New Zealand’s Bic Runga has only released four albums of original material, starting with her 1997 debut Drive, but despite her limited output, she reigns supreme as the queen of New Zealand pop music. Runga comes from a unique cultural background; her father is Maori, and her mother Chinese-Malaysian, and they met when her mother was performing as a lounge singer in Malaysia. They moved to Christchurch, New Zealand, where they had three daughters; Runga’s older sister Boh also found national success as the leader of Stellar.
Runga burst onto the New Zealand scene at 21 – her debut album Drive was enormous, going seven times platinum, and the title track was a demo that she recorded at the age of 19. Drive often has a sparse sound and long running times; and doesn’t stand as her finest work in hindsight, even though it showcased her sweet voice and hit the mainstream. Runga went for a fuller, poppy sound with 2002’s more satisfying Beautiful Collision, while 2005’s Birds was acoustic and jazz influenced.
With her smooth voice, Bic Runga’s a little too safe and adult contemporary for my liking, even though she’s an obvious talent. But she belongs in a conversation of significant New Zealand musicians, continuing to grow as an artist, and elegantly walking the line between mainstream appeal and artistic integrity.
Bic Runga Album Reviews
Favourite Album: Beautiful Collision
Overlooked Gem: Belle
Bic Runga’s debut album was released at the age of 21 – she’d previously attracted attention with her Drive EP in 1995, and the version of ‘Drive’ on this album comes from a 1996 demo that won her a recording contract with Sony.
Drive was released when I was in my late teens, and at the time I had little use for the ubiquitous songs from the album, like ‘Sway’ and ‘Suddenly Strange’ – they lope along with stripped back arrangements, a low key rhythm section and prominent lead guitar. Even now I find them monotonous, while Runga’s melodies and vocals are pretty, the songs feel caught in limbo; with Runga’s mannered vocals they feel too slick to communicate emotion, but not dynamic enough to be interesting.
Coming back to Drive with less testosterone, there’s an admirable writer here – the ethereal melodies of ‘Sway’ and ‘Drive’ are pretty, and even though the most memorable songs are clustered near the front, it’s not an insubstantial record. But it’s difficult to get past the monotonous sound of Drive, and Runga would become more interesting with subsequent releases.
Following Drive, Runga recalls playing Lilith Fair alongside Jewel and Sheryl Crow, and realising that that she didn’t like any of the female singers she was lumped in with. I didn’t enjoy the songs of Drive, but Runga gained my attention with the sunny pop of Beautiful Collision. Runga enlisted a veritable who’s who of New Zealand music, including Dave Dobbyn, Neil Finn, Pluto’s Milan Borich, various members of Goldenhorse, and her sister Boh (from the much less interesting Stellar). The result’s a charming album of sophisticated pop, full of gorgeous string sections, but with enough whimsy and personality to avert blandness.
Beautiful Collision is full of good songs, opening with the sweet and minimal ‘When I See You Smile’, with just Runga and her guitar, followed by a beautifully constructed and upbeat singles, the wonderfully effervescent ‘Something Good’, with a beautiful string interlude, and ‘Get Some Sleep’. These are balanced by more introspective moments like ‘Honest Goodbyes’ and ‘She Left On A Monday’, and topped off by more ambitious pieces like the closing ‘Gravity’, where the arrangement is constantly waiting for a delicate piano figure that only appears intermittently. The title track is one of the most eloquent songs ever written about sex, while ‘Listening For The Weather’ is yet another gorgeous piece.
You could argue that Beautiful Collision is a little generic, but it’s an accomplished collection of sophisticated pop music, a huge step forward from her uninteresting debut.
For her third studio album Runga again reinvented herself, this time as a jazzy lounge singer. Following the effervescent hooky pop of Beautiful Collision, Birds is hushed and sombre, a eulogy to her father whose passing provided the stimulus and emotional backdrop to these songs. Runga’s backing band is a remarkable collective of New Zealand musicians – the album’s principal musical contributor is Neil Finn, in the unfamiliar role as pianist. Trinity Roots’ Rikki Gooch is behind the drum-kit, while Shayne Carter and Anika Moa guest on backing vocals.
Birds works on an emotional level, but sometimes light on musical ideas, and isn’t as engaging as Beautiful Collision. This comparison is unfair, since it’s to be expected that a straight out pop album like Beautiful Collision would be more accessible than the darker Birds, but this record could certainly use more hooks in a few places.
This statement doesn’t apply to the opening single, the excellent ‘Winning Arrow’, where the bright country sheen feels at odds with the rest of the album, like a warranted concession to commercialism. Elsewhere, Runga is able to produce some great songs in her new found jazz-pop vein, where she’s covering ground more akin to piano-vocal jazz like Nina Simone. The surging, dramatic ‘If I Had You’ is a great example of the potential the project has, with a memorable call and response chorus, while the dramatic sighs of the closing ‘It’s Over’ also demonstrate dynamics that the rest of the album sometimes lacks. Elsewhere, Birds is eloquent and elegant, but it’s hard to get a grasp on the individual songs and they do tend to meld together more than they should.
Birds is an ambitious album from Runga, a successful attempt at almost an entirely new genre for her, but it’s not the tour de force it could have been; it’s beautiful background music, but it doesn’t demand the listener’s full attention like it could have.
Belle has a light pop sound that often sounds straight from the 1960s; the title track is a cover of the theme for the 1960s’ French TV show Belle et Sébastien, and song titles like ‘Tiny Little Piece of My Heart’ are also suggestive of that era. Runga’s partner, Kody Nielson from The Mint Chicks, is her main collaborator on Belle, contributing lots of different instruments and songwriting, including a sole credit for ‘Darkness All Around Us’. Other band members include bass player Sebastian Steinberg and Jon Brion.
Not everything fits into 1960s sunshine or girl group pop – ‘Everything Is Beautiful and New’ is acoustic and low key. But it’s the big pop hooks of songs like ‘Hello Hello’ and ‘Good Love’ that are the major selling points for Belle.
Belle is noticeably short, at a mere 30 minutes, and it feels a little unsubstantial as a result. But it’s another quality effort from Runga, whose restless, perfectionist journey is interesting to follow.
Close Your Eyes
Bic Runga’s never seeemed like a prolific writer – to date, she’s released four albums of original songs over her twenty year career. So what’s essentially a covers album, with two original songs, isn’t necessarily a surprise. There’s certainly an element of showing off her cool record collection on Close Your Eyes, as a music geek it’s easy to become excited over the idiosyncratic selection of songs, which includes critical darlings like The Blue Nile, Love, and Nick Drake and left field choices like Kanye West. Runga has explained her choices, saying: “The songs that all made it on the record specifically say something about where I’m at in my life, better than if I’d written it myself. It was a challenging process, I’m really proud of the singing and the production and the statement”.
Runga has a unique perspective to bring to these songs – she’s a female singing predominantly male written songs, but her takes aren’t meant to be provocative, it’s simply her usual crystalline sound applied to a fascinating sampler of songs. Of the original compositions, the excellent ‘Dream A Dream’ has a timeless torch song quality that allows it to sit comfortably next to ‘The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face’. The most effective cover is perhaps The Beach Boys’ early song ‘The Lonely Sea’, where the austerity captures a feeling of hopelessness.
Like a lot of covers albums, Close Your Eyes is more a modest pleasure more than a major statement, but it’s enjoyable all the same.