘Get Some Sleep’ detailing the stresses of touring. Beautiful Collision had all the hallmarks of Runga’s perfectionist streak, and many engineers and studios in Auckland were utilized for the recording.
‘Beautiful Collision’ proved to be a bigger seller than ‘Drive’: 11 times platinum.
Beautiful Collision proved to be a bigger seller than Drive, No.1 in the charts immediately on release, and eventually went 11 times platinum. After touring the album, she then leapt into recording a live album with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra in 2003 (Live with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra). Runga then found the pull of change, living in London, and (more significantly) Paris, soaking up the influences. It was her time in the City of Lights that would inspire her next album, the sombre Birds. She explained to Diana Wichtel from the Listener that “There’s that thing that the French do – the tragic love song … it’s not self-pitying, just tragic.” Birds was coloured with sadness – Runga’s father Joe passed away on the day she was due to leave to tour with the Finn Brothers, a few months before the album’s release. The title Birds references death too – Birds being messengers of the underworld in Māori mythology. 2005 also saw her branch into film, playing a Vietnamese lounge singer in the Cate Blanchett film Little Fish, covering Gene Pitney’s ‘Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart’.
Birds was recorded with a stellar cast of NZ musicians: Neil Finn on piano, Riki Gooch on drums, Shayne Carter, Anika Moa, and Anna Coddington on backing vocals. The album was self-produced, and recorded at Monte Cecelia House in Auckland in a mostly live setting, with recording rooms full of big spaces. Birds was released in November 2005, and found its way onto many canonical ‘best of’ lists for the year. A 2006 tour brought back together her band of local luminaries, and included pre-fame musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords as her opening act.
Following the success of Birds, she retreated back into her personal life, and her son Joe was born in 2007. Little was heard from her in this time, with the exception of her 2008 album Try to Remember Everything, a collection of demos, outtakes, and a new recording that kept her in the public consciousness. She re-appeared in 2010 as part of Neil Finn’s 7 Worlds Collide: The Sun Came Out project, with two songs: ‘A Change of Heart’, and ‘Black Silk Ribbon’, the latter a dark, gothic tale written with Scottish singer KT Tunstall.
In 2009, Runga began working on new solo material. After unsuccessfully collaborating in Los Angeles with professional songwriters, she returned to Auckland to work with local talent. Enter Kody and Reuben Nielson, James Milne (Lawrence Arabia) and Dan Hume (Evermore), who co-wrote material for her fourth album, Belle . This was an unexpectedly hands-off album for Runga – she gave production duties to Kody Nielson, and hardly played any instruments. The upbeat Belle was recorded at various places, including Ocean Way Studios in California, Runga’s own studio, and Serj Tankian’s Piha studio, where a track written with him was put aside for a future recording (as were two songs written with SJD). Also included in Belle was her song with Nielson, ‘Darkness All Around Us’, recorded as a single from their ‘Kody and Bic’ duo. Though not as commercially successful as her previous albums, Belle was toured in a series of acoustic church dates around New Zealand.
Runga and Nielson continued to collaborate, both personally and professionally and the duo played the 2012 Big Day Out. As her contract with Sony prevented it, Runga couldn’t write for the duo, but she became part of Opossom, Nielson’s psych-pop band, which released Electric Hawaii to acclaim in early 2012. The same year Runga’s solo career with Sony was rounded up with the compilation Anthology.
Runga’s 2015 was marked by the birth of her third child and a joint tour with Tiny Ruins along with the release of her first independent single, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’. She later changed its title to ‘Dream a Dream’ when broadcaster Paul Henry wondered if it was the song from musical Les Miserables.
In October 2016, the Vodafone NZ Music Awards announced Runga as the recipient of the New Zealand Herald Legacy Award and that she would be inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame during the ceremony on November 17. Happy to accept the award but wary it might make it sound like she had retired, Runga opted to play at the awards herself, performing ‘Sway’, one of the songs which had marked her breakthrough nearly 20 years earlier.
As she was given a few months’ notice of the honour, Runga set about recording a new album due out the day after the awards. Entitled Close Your Eyes and released through Sony in New Zealand, Australia and Asia and through London-based Fire Records in the UK, US and Europe, the album married two original songs to a wide-ranging set of covers. Among the tracks Runga recorded with Nielson in their home studio were Kanye West’s ‘Wolves’, Neil Young’s ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, as well as a Nielson song from his Mint Chicks days, ‘Life Will Get Better Some Day’.
Runga’s enthusiasm for covers didn’t stop there. She accepted the invitation to sing ‘Redemption Song’ on the album Stir It Up – Aotearoa’s Tribute to Bob Marley, also released in November. Runga looks to carry on this renewed momentum with the announcement that Runga would be joining Brooke Fraser and Benny Tipene on The Winery Tour early in 2017.
Updated by Russell Baillie