Bic Runga:

the Kiwi singer’s sur­pris­ing rein­ven­tion

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

Imeet the fa­mously elu­sive Bic Runga in a tiny sub­ur­ban café. It’s a steamy Auck­land sum­mer’s day. I ar­rive, a sweaty pud­dle. Bic, on the other hand, joins me look­ing cool and fresh-faced in a sim­ple blue cham­bray sun-frock. Her trade­mark dark bob fram­ing a face de­void of make-up and wrin­kles, she could be 16. She has re­cently cel­e­brated her 41st birth­day.

Bic (pro­nounced Bec) is an icon of the New Zealand mu­sic scene. She has won more Tuis than any other artist. At last year’s New Zealand Mu­sic Awards she re­ceived the Legacy Award and be­came the youngest in­ductee into the New Zealand Mu­sic Hall of Fame. She has also been cre­ated a mem­ber of the New Zealand Or­der of Merit for her ser­vices to mu­sic. She re­mains, though, a thought­ful, quiet, hum­ble tal­ent with­out even a trace of grand­stand­ing or pre­tence.

Of the Legacy Award she says, “It

kind of puts a full stop on my ca­reer. Now I feel I can start again and rein­vent my­self.”

The rein­ven­tion may sur­prise you. Brio­lette Kah Bic Runga was born in 1976 to Joseph and Sophia Runga. Joseph, a Maori of Ngati Kahun­gunu de­scent, was serv­ing in the New Zealand army in Viet­nam and on leave in Malaysia when he met Sophia Tang, a Malaysian Chi­nese, who was singing in a club there. Theirs was a classic love story. The hand­some sol­dier and the ex­otic singer re­turned to New Zealand and raised three daugh­ters to­gether in Christchurch. Boh is six years older than Bic, and Pearl, two years older.

They were a girl gang, the three Runga sis­ters, headed by Boh. “She was, and is, such fun,” laughs Bic.

“She would al­ways or­gan­ise us to do fun things.”

Bic clearly re­mem­bers one rainy day when she was about four. “Boh told us we all had to go to dif­fer­ent parts of the house and write a song… I was four years old!” And the song? “It was called Snowflake… heav­ily pla­gia­rised from the song Born Free,” she laughs.

It was a happy child­hood, filled with mu­sic. Joseph and Sophia were run­ning dairies at the time. The whole fam­ily would sing cabaret songs in the car on the long jour­ney to their Ka­iapoi dairy from their home in Hornby. The sis­ters were quick to claim the perks of their par­ents’ busi­ness. “We al­ways had heaps of sweets,” Bic laughs.

The three sis­ters were close then and still are, all now liv­ing in Auck­land. Boh has be­come a cel­e­brated jew­eller, and Pearl, a teacher and ses­sion singer. They con­tinue to be fiercely sup­port­ive of each other.

Bic’s first big suc­cess was at Cash­mere High School, aged 16. She came sec­ond in the Rock­quest, a na­tional com­pe­ti­tion for in­ter­me­di­ate and sec­ondary school bands. She went to Auck­land to record an EP and there be­gan a love af­fair with the record­ing stu­dio.

Grow­ing up in Christchurch in the 1970s, the prod­uct of a mixed race mar­riage, Bic says she found her iden­tity in mu­sic. “I never learnt Chi­nese or Maori. I don’t have to do any­thing for my Maori side to be part of me… it just is. I feel re­ally strong in it.”

She feels a deep con­nec­tion to her roots on the Mahia Penin­sula, about an hour out of Napier on the way to Gis­borne, and did a very spe­cial road trip there with her fa­ther and Boh just be­fore her dad died.

Bic is a mem­ber of a new group es­tab­lished to en­cour­age the cel­e­bra­tion of women’s cul­tural di­ver­sity. At the launch of Su­per Di­verse Women, its chair, lawyer

Mai Chen, said Bic had told her, “Ev­ery­thing I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced as a coloured woman is fuel.” When I ask Bic to ex­plain that, she tells me, “There is a cli­mate of prej­u­dice creep­ing in at the mo­ment that’s not di­rected any­where in par­tic­u­lar, but I think those things can make you stronger if you choose to let them.”

She is also lend­ing her name to a new char­ity in Christchurch – the Maia Health Foun­da­tion, which is try­ing to raise $5 mil­lion for a chil­dren’s ward and he­li­pad at Christchurch hospi­tal. Bic re­ally comes alive when she speaks of her role as am­bas­sador for the foun­da­tion, her brown eyes sparkling as she talks about the hon­our of be­ing teamed up with fel­low am­bas­sadors Bren­dan McCul­lum – “Imag­ine that!” she grins – and Jake Bai­ley, the for­mer Christchurch Boys’ High School Head Boy whose end-of-year speech about bat­tling can­cer and be­ing the best that you can be went vi­ral on the in­ter­net. She seems gen­uinely de­lighted to be in their or­bit… for­get­ting that they may well be pretty chuffed to be in hers!

Bic’s part­ner of seven years is Kody Niel­son, for­merly of the Kiwi punk rock band The Mint Chicks. From the out­side, they seem an un­likely pair­ing. She the serene songstress, he the an­gry young man who in­fa­mously de­stroyed his band’s equip­ment in a fit of rage dur­ing The Mint Chicks’ fi­nal gig in a packed Auck­land club. Fa­ther­hood has mel­lowed him. He re­cently told an in­ter­viewer, “I don’t hate ev­ery­one so much. Be­cause now I just imag­ine that ev­ery­one was once a kid. Ev­ery­one is some­one’s kid.”

