We seem to be spoilt for choice among our Aotearoa women singers, especially now that Bic Runga and her husband Kody Nielson have their three kids well on the way to giving their mum and dad a little more elbow and thinking room. Both parents have now been topping up their tanks of musical energy as a prelude to another major burst of writing, singing and recording, such as when Bic began making her name as an especially engaging, distinctive, gentle teenage singer more than 20 years ago.
Tēnā koe, Bic. As we’re all aware, Bic Runga is the name you’re known by, not just throughout Aotearoa but much further afield as well, because of your songwriting and voice. But I assume that your mum and dad bestowed on you more names than that.
Kia ora, Dale. Yes. My name is Briolette Kah Bic. Briolette is the pear-drop cut of a diamond. And Kah Bic is Chinese and means the colour of jade. Jade, or pounamu, is significant in both my cultures — my father was Māori and my mother is Chinese Malaysian.
Dad, Joseph Te Okoro Runga, was Ngāti Kahungunu and came from Mahia. And Mum, Sophia Tang, is Chinese Malaysian. The story they told me about why they chose my name was that jade covers the full spectrum of colours. It goes from white to black and everything in between.
Isn’t that beautiful? Now what about your sisters’ names?
All three of us have a first name that is jewel-related. Like Boh is sapphire, and Pearl is pearl. And we each have a Chinese middle name.
Your mum and dad sound like an interesting pairing. Can we hear some kōrero, if you don’t mind, about how and where they met, and about their background?
Well, Dad fought in the Vietnam War for the New Zealand Army. He was in Borneo and Vietnam for a few years.
But between campaigns they would rest and recuperate in Ipoh, Malaysia. Dad used to go to the hotel where Mum worked as a singer — and that’s how they met. They had an army wedding in Malaysia, and after that they moved to Christchurch.
Mum had never heard of New Zealand before she met Dad — she didn’t know anything about New Zealand. And I think pretty much she just said: “Are there snakes there?” And he said “no”, and she said: “Oh, okay. I’ll come.”
What a lovely kōrero. And, through the years, you’ve been to Ipoh and visited her whānau and her village?
Yeah. I have a lot of aunties who live there. And Mum will probably go back and forth between New Zealand and Malaysia now that she’s retired.
And your pāpā? Was he musical?
He played some piano and it always surprised me how good he was at the harmonica.
Dad has passed away, and he’s buried at Te Ara-a-Paikea on Mahia Peninsula. He’d be 90 now if he was alive — a generation older than my mother.
Did he talk much about Vietnam? It’s common for returned soldiers to keep their war experiences very much to themselves.
No. Those guys didn’t talk about that stuff, although I think he was proud of his army career. He was one of those rural Māori boys who liked hunting and fishing and horse riding — and joining the army was his way to travel, his ticket to see the world. His father, Kingi Te Okoro (Te Apatu) Runga, had fought in the Māori Pioneer Battalion in World War One. So joining the army must’ve felt natural to my dad. I believe he liked being a soldier.
What do you remember about your parents’ musical tastes and abilities? I’m intrigued by the fact that your mum was a singer when your dad met her.
Dad was kind of an older dad. He would’ve been 43 when I was born. His musical tastes leaned towards ‘60s and ‘70s orchestral pop. James Last and James Galway, Harry Connick, that kind of music. I think that influenced my taste in music.
My mother really liked the Carpenters. Growing up in the 1980s in Christchurch, we listened to a lot of ‘70s and ‘80s adult contemporary pop music. Dusty Springfield, Nana Mouskouri, Shirley Bassey.
Does your mum’s voice still make you feel good?
Yeah, she’s a good singer, although she doesn’t really sing anymore. And she never sang professionally once she moved to New Zealand. But she taught us a lot about singing, mostly just by singing in the car. That’s how we learned.
I never had formal lessons, but there’s a lot to be said for learning the words to a song in order to be able to sing it with the family in the car.
What were your first songs? What can you recall?
My whole family were big fans of Barbra Streisand — and Boh was already singing professionally when she was about 16. She’s six years older than me. So I knew all the jazz and stage and concert bands that she used to sing for. Once she moved away, I took her job. I’d go and sing in her place. Things like Barbra Streisand covers and jazz. We all learned that kind of stuff.
