It’s a lesson in just how influential and important a song, and one album can be. Bic Runga‘s Sway featured on her debut album ‘Drive’ which was released back in August 1997. When she performed it at the 2016 NZ Music Awards she had the Vector Arena crowd in her hands and TV viewers of all ages would no doubt have been singing along. Almost 20 years ago, NZM’s April/May 1997 issue featured Bic on the cover a few months ahead of the release of ‘Drive’ with the following article by Andrew Polson. It’s a great read, thanks Andrew. NZM congratulates Bic on her induction into the NZ Music Hall of Fame.
Bic Runga is hunched over the mixing console in Studio A of Auckland’s Revolver Studios, gazing intently at a spot just above the VU meters. She’s completely focused on the sound coming through the studio monitors as engineer Simon Sheridan plays back a freshly recorded take of guitar feedback for her song Swim, the track they are working on tod ay. Despite a generally warm and open studio manner, Runga’s concentration during these playbacks is palpable, with everyone keeping movement and noise down to zero.
And rightly so, for in this studio the 21 year-old artist is not only responsible for singing and guitar playing duties (not to mention the occasional drum track) but also for the overall production of her album-in-progress. After a couple of generally unsatisfying attempts to record her songs with other producers Runga has persuaded her label (Sony) to let her take the reins. So while the album will be mixed overseas – possibly America – right now Runga herself is calling all the production shots on this project. She knows it will probably be seen as a risk, but the next day as she munches into some breakfast, she says that rather than feeling the weight of her responsibility, the new role is more relief than a burden.
“Working with other producers you have to compromise what you wan’t,” she explains. ‘I don’t think I’ve really ever recorded or demo’ed anything that was indicative of where I was wanting to go, but I think this time it’ll be exactly where I wan t to be.”
As she begins describing her approach to the recording process she exudes the enthusiasm and the certainty of someone who has been thinking about this for quite some time. She says she put the band through their paces for three weeks before going near the studio.
“You should definitely spend a lot of time on pre-production and arranging the songs so they feel good. I wanted to make sure all the songs were completely arranged – I don’t want to leave too much to chance, arrangement-wise, in the studio. But I think you can also kill a song by playing it too much, so three weeks was probably the tops. You want some spontaneity in the studio and you have got to still love each other by the time you get in there.”
Bic’s current band line-up is Andrew Thorne on guitar, Aaron McDonald on bass and Bic shares the drumming duties with Wayne Bell.
“I’m really happy with the band I’ve got at the moment and they could be the stayers – yeah, they are really good and they are exactly what I want. It’s all in choosing your players, finding the players that would instinctively play what I would have wanted them to play, and then just pulling out the bits that they didn’t like, and thinning it out so it’s not too busy.”
As with anyone who writes their own material Runga says that the song is the thing – production is important but must always follow from that core.
“A good song with a really good vocal performance – I think that’s the essence of a good recording,” she says. “That in itself will stand up . If a song’s there, a song’s there. Chris Van De Geer was engineering a session of mine once and said ‘Bic, we could fart over this and the song would still be there!’, and that’s exactly true you know. I listen to songs like Wild Boys by Duran Duran (I love that song) and the drums sounds are so eighties and really tacky, but I can still hear the song. I think that’s why Drive is the way it is, because it’ s finished.”
Having said that though, the album will have a lot more on it than just her voice and a guitar. The version of Swim that was playing back through the monitors the day before was quite a departure from the version on her ‘Drive’ Ep, featuring backwards guitar feedback and heavily gated drums.
“The sound I’m going for on this album has been pretty clear to me for the last four years . It’s going to be really dark because there ain’t many happy songs; and it’s going to be really sparse. I write off most music I hear because it’s just too busy. I like space 7 lots of space. I like snappy snares – hate deep snares; and I’m really fascinated by the difference between a loop and a real drummer drums that sound like loops but aren’t loops. When you’ve got a loop going and go back to the button to stop it, ra ther than doing a big (drum fill noise), like a drummer would, it just stops. I’m really interested in what that does to the song. There’s going to be lots of that on my album not loops but live drums that sound like loop – a lack of fills basically. Wayne does that really well – he can play to a click like no-one, it’s scary. And I have to say I like anything with a tremolo smacked on it – I think that’s why I like Portishead so much.”
