Bic Runga Celebrates the 20th Anniversary of Drive
Blessed with a delicate yet broad vocal range that possesses a wispy, gossamer quality, and an uncanny ability to compose both haunting and catchy melodies, Bic Runga is an indigenous New Zealand treasure. "You say it Bec, rather than Bic," she explains. "It's Chinese - a strange vowel sound that means the colour of jade, which might mean green."
Following the release of Drive, Runga has sold over 500,000 albums and been awarded virtually every musical honour in New Zealand, including the APRA Silver Scroll Songwriting Award, twenty Tuis, and a series of multi-platinum albums - making her the country's most awarded solo artist. Her first three LPs debuted at #1 on the New Zealand album charts and her services to music were recognised with the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2006. Her songs have been featured on numerous film soundtracks and her records released around the world, winning her devoted followings in Europe, Asia, and the US. Last year, Runga received the NZ Herald Legacy Award at the Vodafone Music Awards, acknowledging her outstanding contribution to the New Zealand music industry. Runga was born and grew up in Hornby, Christchurch, surrounded by a musical family. Her mother, Sophia Tang, was a Chinese Malaysian lounge singer living in Malaysia when she met Joseph Runga, of Ngāti Kahungunu descent. She started recording songs with her sisters, Boh and Pearl, when she was just four years old (Boh is the vocalist for Stellar, while Pearl is a session singer), learned how to play drums at the age of eleven, and guitar and keyboards at about fourteen. She attended Cashmere High School, joining various high school bands and performing with local jazz groups throughout her teenage years.
Under the name of Love Soup, Runga and Kelly Horgan won third place in the 1993 Smokefreerockquest in Christchurch and a music contract with Pagan Records. Using a QEII Arts Council grant, Runga recorded the first Drive EP in Wellington, but unsatisfied with the direction her music was taking, she moved to Auckland in 1994, where she spent another year writing and performing. In 1995, she sent a new demo of Drive to Sony Music, who signed her up and bought her Wellington recordings from Pagan Records. Sony had her re-record the song with additional instrumentation, but it was eventually her demo that was used on her first album. It entered the Top 10 in New Zealand and won the APRA Silver Scroll award in 1996. Runga then released the single Bursting Through and its immediate success led to the release of her debut album in 1997. Drive went seven times Platinum and won the New Zealand Music Awards for Album of the Year in 1998. Another hit single Sway, along with a duet with Dan Wilson of Semisonic called Good Morning Baby, were used in the films American Pie and Cruel Intentions. Six singles were subsequently released from the album.
In 2000, Runga toured with Tim Finn and Dave Dobbyn, resulting in a release of a live album in November 2000, titled Together in Concert: Live, which peaked at #2 on the New Zealand charts and has been certified 3xPlatinum. Runga released Beautiful Collision in 2002, which entered the New Zealand charts at #1 and was certified 10xPlatinum in New Zealand. It was soon followed by a live album with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra that included a recording of the Jacque Brel's classic Ne Me Quitte Pas and was an early indicator of Runga's subsequent move to Paris, which resulted in her third studio album, the cinematic Birds. With contributions from Neil Finn and Anika Moa, it was released in 2005, won Album of the Year, and featured the hit single Winning Arrow. It was her third consecutive studio album to enter the New Zealand charts at #1 and eventually went 3xPlatinum. The same year Runga played a Vietnamese lounge singer in the film Little Fish and covered Gene Pitney's Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart for the soundtrack. In 2006, she was honoured with the New Zealand Order of Merit.
In 2008, she released Try to Remember Everything, a collection of unreleased, new, and rare recordings from 1996 to 2008, which sold over 7,500 copies and was certified Gold in New Zealand.Runga contributed to the score and soundtrack to New Zealand Roseanne Liang's debut feature film My Wedding and Other Secrets in 2011. In addition to featuring Say After Me from Birds, the film also included two tracks (Hello Hello and This Girl's Prepared for War) from her critically-acclaimed album Belle. Runga then completed another New Zealand tour, as well as thirteen dates across Ireland, the UK, and Australia. Anthology, a greatest hits album, was released in 2012. She released a new single titled Dreamed a Dream and gave birth to her third child in 2015. Her fifth album, Close Your Eyes, featuring ten covers and two original tracks, was released in 2016 and co-produced by her partner Kody Nielsen (Mint Chicks, Opossum, Silicon) in their Mission Bay studio. The following month Runga was inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame. The recordings that would eventually become part of the Drive EP were originally released through Pagan Records. Even though Runga was pleased to be recording her songs, she was already having doubts: “It was done with Trevor Reekie (head of Pagan Records) and Nigel Stone who I both really like, and I do actually like working with, but it just wasn’t where I was going,” she says. “I was only 18 and I didn’t really know how to say no to anything. I think even back then I still knew what I wanted music-wise but I was more diffident - I didn’t speak up.”
She later recorded the demo of Drive herself "which I took up to Sony, who I’d always wanted to be on” and secured an exclusive four album deal with the label. Sony then bought the Wellington recordings from Pagan and sent Runga back into the studio to try re-recording that song with more instruments, but ended up releasing her original demo as the single. “I almost killed it,” she says, “It needed to just breathe, the way it was released.”
Sony then sent Runga into a studio in Ireland with producer Nial Maccan and ex-Crowded House member Nick Seymour. They went in "with the hope of getting an album done, but it just didn’t really work out." The sessions produced the excellent single Sway, but overall Runga was still unhappy with how things were going. She returned to New Zealand and was due to have Dave Dobbyn produce in December, but then she broke her collar bone which put back the whole recording and meant Dobbyn couldn’t do it. With a vacuum in the producer’s chair, Runga decided to seize the opportunity and sent a written proposal to Sony to produce herself.
"It was the first time I’d organised a piece of writing since I was at school!" she said at the time. "I would have had to have spoken out by then, otherwise I would have had a nervous breakdown, but I’m really glad that I asked. Sony were really cool. They were a bit scared at first-producing my own album because every other session I’ve had I’ve freaked out, but it was only because I never got what I wanted. Now our contract allows me to do anything - I have complete musical artistic licence. And Sony America are into it. We’ve had a guy come out called Peter Asher (who is their in-house producer and practically one of their second in commands) just to basically be encouraging. It’s just like having a sounding board and it was really good."
Twenty years later, Runga is performing a series of shows celebrating the re-release of Drive, which includes four bonus tracks. Utilising her engaging, childlike voice to full effect Runga ruminates on love lost and found, with generally sparse, stripped down arrangements, a low key rhythm section, and more prominent lead guitar. Although she has an undeniable gift for composing ethereal melodies, they occasionally get stuck in a monotonous limbo, with her mannered vocals too slick to communicate emotion and not dynamic enough to be really gripping. Her voice has mellowed over the years, however, and on Friday night at Wellington's Opera House she performed the entire album (plus a few extras like the lilting and poignant ballad Gravity from Beautiful Collision) for an enthusiastic audience who clearly knew the music well. Her backing band (Tiny Ruins' Cass Mitchell on bass and Tom Healy on guitar, with partner Kody Nielson playing drums) was supplemented by backing vocals from Dunedin's Shayne Carter and Empress of Electric Blue Witch Hop Estère. Bunga has matured into an elegant, humorous, and highly confident artiste who can still rock hard and hit all those high notes whenever necessary. She is now firmly ensconced as part our national taonga, pioneering a pathway for a younger generation of talented and outspoken female vocalists like Lorde, Anika Moa, Anna Coddington, and Ria Hall. Long may she drive …