Regard this as a little holidays present from Offbeat Music Blog: An interview with Bic Runga! The first time I heard one of Bic Runga’s songs was way back on a compilation of the “Other voices” festival in Dingle, Ireland. Subsequently, “Beautiful Collision”, her second album, became a favourite. That was fourteen years ago. In the meantime Bic Runga has released another three albums and just now “Close Your Eyes” (Wild Combinations), out digitally November 18th and in physical format it will be available in the new year.
Bic Runga is hugely successful in her native New Zealand (we are talking awards here and 20x platinum sales) and now it is high time to get to know her music via “Close Your Eyes” for those elsewhere who have not yet had the fortune to do so.
The psychedelic pop masterpiece offers some of her own songs as well as a selection of cover songs, her favourite songs, by for example Nick Drake, Françoise Hardy and The Blue Nile.
It is a very personal album and we are going to talk a bit about it in the upcoming interview for which I would like to thank Bic Runga of course and Alice Gros from Fire Recordings.
Excerpts from the interview can as always also be heard on Offbeat, www.novumfm.de and Kaleidoskop, www.byte.fm.
And here we go:
Offbeat Music Blog: Thank you so much for taking the time, Bic! You started in music business immensely young but your family has always been very supportive of music or actually been very musical themselves.
Bic Runga: Yeah, I was signed when I was eighteen, maybe nineteen and things happened for me quickly. I am from New Zealand and it all happened for me straightaway in New Zealand. The demo I had given to the record company went to Top Ten and the album that I then made, went to number one. The next three records went like that, too, all into the charts at number one. It was an incredible run between the age of 18 and 25. At this point, I am at a really different stage now. The new record is now my fifth (studio) album. (When I started) that seems like an age ago – it’s actually twenty years ago.
OMB: Speaking of having been so young when you signed your first contract with a major label as well: Of course you had huge talent but you also must have had a lot of luck. I keep thinking the odds were kind of against you on several levels – you were so untypical for the record industry. You were not male, you were not white, you were not even twenty or thirty, you were not from the US or the UK. Did any of these criteria cause you grief at a later stage in the industry?
Bic Runga: Well, I suppose, twenty years ago, it wasn’t that great to come from New Zealand. The internet…I remember having my first e-mail address and having someone explain what the internet was to me. It it was now, it would be really a different thing, I suppose. The world seems a lot smaller now. We used to have to travel to the UK and it would cost a fortune – or to America. I had to base myself in New York and Paris. It was difficult. I was too young and I got homesick all the time, so I had to keep going home. Being from New Zealand back then was a handicap. Now it’s not really at all.
As for being Chinese and Maori…I didn’t really look like…hell…major label record companies would have wanted you to look twenty years ago. But all of this made it more interesting, made me more driven and determined. New Zealand was a good run but then by contrast I had the rest of the world to compare that to which was not easy. But it was okay, it was a learning experience.
OMB: The somewhat awkward location of New Zealand back then and also the importance of record labels both have changed dramatically due to the internet. Do you make much use of the new media?
Bic: I find the internet fun. I am probably on the internet too much. It’s something of an addiction really sometimes. But it is really exciting. It was really really exciting maybe about five or six years ago when it was like the Wild West, sort of untamed. You could find anything for free. Obviously it did the music business in. But for the first time in five years, the New Zealand music industry has recovered. People had been losing money all over the show. That’s kind of interesting and it is because of streaming, mostly. But, you know, it is a really weird time. I sat out a lot of the weirdest part of it and had children. But now I am sort of back and finding the music industry a completely different world. It is interesting, really cool.
OMB: How old are your children now?
Bic: My children are one, three and nine.
OMB: Wow, so they are still very young. So, the whole setting for making music has changed.
Bic: It’s cool but it is miraculous that I even made another record this year. It is another battle, another uphill battle. But these are the things that make it more – not fun – but just make you more determined because it is not handed to you on a plate anymore. You really have to fight for it when there is children around and you want to have it all and improve and cannot. But it’s cool.
OMB: You are incredibly successful in New Zealand. You are a household name, even your private life is all over the newspapers. You received awards. The Queen gave you an award..is that called an award?
Bic: Yeah, what do you call that? An honour of some kind. (Laughs). I have one but I don’t know what it is called.
OMB: Outside of New Zealand quite a lot of people have heard about you and are fond of your albums as well but you are not such a household name as in New Zealand.
Bic: Oh no! (Laughs). Oh, no way!
OMB: Does that annoy you, does that upset you?
Bic: No, no, it doesn’t. Again, I don’t know, it is going back to all these other things that have stopped it from being handed on a plate. I guess, it is just an interesting challenge. If it was too easy, I don’t know. It made me really strong and determined. I really want to just keep going. There is still a lot to do. I guess what I am saying is: I haven’t peaked (laughs)! That’s sort of positive in a way. When I speak to someone like you, halfway round the world, I can really appreciate it. I think that is really something.
When I based myself in the UK for a couple of years – that was exciting. A lot of my heroes, a lot of people whose music I loved, were coming to my shows. That really blew my mind. I learned to appreciate stuff like that way more, because it has been difficult internationally, I suppose.