I ask if she’s worried about alienating her audience – after all everyone knows her from Drive as ‘the girl with the guitar’- but she says it comes down to who you are trying to please.
“I really don’t mind if no one likes it. Dobbyn once said that as soon as you try to make a hit album you get all messed up – you’ve got to make yourself happy. It’s like you’re the one who has to listen to it when it comes on the TV or the radio – if you cringe, you cringe every time you hear it. And you’ll be living with it for years – it’ s such a permanent thing, recording a piece of music.”
Runga says it has taken till now for her to get up the courage to speak up and say what she wants. Previous attempts to record her songs were unsatisfying. The recordings that would eventually become part of the ‘Drive’ EP were done in Wellington on the back of a QEll Arts Council grant through Pagan Records and even though she was pleased at the time to be recording her songs, she was having doubts even then.
“It was done with Trevor Reekie (head of Pagan Records) and Nigel Stone who I both really like, and I do actually like working with, but it just wasn’t where I was going,” she says. “I was only 18 and I didn’t really know how to say no to anything. I think even back then I still knew what I wanted music-wise but I was more diffident – I didn’t speak up.”
She later recorded a demo of Drive herself “… which I took up to Sony, who I’d always wanted to be on” and secured herself a four album exclusive deal with the label. Sony then bought the Wellington recordings off Pagan and sent Runga back into the studio to try re-recording that song with more instruments. But in the end they ended up putting out Runga’s original demo as the single.
“I almost killed it,” she says, “it needed to just breathe, the way it was released.”
Later when Sony sent Runga into a studio in Ireland with Irish producer Nial Maccan and (ex-Crowded House member) Nick Seymour. As she said in an ‘un-chart-ed’ interview, they went in “… with the hope of getting an album done but it just didn’t really work out.” The sessions produced one really good recording, her next single Sway, but overall Runga was still not happy with how things were going. She came back to New Zealand and was due to have Dave Dobbyn produce in December last year (“He would have just been totally cool”), but then she broke her collar bone which put back the whole recording and meant Dobbyn couldn’t do it.
With a vacuum in the producer’s chair, Runga decided to seize the opportunity and sent a written proposal to Sony to produce herself.
“It was the first time I’d organised a piece of writing since I was at school! I would have had to have spoken out by then otherwise I would have had a nervous breakdown, but I’m really glad that I asked. Sony were really cool. They were a bit scared at first-producing my own album ’cause every other session I’ve had I’ve freaked out, but it was only because I never got what I wanted. Now our contract allows me to do anything – I have complete musical artistic licence. And Sony America are into it. We’ve had a guy come out called Peter Asher (who.is their in-house producer and practically one of their second in commands) just to basically be encouraging. It’s just like havin g a sounding board and it was really good. They are just the coolest record company ’cause I think they know I’ve had such a hard time with it.”
She says she doesn’t just want to stop at her own music either.
“I would love to produce someone else’s album. I think I can empathise with young artists who maybe don’t know what they want, or do know what they want, but pretend like they don’t.”
I ask her if she has any production heroes.
“Butch Vig, absolutely,” she answers immediately. “He’s the man, and I guess most people who make that sort of music would agree that he’s pretty cool. With Garbage you can hear all the songs and all the vocal performances are so attitudey.”
A our interview comes to a close, Runga says that even though it has been a struggle to get to this point she is still grateful for all those previous experiences.
“Every single session I’ve ever had I have to give credit to, because if I hadn’t done those I couldn’t do this. A lot of people thought I had no ideas because I never spoke up – and fair enough. It was my own fault, but I won’ t let it happen again.”