Was Evergreen one of your favourites?
It totally was. Yeah. In fact, I dare say Evergreen would’ve been the first song I ever saw Boh sing live. And Boh was my hero. She was already writing songs when she was 11, and she’s exceptionally talented. She was always someone to look up to. And she was the one who encouraged us to write songs.
She was so far ahead of us. When she was 11, she’d make me write songs on a Saturday morning. I often see my kids making up dances and stuff. It’s kind of the same thing — just being creative in a free sort of way when you’re little.
I see you’re playing the guitar a lot, and I know you play all sorts of instruments. In your household, were there different instruments sitting all around the place? And you could try whichever one took your fancy?
Yeah. My mum bought me some drums when I was 11 because our family were just such big Karen Carpenter fans. Mum said Karen played the drums, and she thought that was so cool. I regret that I’m not a master at any of my instruments. But I know enough about each instrument that I need to play when I record — mainly from being self-taught. I had a little bit of music tuition, but not as much as I would’ve liked.
Am I hearing some Karen Carpenter in the way you roll, sis? I love Karen Carpenter, too. She has such a beautiful voice. Her music, like yours, is sort of timeless.
She was a strong early influence for me. Her phrasing and the emotion in her voice was something my mum would point to as the high watermark of good singing.
Christchurch has had a reputation at times as a bit of a redneck town. Being Asian and Māori, you could’ve been in for a double whammy. Have you personally had to deal with prejudice or racism? Anything like that?
Dad was of a generation where he wanted his children to assimilate into Pākehā culture — and growing up in Christchurch just before the kōhanga reo movement, we didn’t have the opportunity to know our Māori side. It’s only recently, as an adult, that I’ve been able to understand and reclaim my Māoriness.
Dad talked a lot about our Māori culture. He was always up all night writing Treaty claims and was really active in that way. But apart from that, we had a very western upbringing with a big focus on music. I guess the identity that he sort of bestowed on us was one of being a musician. That was his approach to parenting — it was his way of trying to give us confidence.
Yeah. It’s a matter of music transcending race, isn’t it?
For sure. But I feel like I’m from a generation which is sort of in-between. I see the young guys who are bilingual and confident with tikanga and their reo. But I’ve had to learn all that stuff recently. And many of my peers in the music industry are like that.
A bunch of us got together recently and took the cultural competency Te Kaa course. That’s so strange. Fancy having to do a course to learn your own culture. But it was invaluable, and we learned so much — about the Treaty, and about the Māori worldview and marae tikanga.
You know, I’d never really been on a marae until my dad died. I’d gone back once, just before he died, to Mahia. He knew he wasn’t well, so he quickly showed us around, and he took us to some of the Waitangi Tribunal hearings where he wanted to speak. And he did all that even though he was quite sick.
Then I didn’t go on to a marae until I went to his tangi. I was so out of my depth. I didn’t know how to do anything from an ao Māori perspective. And it’s only now that I’m learning it.
What I’m trying to say about the cultural competency course was that, in the context of the music industry, we’re trying hard to fulfil our obligations under the Treaty. That’s a strong kōrero in the music industry right now. Isn’t that great? I think that’s so cool.
So do I. I appreciate those who’ve recorded notable reo Māori waiata — many with the support of Hinewehi Mohi and others. It must’ve been nerve-wracking. But I get the feeling that, with the aroha and support that Hinewehi and her allies provided to nurse the artists through, they gave voice to te reo Maori in ways we didn’t expect. Can you tell us about the emotions you felt when you were asked to contribute in that way?
Almost all the artists that Hinewehi approached to have their music translated into Māori had the same response. They were greatly excited. You could see that it was something everyone had always wanted to do, but they hadn’t known how to make it happen.
And she provided those pathways by linking us with mātanga reo, great translators. Many of them have been guided by Sir Tīmoti Kāretu. So they’re close to the source of good reo, poetic reo. That’s the system available now, if you need a great translator for your music. There are all these people who you can be put in touch with. She’s created a great system.