OMB: You lived in London, in Paris and even in New York but you did return to New Zealand eventually?
Bic: Yeah and I really appreciate being here too. Maybe ten years ago I was living overseas. Sometimes I regret coming back home but right now, given that the world is really running amok, I feel grateful to be living in New Zealand. It seems to be growing. We are not a backwater anymore. Auckland is a really exciting city now. It is fortunate for me knowing where we were. It is quite a different kettle of fish now and I am really enjoying being from New Zealand. But the internet is cool (laughs).
OMB: New Zealand has always been a friendly and beautiful country but after this year with the all the turmoil everywhere else I can see the appeal of it increasing for many people! Are you going to tour the new album?
Bic: It just came out in November, digitally. It is available everywhere in the world. You know, the life of a record now is very fast. I read somewhere that it is actually only two weeks. So there is a two week window between an album coming out and awareness of it. It depends on how things go. I’d really like to get back to Europe and the UK. If I can make it work, I will.
OMB: Would you take us on a journey of your albums, telling us what you had in mind when writing them?
Bic: Yeah…okay. Right. Nobody will know what I am talking about…
OMB: Nobody can know but you.
Bic: Yeah, okay, sure. Starting with the first album (“Drive”, 1997). I was really young and grunge had just happened. I was signed really young and I really had nothing to compare anything too. I wanted to produce the record myself which from a major label perspective was outrageous but they let me. So, the album “Drive” was made by someone who really did not know what they were doing. But it was a great discovery and to this day, I am proud of the songwriting and especially the production. I think it was a bold move for someone so young. But that was because I was naïve – I thought that is what you would do.
OMB: Then came “Beautiful Collision” after that in 2002?
Bic: Again, I produced it myself, from home, because “Drive” had done so well. “Drive” had one song “Sway” in the “American Pie” soundtrack. Things were pretty good. I had enough money to buy a great production tool – Protools was just new and it marked the transition between all analogue recording to digital. But “Beautiful Collision” sound actually more nostalgic and maybe more analogue than the one before. I am proud of that, too. It was all just trial and error, learning how to use Protools. This was a long time ago.
OMB: “Beautiful Collision” was the first album I had of you and it is still beautiful. It seems that you found your own voice with that record. Was it difficult though to follow a first album that was so instantly successful?
Bic: Yeah, to be exact, it was. I think I spent three years because I was learning how to record. I guess, I was worried I couldn’t do what was required of me. But it worked. It went into the charts at number one. It sold even more than the first. Again, I was still on a good run which was cool.
OMB: So you did not encounter anything like writer’s block?
Bic: I kind of did. But only because I was giving myself a hard time in my own head. I think, writer’s block is just…I know how not to have writer’s block now. You just have to push through it. You just have to keep going even to write the thing that is not very good so you can get to the next one? Just don’t give yourself a hard time.
OMB: Maybe also because you were doing everything yourself, you found it hard to let go of the songs, thinking “I can still do something about that, improves this”?
Bic: Oh yeah! But I always have been a bit like that. But the thing with having been around for a long time is, you get over these kind of things eventually. You have to, else you stop. Letting go of false perfection, that’s been a good learning experience, too. I do not worry about that. You don’t have to write a classic every time, you don’t need to put that sort of pressure on yourself.
OMB: And then we come to the third album.
Bic: The third album is called “Birds” (2005). My father had just died and I guess this was a “death” kind of record. It is a very dark record. Commercially, again, it did enter the charts at number one but it did not quite sell as much as the first two. But to me, by the third record, I had to prove myself not to just be like a light pop artist. This was like a seedling for the long haul to make something serious.
OMB: After that you made a more light-hearted, not light, record again?
Bic: Yeah, I think by the fourth record which was called “Belle” (2011), I started for the first time to write with other people because I think, I started to get quite uncertain of what to do. It was a good experience to write with other people because I had not done it before and it is a really different thing.
OMB: Is it difficult?
Bic: It is difficult and it is strange. I think it is a good skill to have and I appreciated that experience but at the end of the day I think it is really nice to write alone.
OMB: So, it is not your thing really?
Bic: It is not my thing. But I had a go and there are some great songs on it and I am still happy with it.
OMB: Which brings us to number five.
Bic: Yeah, that is the current album (“Close your eyes”). In New Zealand I just got inducted to the Hall Of Fame. It actually really scared me and I was thinking, it is too soon for that. I felt that I was only halfway through. I felt like people were saying: “Well, no, actually, this is the end!” (Laughs).
OMB: But you have been doing music for so long, so maybe it was just about time?
Bic: I don’t know but anyway: It made me ferociously make an album. We made this quite quickly. It has two original songs on it. Most of the other songs are covers. It is not a typical covers record though. A lot of songs are not especially well-known. It was more to do with feeling like another challenge for me. Because I do not really feel like a singer but interpreting other people’s songs is like another skill again. I really wanted to take some of the songs that I’ve played six times in my car a day, songs that I have been obsessed by and try and sing them.
