Six years after her last studio album, Bic Runga is back. She talks to Alan Perrott about the missing years, musical blind dates and why she doesn’t listen to her own work.
Bic Runga had to smile.
"Ever since I started out in music, I've always been the youngest in the room ... this time I was looking around and something was different. There was the photographer, the graphic designer, all the record label people and everyone else, and 'oh yeah, I'm older than all of them'. They all looked like they'd have been 11 when my first record came out."
This is what happens when you become part of the music "establishment" as a tender 19-year-old.
Given her fourth album is about to be released, you may already know that Runga was born into a music-mad family and got her start in a Christchurch school band that went on to become the Feelers before attracting heavyweight attention during her run through the 1993 Rockquest competition. Her first album came out while she was still a teenager, sold by the truckload, and two tracks (Drive and Sway) went straight into the fame hall of great Kiwi songs.
It should be too good to be true really.
But her rapid rise masks the battle she has faced to keep control over her work. Being young and willing to bleed for success can mean a short ride to disillusionment. The industry might laud your work and make you feel like a proper rock star, but don't go expecting it to let you make the big decisions. Not when there's proper money at stake.
"When I was young," says Runga, "there was a lot of me being put in [different studios] with these old producers, and they were like, 'here's a young girl, she doesn't know anything'. No one takes you seriously at that age and it was really frustrating. I got so angry, so often, that I had to learn for myself how to produce a record. By doing it myself I was really trying to prove a point."
If her point was proved by winning a New Zealand music award for best producer with Drive, she kept on proving it by winning the same award for follow-ups Beautiful Collision and Birds.
"Those awards mean more to me than any of the others," she says - and she's won plenty.
Rapid, mainstream success has another ... well, let's just call it an outcome.
Whether she likes it or not, 35-year-old Runga now sits alongside the likes of the Finns and Dave Dobbyn, so when she isn't touring internationally she has joined the old guard on annual vineyard tours. There's no doubt that such lush, familial surroundings are a million miles from what her co-stars were doing at the same age.
Which brings us to Belle, Runga's new album, and all those young people, especially the youngest - 4-year-old Joseph.
It appears nothing cures rampant introspection like having a baby.
"I can't over-stress how profound that [experience] was for me ... I absolutely needed to have a baby. But after Joe was born there were lots of times when I was at home thinking I'd never make music again. Having a career in the arts can get a little self-involved but a baby makes you think about someone else 24/7. You lose your sense of self and I think I got sucked into a kind of housewife vortex where I was listening to less and less music.
"I don't really know why that was, but I was so tired and I didn't want any noise around me. It's a highly strung job being a mum and I was really tired of lyrics. I didn't want to hear any more plaintive singer-songwriter stuff. I had kind of realised that, in the end, the world just doesn't care about your problems."
That last realisation even extends to her own songs. "They're just not my cup of tea really and I don't listen to any of it because of the 'me' factor, the self-important factor. It doesn't interest me ..."
This attitude isn't entirely new, although I suspect she really means it now. In 2002, while promoting her second album, Beautiful Collision, Runga was happily telling interviewers that all that "crappy folk stuff" was finally dead to her.
Then, three years later, talking about her follow-up, Birds: "That album was like killing myself off, it was the darkest record I'll ever make (it followed the death of her father, Joseph Runga) and it left me with nothing else to throw in. I'd been touring extensively in [Britain], and while I wouldn't say I was burnt out I really wanted to start doing something else ... no one wants another song in A minor ... all the same, I had to learn everything I now know exactly the way I learned it. The blinkers have come off and I see everything for what it really is."
Still, if, as she says, she had stopped listening to anything aside than 60s French pop ("because I couldn't understand what they were saying") and instrumental albums, what finally dragged her back to the day job?
"It was probably two things, there was the urge I was born with to just do it because of the fear that if I don't, I'll go crazy. And then there's survival - at that stage I was a solo mum (Runga and Joseph's father, Darryl Ward, split up two years ago). Even then, everything had to work around my son, so I could only get maybe a day off from being a mum to write. But even at those times I felt like I wasn't centred, I was kind of off-balance, and it would take maybe three days to "decompress" before any songwriting came back."
So, after a couple of directionless years with only a few lovely lullabies to show for it, Runga approached her record company who then invited a festival's worth of musicians - including System of a Down's Serj Tankian - to one-on-one songwriting sessions on Karangahape Rd. In her terms these were "blind dates".
"Once you've really gone to ground and started thinking that maybe it is all over, that's when you can really reinvent yourself and start growing again. I'd found out that the only way to let go of what I'd done before was to let other people in. I don't know why, but I'd always been too proud to co-write before.
