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Interview: Music and Light – A Conversation with Bic Runga

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Just a few weeks shy of her 20th year in music, singer, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Bic Runga shows no signs of slowing down. Runga’s new record, Close Your Eyes (Sony), her first covers LP, is an exciting, refreshing project celebrating her musical strengths. An icon in her native New Zealand, Runga’s music intertwines lyric and melody in such a way that she’s captivated listeners all over the world. Runga, a mother and recent inductee of the NZ Music Hall of Fame, spoke exclusively with Blogcritics about her new album, the records that preceded it, and what it means to be Bic Runga now.

Your debut LP, Drive (1997, Sony), is close to its 20th anniversary? How do you feel about that and what has made Drive such a perennial pin-up in your discography with your fans?

BR: I guess 20 years can fly by pretty fast,  I still feel like I’m only just getting started. “Sway” was the biggest song for me on that record, people seem to know the song but maybe don’t know me. This has been quite interesting, I still feel like I’ve got some way to go.

Drive: Runga’s debut – moored in alternative rock (“Heal”) and acoustic pop (“Hey”) – scored many platinum returns in New Zealand, setting a new standard there, creatively and commercially. Abroad, Drive found additional favor through one of its singles, “Sway.” Stateside, “Sway” became a college radio hit and was immortalized in the hit comedy film series American Pie.

Listen to / Watch “Bursting Through

On your second record Beautiful Collision (2002, Sony), it seemed like you went in with the idea to widen your sound. Was that a conscious effort or just a natural progression from Drive?

BR: When I made Drive, grunge had just happened, [and] I’d just left high school. I produced the record myself and I was still learning how to be a producer. With Beautiful Collision I wanted to make something that sounded more nostalgic of another time, something timeless, not necessarily something that sounded like 2002!

Beautiful Collision: Fine tuning her songwriting even further, Beautiful Collision saw Runga provide audiences with her strongest set of songs at that time. Runga expanded her guitar oriented pop, specifically toward folk influences, but her melodies remained intricately detailed. In addition to its smash singles, Beautiful Collision held many magnetic deep cuts such as “Election Night,” “She Left on a Monday,” and “Gravity.”

Listen to / Watch: “Something Good

Live albums are difficult to pull off as they don’t always capture the energy of the performance. Your LP in 2003 did just that on Live in Concert with the Christchurch Symphony (Sony)! Describe what led you to release a live record between your second and third albums?

BR: I was living in Paris (at the time) and was invited to come home and sing with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra. It was such an exciting opportunity that we recorded it (the show). It was a quick trip, it all happened so fast, it was a great experience. I still don’t think of myself as a singer, I’m more a songwriter. I still feel like I’ve got a lot of work to do as a singer. I wanted to challenge myself and try to be someone who could interpret a song. I think it also helps your own songwriting to get out of your comfort zone and try to interpret someone else’s song.

Live in Concert with the Christchurch Symphony: Runga had already done a joint live record with accomplished New Zealand musicians Tom Finn and Dave Dobbyn in 2000, but Live in Concert let Runga find her own individual voice. Runga’s material lent itself well to symphonic transformation as proven by this live album with the Christchurch Symphony Orchstera. Runga also covered a clutch of classics by Dionne Warwick (“Anyone Who Had a Heart”) and Rose Royce (“Wishing on a Star”) during this performance that had her shine as an interpreter.

Listen to “Anyone Who Had a Heart

Birds (2005, Sony) is a dark masterpiece. What was the impetus of its creative spirit?

BR: Well, this was my death record! My father had just died. In New Zealand, the first two records both went 11 times platinum and this being my third album, I had to prove myself as more than a light pop singer, I suppose. This was me settling in for the long haul.

Birds: Runga’s time in Paris had a profound effect on the singer-songwriter; coupled with the life-changing backdrop of her father’s passing, Runga explored a broader, cinematic French pop sound as evinced on “Say After Me” and “Captured.” Birds was a richer, more emotionally charged record, driven by Runga’s most expressive vocals recorded up to that point.

Listen to / Watch “Say After Me

Belle (2011, Sony) fleshes out the French cinema flavored pop you dabbled in with Birds, but it’s  brighter. Belle feels like the flipside to Birds, even with its intense moments. Your thoughts?

BR: Yes, I guess I never thought of these two albums in this way. Belle is happier than Birds and probably a reaction to its darkness.

Belle: At the time of its release, Belle was Runga’s most experimental record. The long player incorporated elements of Motown (“Tiny Little Piece of My Heart,”) and light funk (“If You Really Do”) but didn’t abandon her previous dealings with French and acoustic pop. Much lighter than Birds, even with its occasionally moody moments, Belle was a welcome return after a lengthy absence from recording.

Listen to / Watch “Belle

You’ve finally released your inaugural “covers record” with Close Your Eyes (2016, Sony). There’s a certain level of establishment in one’s career before they do something like this, did you feel it was time for you to interpret the work of others across an entire long player? 

BR: There are so many songs I’ve always wanted to cover; (on the new album) there’s a Nick Drake song (“Things Behind the Sun”), a song by the band Love (“Andmoreagain”), [and] a song by Kanye (“Wolves”)! It’s kind of all over the place but the unifying quality is that all these songs were ones I could speak through, they feel autobiographical, the words represent where I’m at as if I’d written them myself.

In New Zealand, I just got inducted into the NZ Music Hall of Fame, and they gave me a “legacy award.” Ha ha, it was a bit confronting, I didn’t like feeling as if it was all in retrospect now. So this album came out the day after the award and it’s something (a covers record) you can do at this point in your career, I think. I’m proud of it, because it was difficult and as a producer I feel like I know what I’m doing more now, I’m more in control of my work.

Close Your Eyes: From The Meters to Kanye West to Love, Runga’s music interests are riveting to experience on her debut covers LP. Barring two original compositions – the title track and “Dream a Dream”– Runga dives into the songs from the varied artists she’s spotlighted. Close Your Eyes departs only slightly from her usual acoustic sound. Runga finds favor in a delectably organic euro-disco sonic as heard on her take of The Blue Nile’s “Tinseltown in the Rain.” Compact and pretty, Close Your Eyes is a career best.

Listen to “Tinseltown in the Rain

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Your American fans are quite dedicated. How has your relationship been with them since “Sway” and do you have plans to do a tour of the United States someday?

BR: I lived in New York for two years in my early twenties, I loved it and I miss being there. I also lived in L.A. on and off for a couple of years. It would be a dream to come back and play there. I don’t have much (American label) support there though, I mean in a business sense. I know exactly NOBODY in the business! I could get on a plane and just show up, but it doesn’t work that way.

Who is Bic Runga now?

BR: I’m a mother of three. I’m working really hard. I’m still making music like my life depends on it. I’m happier than I ever used to be. I live in New Zealand, it’s one of the best places in the world.

For current news on Bic Runga, visit her official website and follow her on Twitter.

Purchase Close Your Eyes here.

Close Your Eyes features on Harrison’s “Are You Listening? 2016 in Music” list. Read about it here.

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About Quentin Harrison

With a decade of experience, Quentin Harrison remains one of the most unique voices in the field of popular music critique. His work has been featured in numerous CD reissues and and online outlets, including his now retired website, The QH Blend. The second book in his “Record Redux” series, “Record Redux: Carly Simon,” will be available in April 2017. His first book, “Record Redux: Spice Girls,” released in July 2016, is the definitive critical guide to the music of the U.K. quintet.