Making a covers album has a different set of problems. It is still very creative but the problems are different. This was a huge learning experience. I probably learned more in this short amount of time (I think it only took six weeks to make or less even and we had a one-year old in the house and a three-year old and a nine-year old and it was just a crazy uphill climb). It is like getting under the bonnet of really great songs, learning how they work. I think, it was like going back to school really. Musically I learned a ton.
OMB: Does it also mean it is difficult to carry across what you see in a song from your perspective?
Bic: Yes, I think the songs that made it onto the record, they felt autobiographical. They felt like I was using my own words. The songs that did not make it, so clearly did not sound like that. In a way that was cheating if I had to sing something I did not relate to at all. A different challenge again but I don’t think I would have been able to.
OMB: That would have been the case if you were just a singer.
Bic: Yeah, totally.
OMB: I was going to ask you for “Close Your Eyes”, how did you choose the songs, so there we were. You have a Kanye West song on it. Seriously? Kanye West?
Bic (lots of giggles): Well, this was done before he went and his photo taken with Donald Trump. It is getting quite interesting for him. This was all prior to that. He is an interesting figure in pop culture. The thing I admire about him is, he undyingly is all about being an artist. Even with his fashion label – he was up against people making that transition but I think he did successfully. He is always comparing himself to Picasso which I think sounds a bit conky. But I can’t fault his devotion to the creative process. I think it is impressive. I admire for that because I feel like that too. If you are an artist it would be nice if people would not give us a hard time because it is hard enough as it is.
OMB: You give most songs a light-hearted touch musically. I am thinking in particular of the always rather melancholic The Blue Nile. You give the song “Tinseltown In The Rain” a dancey vibe. Is that Bic – is there always a silver lining on the cloud?
Bic: Oh gee! (Laughter in the background). I guess the interesting thing is when you juxtapose sadness with happiness in all its facets , that’s where you could these yearning kind of sounds. The Blue Nile song is like three minutes of yearning. It is hard to say whether it is even sad or happy.
OBM: But yearning is the perfect word for it.
Bic: Yeah, it is almost a horrible feeling. It is kind of a pining that never culminates in anything. It is hard for me to put my finger on why it is such an interesting song for me.
OBM: Lyrics are obviously very important to you?
Bic: I think so, yes. They are always the hardest part, too. That’s why it was nice to sing other people’s songs, because I felt I had written as much as I could using my own words at this time. There’s lots of great songs that say for me what I have been meaning to say.
OBM: Do you write the lyrics first usually or do you write the music and fill in some lyrics and come up with the lyrics proper later?
Bic: No, I usually write music and lyrics together. I have actually never written lyrics first. I tried to do that. When I think of Elton John who gets his lyrics given by his writing partner – I think that is an incredible skill. That is really like a classic, old-school skill to have, taking libretto and turning it into music. I think that is really something else. I wish I could do that. I can’t.
OBM: I would think if you come up with the music after the lyrics, there is the danger it starts all sounding the same. But then again, the other way round would be horror for me as well…
Bic: Yeah, you’d be repeating yourself. That is like my worst nightmare. Of course it is hard not to. But then, if you get to this point in your career, you sort of have to and you have to accept that it is better to repeat yourself just to keep going. It’s interesting.
OBM: Do you have the feeling too that once you have a song on an album, it leaves you and the people who listen to it possess it and it becomes part of their life, even though they might see something different in it than you did?
Bic: Yeah. Oh, it is really magical. Music is one of the greatest art forms. I think about when I die what I am leaving my children. I am leaving them intellectual property. You know, when I have been away from home, I’ve listened to music from my sister. My sister is also a musician and I have listened to her albums and then she is right there with me. That is really something quite special. Anyone who is an author of anything, you are really giving something and it is always there. It sort of does belong to itself. I feel privileged to be an artist and write songs.
OBM: Kristin Hersh release an album (and a book “Wyatt At The Coyote Palace” and she said writing an album is like giving birth to a child. It is not your own, it is leading its own life.
Bic: Oh yeah, that’s true. I like her by the way. I listened to her stuff when I first started out. She is a great writer. But the songs belong to themselves.
OBM: So what are your next plans, Bic?
Bic: Well, I don’t want to even be bogged down and I don’t want to stop. At least after having been around for so long – as I was saying when I first started out, it was all trial and error – I think now at least I have a certain skill set. Like I don’t have to learn how to use Protools now (laughs). That’s my saving grace, I guess, having experience now and hopefully just work fast.
OBM: What would be your biggest dream in terms of music?
Bic: Well, gee. You know, I am content with what modest success I’ve had really. Back home it is nice to know that you have contributed quite a lot to the cultural landscape and so forth. By contrast nobody really knows who I am in the rest of the world. I guess I still have ambitions to do more overseas. But I am actually content with what I have done because I never felt I had to do anything uncomfortable just to get ahead. I think it has more to do with your body of work over a long period of time, that you have been true to yourself. That’s the gist of it really. That is the most important thing. You know, if someone offered me something to do which would be a hundred per cent certainty of number one in America, I would not necessarily do it if it was uncomfortable to me. On my death bed I will say: I never did anything that I hated (laughs).
OBM: I know exactly where you are coming from, doing non-commercial radio…Thank you very much, Bic, for this early morning chat!