Be­ing a mother has changed Bic too. She feels she’s grown up. “I was a bit of a loner be­fore and quite in­su­lar,” she ad­mits. “But I re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate com­pany now. And hav­ing chil­dren has made me ap­pre­ci­ate the sim­ple things in life.”

It is a typ­i­cally hec­tic life she leads.

Mu­sic is a ba­sic ne­ces­sity for us, it feeds the soul.

She and Kody have three chil­dren: Joe, nine, from a pre­vi­ous re­la­tion­ship of Bic’s, Sophia, three, and Frida, one.

It was their pub­lish­ers who first put the pair to­gether. The re­la­tion­ship be­gan with song­writ­ing and de­vel­oped from there. Kody co-pro­duced Bic’s fourth al­bum, Belle, and col­lab­o­rated again on her lat­est of­fer­ing, a cov­ers al­bum, Close Your Eyes. There are two new songs on the al­bum – the ti­tle track and Dream a Dream, in­spired by her chil­dren.

Kody makes her laugh. “He is re­ally funny. He has the dark­est mad sense of hu­mour. He’s a smart per­son, an orig­i­nal thinker and as ded­i­cated to his mu­sic as I am. Mu­sic is a ba­sic ne­ces­sity for us, it feeds the soul,” she ex­plains. “Chil­dren know this in­her­ently. They sing, dance and play. It’s part of their nat­u­ral be­ing. I would like to see more fo­cus on art and mu­sic in New Zealand. It keeps peo­ple well.”

Bic and Kody have a stu­dio at home in Auck­land’s Mis­sion Bay. Mu­sic and fam­ily are the cen­tre of their uni­verse. They play an equal part in rais­ing their chil­dren and run­ning the house­hold. “Kody’s not sex­ist; be­sides, I in­sist on equal­ity in the house­hold!” she grins.

Bic has just come home from a gru­elling na­tion­wide tour – 11 shows through our most beau­ti­ful winer­ies, with Brooke Fraser and Benny Tipene. Tour­ing may sound glam­orous but she con­fesses it’s a hard slog. “A lot of young per­form­ers don’t re­alise it’s not a party. It’s more like a mil­i­tary oper­a­tion!” she laughs.

It was that other Kiwi mu­sic le­gend, Dave Dob­byn, who taught her how to sur­vive on the road. “It’s all about pro­fes­sion­al­ism, be­ing pre­pared and con­serv­ing your en­ergy.” Neil Finn, too, has been gen­er­ous with his knowl­edge. “He helped me to fin­ish my sec­ond al­bum (Beau­ti­ful

Col­li­sion). When you’ve had a re­ally suc­cess­ful de­but (Drive) it’s hard to fol­low up. Neil helped me to learn to trust my­self a bit more.”

Like most work­ing mums, Bic strug­gles to juggle the com­pet­ing de­mands of work and fam­ily. “Kody’s mum helps out a lot and as the kids get older we hope to travel with them more.” But tour­ing, she says, has given her back a bit of her­self. She pretty much de­voted her­self to child-rear­ing for a long stretch and now she’s rel­ish­ing the op­por­tu­nity to get out and sing.

“I want to make an­other al­bum quickly (her sixth stu­dio al­bum). I don’t want to get bogged down again.” The jug­gling will con­tinue for a while yet. She’s de­ter­mined, though, to keep those balls in the air.

Bic is can­did on the health or oth­er­wise of the New Zealand mu­sic in­dus­try. “The in­ter­net pretty much de­stroyed the in­dus­try,” she says, “but now, with stream­ing, it’s only just be­com­ing mon­e­tised and for the first time in a long time artists are mak­ing money again.

“The mu­sic in­dus­try is hard for ev­ery­one, men strug­gle too,” she tells me. “It doesn’t nur­ture art as well as it should. The in­dus­try doesn’t re­ally care about de­vel­op­ing you as an artist, it’s all about peo­ple try­ing to make money out of you. I think the in­dus­try runs on the naivety of mu­si­cians.” She says some­times it’s easy to get lost in the in­dus­try and rec­om­mends look­ing out for good men­tors. Bic has found her­self one of the best – Dame Malv­ina Ma­jor, who she met at the New Zealand Mu­sic Awards. “I feel like I’ve come to the end of my abil­ity with my singing. I need to learn more.”

Bic has never had for­mal train­ing, so Dame Malv­ina is teach­ing her about breath­ing and help­ing de­velop her voice. “I have this fan­tasy…” her eyes twin­kle… “I want to re­train as an opera singer. I feel like I’ve only just scratched the sur­face.”

Watch out for that rein­ven­tion.

I feel I’ve come to the end of my abil­ity… I need to learn more.

FAR LEFT (from left): The Runga girls – Bic, her mother Sophia and sis­ters Pearl and Boh. LEFT: Bic and her part­ner Kody Niel­son, for­mer mem­ber of punk rock band The Mint Chicks.

RIGHT: Af­ter spend­ing time bring­ing up her chil­dren, Bic is now rel­ish­ing be­ing able to get out and sing again.

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