We’re looking back on some of our favourite big reads from TimeOut this year. Today, we revisit Joanna Hunkin's interview with Bic Runga ahead of her NZ Music Hall of Fame induction and Legacy Award win.

Bic Runga has a secret. It's clear she's not quite sure whether she's ready to share it but after a moment's pause, her hesitation lifts.

So here it is: Bic Runga wants to make a disco anthem.

"Life's too short not to make at least one club hit," she laughs, shaking her head at her own audacity.

"I feel like I've made enough sad singer-songwriter music. Enough. It's enough. If you want some of that, go and listen to the old albums. Now I'd like to make some stuff that's fun to listen to.

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"Sometimes I bum my own children out with my music. They're only little. I don't want to do that."

Bic Runga says she's made enough sad music. Photo / Nirrimi Hakanson
Bic Runga says she's made enough sad music. Photo / Nirrimi Hakanson

Runga has been thinking a lot about what she wants to do lately. Tonight, she will receive the NZ Herald Legacy Award and officially be inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame.

It's an honour that normally comes at the sunset, or even twilight, of an artist's career. But at just 40, Runga's career is far from over. Not only will she release a new album tomorrow, Close Your Eyes, but she's already planning the next record.

She says the award has been a gift. The gift of taking stock.

"I haven't been putting my foot on the accelerator for quite some time. Because I've been busy with life and family. It's not because I didn't want to, it was just impossible," says the mother-of-three. Her youngest, Frida, has just turned 1.

"Twenty years is quite a long time and it went by in a flash. And I think now about, hypothetically, if I only had 10 more years to make music, what music would I make? It's easy when you're young to think you've got all this time and I've only just realised that I'm not young. Maybe I still have to do some things that I haven't done yet."

Which is how she came to realise, she wants to make a disco anthem. And wear lots of Halston.

Bic Runga says the Legacy Award has given her the gift of taking stock. Photo: Nirrimi Hakanson
Bic Runga says the Legacy Award has given her the gift of taking stock. Photo: Nirrimi Hakanson

The award may have spurred Runga to look forward but it's also important to look back: To appreciate and celebrate just how much she has achieved and to share the story of a 17-year-old from Christchurch who sparked the country's first bidding war between record labels.

Runga is vague when it comes back to those early days, which she describes as exciting and weird. As she points out, she really had nothing to compare it to.

Not so for those around her, who remember the exact moment they first heard Runga's fragile, soaring voice.

"I was a lawyer at the time and Sony sent me a demo tape of Drive," recalls Campbell Smith, who went on to be Runga's manager and brother-in-law. "I remember putting it on in the office and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I'd never heard anything like it."

Smith was the man who handled Runga's contract negotiations, as Sony, Polygram and Mushroom Music all tried to woo her.

Ultimately is was Paul Ellis and Sony Music that won.

"She came in one afternoon with five songs on a cassette and the last song was Drive. I just remember sitting looking at the floor of my office because it was so great that I didn't know what to say," recalls Ellis.

"At the time she was 17 and I was thinking 'oh my God, your world is about to change but you're 17 years old' ... it was very conscious in my mind that she was about to enter the vortex of Sony Music, which was massive.

"I'll never forget staring at that carpet, just speechless, thinking 'this is it. This is the song.' It was a life-changing tune."

And it was. After stalling contract negotiations for a year (allowing Runga to turn 18 and sign her own contract), they experimented with recording multiple versions of Drive, before finally agreeing on the original acoustic version.

Bic Runga is the only female artist to have three albums debut at #1 on the NZ album charts.
Bic Runga is the only female artist to have three albums debut at #1 on the NZ album charts.
Drive

was released in 1995, becoming a Top 10 hit and went on to win Runga the APRA Silver Scroll in 1996. She was 20.

A year later, her first album Drive debuted at number one on the New Zealand charts, becoming the first of three albums to do so. It went 7x Platinum, while her next record Beautiful Collision, clocked up 11x Platinum.

Bic and her older sister Boh have always been close, at times touring together.
Bic and her older sister Boh have always been close, at times touring together.

As Smith says, she was a bona fide radio star. One of the first, and only, Kiwi artists to sell records in those quantities.

She had the voice, talent and songs to make it big. That meant moving overseas.

"You're talking about a period in the mid-90s, which was really the peak of the record industry," explains Smith. "They were selling bits of plastic for $30 a pop. They could do that with artists that were local. They could just as easily find an artist in California and it was an easier job for them. So we didn't just need the songs that she had and talent that she had, but we had to physically be there. We constantly had to be in the US, or the UK or Europe and we had to constantly be working."

It was hard graft. A lonely musical pilgrimage that left Runga, at times, crippled with homesickness.

"Maybe my biggest regret is not being able to just stay there," she says. "I kept having to come home. The industry's changed so much now that I don't think it's so essential to be overseas. You could feasibly do things online and have a career."

Bic says meeting her heroes has been the best part of her journey.
Bic says meeting her heroes has been the best part of her journey.

Runga spent five years overseas, first based in New York before moving to Paris and then London.

"I'm glad I went. I probably didn't appreciate what was going on and the opportunities I was given at the time. But in hindsight, I think it was an amazing experience. It's not something I would have ever done myself... I was lucky that Campbell pushed for that to happen."

Smith wasn't the only one to help guide her during those years. Neil Finn played a major part as well.

"He really helped me a lot when I was making Beautiful Collision because I was having trouble finishing that. It took me three years to make. He really taught me how to finish an album."

Bic and her partner Kody Nielson have worked closely on several projects over the years, with Nielson producing her new album Close Your Eyes.
Bic and her partner Kody Nielson have worked closely on several projects over the years, with Nielson producing her new album Close Your Eyes.

Most importantly, she says, Finn taught her how to let things go. Something, Runga admits, she has struggled with throughout her career.

In 20 years, she has released just four studio albums (plus a greatest hits record, Anthology). Tomorrow's release, Close Your Eyes, will be her fifth and is an album of intriguingly diverse covers, featuring songs by Kanye West, The Beach Boys and Neil Young, among others.

"I've really learned to move quicker and not waste time. I've really let go of perfection. That's saved me lots of time in itself. Nothing's ever going to be exactly how you want it, you just need to move onto the next thing. Perfectionism has wasted me many pointless years.

"There's a lot of albums of mine that are just missing because I didn't make them. I don't want that to happen anymore, over the next 10 years. I just want to keep making more and more music."

Starting with that disco anthem.

LOWDOWN:
Who: Bic Runga
What: She will receive the NZ Herald Legacy Award tonight at the VNZMAs
When: Broadcast live on TV3, 8.3pm
Also: Her new album Close Your Eyes available tomorrow