"I think a lot of people are too proud about their music, but if it was okay for The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, what's the big deal?"
Well, the big deal is that her benevolence costs money - songwriting royalties can be nice earners. She quickly ran through the album's tracklisting to tot up the songs she wrote alone. "One ... two ... three. Jesus, I'm going to be broke ... but I knew that when we started, and I know this is going to sound a little bit weak, but it honestly was about sharing and, karmically speaking, that has to be a good thing."
She's overjoyed at the result. Runga ended up with not only a raft of new songs, she also got a brand new relationship with former Mint Chick frontman Kody Neilson. The pair began performing as a duo and Neilson came on board as the album's producer.
It was a meeting of major talents, of shared reference points, and - I hope they don't mind this - of a certain social awkwardness; unless they're talking music. Runga acknowledges as much when she says she has gone from being an outsider of one to being an outsider of two.
Anyway, Neilson has spent the past year connecting the strands of Runga's vision to create an album that grooves while restraining his wilful adventurism so as not to scare the paymasters at Sony too much. Much the ground work was done in a sunny corner of their Mission Bay home, or as Runga puts it "the house that Sway built."
Their intentions are illustrated nicely by the eclectic mix of gear squeezed into the corner of what most would consider a dining room. There's Neilson's Ludwig drum kit - stripped down to snare, kick drum and cymbals; an old Wurlitzer organ; Paul McCartney's favourite, a Hofner bass; and a bank of vintage amps that sit beneath Runga's Tui awards.
For Neilson, Belle is a chance to make his name as an industry player, just as Runga succeeded in doing. His drive is single-minded and, I imagine, highly infectious.
It's all far from a given though. If Runga's best-known songs have achieved an almost taonga status, they have also created a popular expectation for what her songs should sound like, and given the Mint Chicks' irritated pop is about as far from her folky vibe as you can imagine, Neilson's production role is a risk.
Having had a quick listen to a rough mix of Belle, his pixie dust is everywhere, from the breakbeat drum riffs, to the 60s Euro-pop sound, and his own standout track Darkness All Around Us.
"Well, I hope it's not too different," says Neilson. "Not like sticking out like a dog's balls or anything. But it's definitely a bit new sounding, for [Bic] anyway ... maybe not as much of a downer I suppose. I see my role as helping to make things happen, not so much about doing my own thing, you know? You can afford to take risks when you have no one else to answer to ... but I wouldn't want to scare her fans away or anything, that would be a bit selfish, to put my own stamp on everything. She's like the seasoned pop singer now and I've tried really hard to do everything she's wanted."
The lengths to which Runga has gone to reinvent herself and her "take it or leave it" attitude towards her album's reception don't surprise the man who more than anyone else can claim to have discovered her.
Pagan label boss Trevor Reekie was at the 1993 Rockquest final where she and Love Soup bandmate/former boyfriend, Kelly Horgan, finished third.
"What impressed me the most was her totally fearless attitude," he remembers. "That was remarkable in itself. She was, even at that young age, very self-determined. She had already identified, well, not so much what she wanted to be as much as what she wanted not to be. She had a very clear idea of where she was going."
Reekie was keen to sign her and quickly booked her on a flight to Wellington so she could record a few songs in a studio he'd bodged together for the occasion. He had thought it would be a set of covers until she turned up clutching a fistful of originals.
A bidding war for her had broken out between Polymer, Festival and Sony before the songs were completed and knowing he had no way of competing, Reekie put his potential star on to then-musician's lawyer Campbell Smith for guidance.
He didn't miss out completely. Sony bought the tracks he'd recorded and used them as B-sides for her early singles.
Understandably, he's followed her career closely ever since and is looking forward to hearing what she has come up with this time round.
"The thing about Bic is that she has always gone her own unique path and I've told her that when she finally stops to take a look behind she will see all the people who have been following along in her wake. It's part of her spirit, she is always moving forward, but the path she takes is very carefully chosen."
Reekie will be reassured to hear that Runga is particularly happy with her current path.
"I'm just so excited about having this album finished, it's beyond exciting, especially having Kody involved as well. It can be boring being excited by yourself, and right now, this is the first time I've really felt that I've made a great record because I haven't made it by myself.
"Kody has as much invested in this as I have, we both want it to fly, and if everything goes to plan we'll take it overseas together as well. That's what we're aiming for now."
And when that happens, she'll still be the oldest. And loving it.
* nzherald.co.nz is streaming Bic Runga's new album all week. Listen to it here.
* Belle (Sony Music) is released on November 14. Bic Runga headlines a nationwide acoustic church tour from November 17 to December 8.