Soon after I worked with Hinewehi on the translation of my song Sway, I joined the board of APRA (the Australasian Performing Rights Association) — and, at the same time, a role was created especially for Hinewehi at APRA. So I’ve loved keeping in touch with her and watching how she works.
What Anthony Healy and Hinewehi and their team are doing there around waiata and kapa haka in particular is interesting because APRA registers the works so the ownership is clear and the writers can earn royalties.
These rights are intergenerational, so it’s really important work. Many great waiata have never been registered, and, as a result, haven’t been given the money or the protections that their writers are entitled to. I love seeing this happen, and I know my Dad would think it was so cool too.
Let’s say that, when you step up to the microphone, it’s your first time recording in te reo Māori. While you might have memorised and understood all the words, there could be a whole lot of other musical delivery nuances in there — the intonation for example. How did all that sit with you when you first stepped to the mic with a reo waiata.
That’s where Hinewehi has been so valuable. She’s been the vocal coach on most of those Waiata Anthems recordings, for various artists — and that was hard work for her because it takes a long time to relearn the shapes that your face has to make in order to produce the right consonant sounds.
For example, it took a long time to record Sway in Māori because we needed at least 60 takes. I was crying through some of them because I found it so difficult and confronting. And, even now, the finished recording still isn’t as good as it should be.
What do you make of the growing acceptance of contemporary waiata Māori? We can point to Hinewehi and Moana Maniapoto and others who’ve championed reo Māori writing and performance. But there seems to be a changing landscape in New Zealand music, because younger people are much more comfortable listening to unfamiliar languages than was the case 20 or more years ago.
We owe a lot to Moana. I really fangirl her when I see her. And I love her current affairs TV show Te Ao with Moana, which she hosts. But we grew up watching her as a singer on TV. It’s those St Joseph’s girls, eh? Moana and Hinewehi. Just so visionary. Maisey Rika as well, who’s absolutely amazing. I also often think of Emma Paki and Mahinarangi Tocker, and the paths they created.
It’s lovely to have you mention those neat women who’ve all contributed to the sound that we’re inclined to take for granted. It’s right that we do acknowledge them.
Oh yeah. But there are so many people who don’t get their flowers in their lifetime. Maybe it’s that we’re not elevating our own talented people quite enough.
There’s Bic Runga the singer, but there’s Bic the songwriter too. There’s a distinctive and appealing gentleness about your delivery style, but there’s distinctive phrasing too. I guess you’re a poet.
When I was about 15, I went to a course run by a Kahungunu poet, Bub Bridger. She’s Māori and Irish, and she didn’t write her first poem till she was maybe 60 or so. I used to write poems and my English teacher would enter them in competitions, and she put them forward for this little workshop with Bub. And it changed my life.
The fact that she was Kahungunu inspired me because this was in Christchurch and I didn’t know much about my Kahungunu side. And Bub taught us how to write in a simple yet powerful way. She demystified poetry for me. She said poetry didn’t have to be a florid Chaucer type thing. It’s really just drawing with words the things you’re seeing and experiencing — and trying to paint them for someone else to see.
Her poems are some of my first favourites. It was refreshing to get the perspective that poetry wasn’t this pretentious thing that you think it’s supposed to be. It can be simple.
If you ever thought back on your catalogue, is there any particular line that you’ve penned that still resonates, one that you’re proud of, or satisfied by?
One lyric of mine that I often think of, and it’s not even that good, is a line in a song called Everything is beautiful and new. And the line is simply: “Nothing can be honoured but the truth.” I think about that nowadays, when the truth seems to have become the thing that nobody regards or believes in anymore. It’s like everyone’s trying to pull what’s real out from under us. But I believe there is such a thing as a definitive truth.
It must be lovely to have these thoughts and words, these pearls of wisdom, come through you and into your pen. Perhaps you feel almost like a conduit from another place.
Songs like Sway and Drive wrote themselves quickly. They just came. Some writers think that, once you get into that flow state, the songs are kind of coming from somewhere else. Arguably, they already exist because there are only so many combinations of chords and melody and word. So, somewhere out there, they must already be.
In a small country like ours, it’s natural that you’ve worked with a number of our musos. Neil Finn, no doubt, would’ve been one.
