20 years of Drive - a conversation with Bic Runga
Having received almost every musical honour possible in New Zealand – Bic Runga has won 20 Tui awards alone, the most by one person – I'm curious to know where she keeps them.
Are they in a special trophy cabinet? Does she polish them until she can see her flawless reflection?
"They are just in a box," she says, a happy lilt to her voice. "I don't know what to do with them. I wish they served a second purpose like you could open bottles with them, they don't do anything but take up room and get dusty but it is nice."
After the release of her first solo album, Drive, in 1997, the Cantabrian singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist pop queen Briolette Kah Bic Runga, MNZM, quickly became one of New Zealand's highest-selling artists.
It's been 20 years since her debut single Drive topped the charts and won her a Silver Scroll award, our nation's highest songwriting award.
She's a finalist again this year, for the song Close Your Eyes, an upbeat love song she co-wrote with her partner Kody Nielson (Mint Chicks/Opossum).
For the first time in the award's history all five finalists are women: Runga; former Lyttelton musician Aldous Harding for her song Horizon; Port Chalmers native Nadia Reid for Richard; LA-based Chelsea Jade (Watercolours) for Life Of the Party and Lorde with co-writers Joel Little and Jack Antonoff for Green Light.
The Silver Scrolls are being held at the Dunedin Town Hall on Thursday.
Runga reckons Aldous Harding will scoop the prize.
"My pick for the winner is Aldous Harding, she has had a great year and doing something so interesting and raw and cool. But then it could be Lorde or Nadia or Chelsea, it's impossible to say, especially as it was by vote."
Runga is 41 and the mother of three children – Frida, 2; Sophia 4 and Joe 10 – but she is also considered New Zealand's timelessly fashionable music star.
"I'm channelling the waif," she deadpans.
How does she deal with the competitive mummy mafia at the school gates?
"No," she says and follows this with a huge laugh. "I don't buy into that stuff. I view that competitive mum stuff with compassion as it usually means there is something wrong with them."
Runga grew up in Hornby, the daughter of Malaysian lounge singer Sophia Tang and Joseph Runga, a Māori soldier.
Her mum taught her to sing and together with her sisters Boh and Pearl they'd sing together in the car.
"Mum would say 'singing is breathing and diction and that's all'."
When I comment that her mother must be proud of her achievements, Runga replies: "She'd be extra proud if I was a doctor."
She went to Cashmere High School and reckons she was "a geek".
"I was a music nerd but I got to be in bands with cool kids because I discovered if you played guitar or drums you could operate outside of the hierarchy."
Signed to Sony at 19, her first album Drive sold more than x11 platinum, the first of many multi-platinum selling albums.
To celebrate its 20th anniversary, Runga is playing the album in its entirely in special shows at Christchurch's Isaac Theatre Royal on October 20 and Auckland's Civic Theatre and Wellington's Opera House in November. Runga is an ambassador for the Maia Health Foundation, based in Christchurch, raising money for Canterbury's health system. She is donating $5 from each ticket sold at the Christchurch concert to Maia.
Early song Sorry is about the way Runga had to learn how to apologise.
"I was 19 when I wrote those lyrics," she says. "I don't know if it was a Chinese thing or just my mother. She was always like 'you don't say sorry, there's no such thing as sorry' and 'if you have to say sorry why did you do it in the first place? Don't do things that you have to apologise for' which makes for a stressful life. It was hard for me to get my head around the idea of apologising."
She says she wrote Drive "in about 10 minutes" backstage at a cafe on Queen St before her first Auckland show.
"I didn't have enough songs so I desperately wrote one before I went on stage. I remember writing all those songs in a really natural way."
When she was young and signed to a major label, she wishes she'd actively sought out an older female mentor.
"There were too many dudes around," she says.
A big part of her future is helping other artists navigate the tough world of the music industry.
Any advice for babies of the pop world?
"I don't know, get a good lawyer," she says, laughing. "It's multi-faceted, the pitfalls are everywhere."
The biggest trap to avoid?
"Whoa... I think just being true to your music and your creativity is of the utmost importance. It's your job to stick to a vision that is original and your own."
Runga recently did an opera course with the Dame Malvina Major Foundation.
"You have to humble yourself to become a student again and it's really good for you."
She describes Major as a "wonderful mentor" and says she's "learnt a lot" from her.
With toddlers in the mix, how does she find space and energy to be creative?
Runga proclaims that her children are disinterested in her music: "I am not sure but I think they find me a bit boring."
But she and partner Kody Neilson (Mint Chicks/Opossum) have done a dance remix of Drive which is being released at the end of this month.
"The kids love it, we have just been playing it in the car and where they haven't listened to my music before, they really like this. I don't know, people might not get it but I think as a standalone piece it's really cool."
She can always tell her kids she met Jimmy Page which is her "absolute career highlight".
"I feel like a bit of a dork relaying this story... Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin came to my show and we met before the show. If that wasn't enough when I went back to the UK I invited him again and we met again. I'm not suggesting we are best friends or anything but that was really special. The little bogan in me can die happy."
She's won nearly every music award possible in New Zealand, however, I do know there is one singing award Runga hasn't won.
In 1989, when she was about 13, Bic placed "second or third" in a talent quest at Christchurch's Hornby Mall.
"My prize was John Farnham and Rick Astley albums on vinyl," she recalls. "I had written the song myself, it was some sort of earnest protest song. I guess you can't win them all."