As a regular feature, I’d like to highlight a different musical artist located somewhere on the Pacific Rim. I’ll start with New Zealand’s most popular female singer, Bic Runga.
For the people outside of New Zealand who are familiar with her, most know the song “Sway” which was a popular hit and also appeared in the movie American Pie back in 1999. It’s a great song, but she has a lot more to her name that one hit. I’d like to acquaint you with her musical canon which now spans over a decade of consistently strong albums.
So what made her music catch my attention? There are several factors, but the first was her very clear enunciation. I remember it was said of Frank Sinatra that you could understand every word he sung without ever having to refer to written lyrics. Sinatra took great pains to sing that way but I seldom find artists whose every word I can easily catch. Bic Runga is the rare one that by singing so clearly, makes me really listen to what she has written.
Sway: the song that put her on the map
That only succeeds if the lyrics work and most of her’s do. Of course, some lyrics are stronger and others weaker, but all in all I like her songwriting style. On top of that, she comes up with catchy melodies and in so doing, covers all the key bases of a great singer/songwriter.
So, who is she? There’s a great interview with her and Singapore’s New Straits Times, which you can read in its entirety at bicRungadotnet, which is a fabulous site for all things Bic. Here are a few excerpts:
One of the highest-selling New Zealand artistes of all time, singer-songwriter Runga was born Briolette Kah Bic Runga on Jan 13, 1976 in Christchurch, New Zealand.
The daughter of Sophia Tang, a Malaysian lounge singer and the late Joseph Runga, a Maori soldier on duty in Vietnam who met his wife while on leave in Malaysia, Runga was named “Bic” for the colour of jade in Chinese.
She said: “It’s a strange vowel sound which doesn’t seem to translate in English. Perhaps it’s a shade of green.”
Runga grew up in Hornby, Christchurch surrounded by a musically-inclined family, and started recording songs with her sisters, Boh and Pearl, when she was only four.
Runga’s elder sister Boh is now a vocalist in the New Zealand rock group Stellar while Pearl is a sessions singer.
“My mother listened to The Carpenters, Dame Shirley Bassey, Barbra Streisand, Dusty Springfield, The Mamas And The Papas, and The Beatles,” she said.
Runga learnt to play the drums at 11, and the guitar and keyboards at 14. She attended Cashmere High School in Christchurch, later joining high school bands and later performed with local jazz groups in her mid-teens.
“Boh taught me to write songs in my teens. It was around this time that I became interested in rock and folk music. During high school, I loved Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin,” she said.
Just as good live as in the studio
Choosing between art school and music, Runga decided to move to Auckland, where she found music label Sony Music’s address and sent in some demo tracks.
A song called Drive caught the attention of the label and a deal was struck, propelling Runga on the road to becoming New Zealand’s most successful female musician.
Runga and her frequent collaborator Kelly Horgan entered the 1993 Smoke Free Rock Quest in Wellington under the name Love Soup. They came in third. Then, with a Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council grant, Runga recorded the first Drive EP in Wellington.
In 1995, the song entered the Top 10 in New Zealand and won her the Silver Scroll Songwriting Award 1996.
Runga next released Bursting Through, her first single from her upcoming album, also titled Drive.
Drive the album also had a monster hit in the single Sway. The album remained in the Top 10 for 20 consecutive weeks, going seven times platinum, and became the highest-selling album in NZ.
From her album “Birds” (2005)
Since her early success, Bic has released “Beautiful Collision” (2002) and “Birds” (2005) along with her most recent work, a compilation of “B” sides and live tracks called “Try To Remember Everything” (2008) which includes two tracks from KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” program, taped in their Santa Monica studio.
Bic has also appeared in the film “Little Fish” with Cate Blanchett, playing a Vietnamese lounge singer. She’s lived all over the world but her hometown is Christchurch, NZ where she currently resides with her son Joseph and longtime partner, Darryl Ward.
From her “Drive” CD, the song “Bursting Through”
In my opinion, her best album is “Beautiful Collision”, which is the one I’d start with if you are just getting familiar with her music. Opening with a soft and gentle “When I See You Smile”, she moves into one of my all time favorites, “Get Some Sleep” about life on the road. “Something Good” is one of the few times she gives away her roots as “you” becomes “yah” and yet again another lovely song with a memorable bridge. The rest of the songs are all strong but a personal favorite is “She Left On A Monday” which our East Asian readers should like as it’s a classic ballad. In fact, I’ve had the opportunity to introduce Bic’s music to many Asian friends of mine and she’s been universally loved. If you’re in a retrospective mood, Bic’s hard to beat.
Lately, I’ve frequently listened to her newest offering, “Try To Remember Everything”. Usually a collection of “B” sides contains some pretty weak songs but many of these have moved to the top of my list. A gentle ballad called “Gracie” is just a beautiful song and the one I repeat most often. It’s a quieter album that her others, and really shows off her songwriting skills. Highly recommended.
Finlay Macdonald interviews Bic on “Talk Talk”
Before I go, I’d like to introduce Bic’s sister Boh Runga, whose band “Stellar” was also one of New Zealand’s most popular. She has since moved to a solo career and is currently based out of Los Angeles.
From her solo album, “Right Here”, released in 2009
Let me know what you think of the Runga sisters. If you can recommend other NZ bands, please feel free to do so.