Bic Runga on music, family, and why she wants to reinvent herself

'Everything I’ve experienced as a coloured woman is fuel.'

By Judy Bailey
I meet 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.
Judy Bailey sat down with Kiwi music legend, Bic.
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.”
The Runga girls (from left) – Bic, her mother Sophia and sisters Pearl and Boh.
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.
Watch Jake's second viral speech below. Bic's story continues after the video...
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. 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.
Bic with partner Kody Nielson
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.
Words: Judy Bailey
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