‘If you write a great song, it can withstand anything’: Bic Runga on Beautiful Collision

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‘If you write a great song, it can withstand anything’: Bic Runga on Beautiful Collision

Bic Runga
words by David James Young

We chat to the iconic Bic Runga ahead of her show at Melbourne Recital Centre on August 18.

For many, the Bic Runga story begins and ends with Sway. Realistically, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that – after all, laying claim to one of the greatest pop songs of the 90s and one of the most beloved songs in the history of New Zealand music is a pretty incredible story in and unto itself. That story’s even got American Pie in it. However, those who have followed the singer-songwriter’s career – particularly in her aforementioned homeland of Aotearoa – know that what followed in the wake of it holds just as much resonance and sentiment.

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In 2002, five years on from her seven-times platinum debut Drive, Runga released Beautiful Collision, an album that reflected the perspective of a woman still comprehending the world at large, even as she travelled around it on the back of her music.


By still playing these songs at age 47, Runga is effectively in a constant dialogue with her younger self. As she prepares to belatedly celebrate the album’s 20th anniversary, then, she is asked what she felt that 26-year-old Runga was trying to achieve when they were recording Beautiful Collision. “The person that was making the record was very single-minded about making a good album,” she responds upon a moment of reflection. 

“The first album had obviously done quite well here at home, and I was really about bettering that. I also wanted to get really good at production, and I wanted to have the right language and tools to be able to get there. That was my focus, and as a result it took three years to make. It was really a lot of pressure, and there were lots of failed attempts to make this album along the way. I somehow even ended up making a drum-and-bass version of this album before that was scrapped too.”

So, how was Runga able to see herself out of the proverbial woods? The same way any self-respecting New Zealander does: with the help of Neil Finn.

The legendary Crowded House frontman, for whom Runga had opened on tour for several tours, received a call out of the blue to see if he was able to assist his erstwhile support act. “Someone from the record company basically called him and said, ‘I think Bic might be going crazy,’” Runga recalls with a laugh.

“They didn’t know what to do with me! I will say… it’s not the first I had as an artist, and it certainly wasn’t the last. Every time, it was always fellow artists that helped me find my way out. No-one else really knows what it’s like to put that pressure on yourself, and no-one else can offer you that unique sense of perspective that they have.

“So, Neil comes in… I’m two years into the recording process at this point, and yes – going out of my mind. That first meeting, he played some songs back to me on his guitar. When he did that, I had such a clearer understanding of what the songs needed to be. I have to give credit to Neil for helping me finish the record.”

The album was introduced care of its lead single Get Some Sleep, which Runga wrote while on tour through North America. As its title suggests, a weary Runga finds herself in a state of burnout somewhere off the interstate, her voice seeking resolve with its distinctive gentle lilt.

“It’s about going crazy on the road,” she says. “When I look back at it, the major touring I was doing was ridiculous – especially when this album came out. I’d be travelling around the UK for months on end, all via train and all by myself. I really don’t think there’s enough support for artists in that regard; they need so much more of it. It’s such hard work, and it’s completely exhausting. Every day is the same, and it really wears you out…” There’s a beat, as Runga tilts her head slightly – perhaps conversing with the devil on the shoulder after reciting the words of the angel on the other. “…it could sort of be fun as well, though.” 

Runga laughs, reminiscing on her days of endless touring through her 20s – well before her three kids came into the picture. But, we digress. Back to Get Some Sleep. “Basically, I was trying to write California Dreaming by The Mamas & The Papas,” she continues. “I wanted to frame what I was singing about within that jangly, west-coast pop sound – which was also a big part of writing Something Good as well, which was the next song on the album and the next single. That was actually one of the songs that Neil played back to me – when he sang it, it sounded like a John Lennon song. It made so much more sense after that.”

At her upcoming Australian shows, Runga will perform Beautiful Collision record in full – meaning several songs will be performed for the first time since the original tour in support of the record. When queried on her favourite deep-cuts from the LP that will be revisited as part of the tour, Runga points to the tracks Election Night and Gravity.

“That was a remnant of the drum-and-bass record attempt,” she says of the former, stifling another laugh. “It had most of that electronic dance element removed from it, but it still doesn’t quite sit with the rest of the record – which I actually really like.” 

As for the latter, which also serves as the album’s closer, Runga sees it as reflective of the overall themes of Beautiful Collision as a whole. “I wrote that in a hotel when I was coming home to New Zealand from New York,” she recalls. “I’d been there for two years, and by that point I’d sort of just given up. There was that sad, defeated feeling that came with leaving – so it’s a sad, defeated love song. This is an album about coming of age; about love and moving away from home. Gravity probably sums it up the best, and it might be the song from the album that I love the most of all.”

The tour will see Runga performing in a largely stripped-back manner, eschewing a full band in favour of both solo sets and duo performances with her husband Kody Nielsen – the multi-instrumentalist formerly of The Mint Chicks and currently of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and joined in both bands by his brother Rueben. Though many artists would find certain challenges that come with the contextual shifts from each style of performance, Runga takes each show on by drawing from an unlikely inspiration.

“I remember seeing this Jerry Seinfeld quote about getting up on stage to perform,” she says. “When you get up there, and you’re not sure if it’s going to go well, you just have to trust the material. I think if you write a great song, it can withstand anything – whether that’s being played solo, with a brass section, with an orchestra. Whatever treatment you give it, the blueprint that comes with a song will survive so long as you’re honouring the song itself.”

Catch Bic Runga at Melbourne Recital Centre’s Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on August 18. Grab tickets here.