I was always a big fan of Neil Finn and Crowded House. I got to work with Neil on a few tours and a few albums, he was always a great mentor. I also loved working with Dave Dobbyn and Tim Finn. These guys are all amazing songwriters I will always admire.
My brother-in-law, Ruban Nielson, from Unknown Mortal Orchestra, I regard as one of the great lyricists of my generation. I love how he’s exploring his Hawaiian roots with slack-key guitar. Who else is great? Oh, Lorde, of course. She’s a great lyricist.
We have heaps of great songwriters in New Zealand, and I loved singing with her on her reo translations of Solar Power. I like a new artist called Jordyn with a Y. Another artist called Hina and also Te Kaahu.
The limelight is addictive for some artists, but you’ve buffered yourself against that addiction. Some might think that you’ve taken a hiatus to raise your family and that says something about you, Bic. Your number one priority hasn’t been to constantly bask in the spotlight and on the charts. It seems that you’ve been comfortable to sit quietly for a while.
By the third album, I’d achieved much of what I wanted to achieve. And I had one of my heroes come to my show. It was Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin and he came to two of my shows in the UK. I was such a big Led Zeppelin fan growing up in Christchurch and to have my favourite guitarist come to my show twice seemed like enough of a dream come true for a while.
At that point, I’d exhausted myself. I didn’t have anything left in the tank, physically or emotionally. I’d been touring so much after three albums, and it was the right time to step away and have my children. So I had Joe, who’s now 16 — and then two more children, Sophia and Frida.
But motherhood has been as important to you as, if not more important than music for the last decade and a half, hasn’t it?
Yeah. I just didn’t have the brain space for anything else. When I was writing music, I got to be really self-indulgent. I had many hours in the day to focus on waiting for a song to come through. And I don’t have that kind of brain space anymore.
But I’ve also got it in my head that it’s a shame we’re missing all the songs that mothers could write. There’s a lot that needs to be said in songs about the circumstances of mothers. I don’t hear much of that in modern pop. So I’m wanting to get back into music just for that reason. I feel there’s a bit of under-representation.
I suspect that it’s not just about you wanting to hit the stage. You may also feel an obligation to those who supported you for a long time. And, as we’ve all got older, there are probably some of them, like me, who are grandparents now. You and your music were part of the soundscape of their lives and you were celebrating it with them across the country. Doing that again must be challenging. And it must also be a great source of pride that they want to hear from you still.
Yeah. It is cool. And, for me, it’s partly to do with the pandemic. I feel like I want to come back and write some more music and tour these old songs again so that I feel like there’s a sense of history and continuity. I miss the past in a way, and sometimes music’s that vehicle to get you feeling yourself again.
Sometimes we maintain balance and draw strength from things far removed from what we’re known for, whether that’s your work or in your case, music. But how do you keep yourself celebrating life? Is there something else that you do that you draw energy from?
I don’t know. I just sing, I suppose. Singing is sort of therapeutic, even just singing around the house. I was talking to Hayley Westenra about it because she’s a great technical singer, whereas I don’t think of myself as an especially good singer. It’s more just the thing I have to do so I can get a song out.
But I was asking her: “What should I do if I haven’t sung in a while and I need to get back into singing?” And she’s like: “You need to work on your body, and your core strength, and your breathing. And just sing all the time. Literally all the time.’’
She was sort of saying that the singing itself is good for your body, which is something I never really thought of. But it really is. It certainly gives you a positive mental state. So I sing. I just sing around the house. That’s what I do. I just sing around the house to keep myself together.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Bic Runga will be touring Aotearoa next month to celebrate the 20-year anniversary since the release of her eleven-time platinum, best-selling album Beautiful Collision. The tour kicks off in Hastings’ Toitoi Opera House on Saturday July 15, before heading to Christchurch’s Isaac Theatre Royal on Friday July 21, Tauranga’s Holy Trinity Auditorium on Saturday July 22, Auckland’s Town Hall (as part of Elemental Nights) on Friday July 28 and Wellington’s St James Theatre on Sunday July 30.
Full tour and ticketing information on livenation.co.nz.
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