To celebrate the 20th anniversary of one of New Zealand’s most iconic albums, Bic Runga’s Drive tour will see the legendary singer-songwriter return home this month to perform the entire album, followed by highlights from a musical career that spans two decades. Cityscape caught up with the Silver Scroll-winning artist and owner of 20 Tui Awards for a look back at growing up in Christchurch and the 11-times-platinum album that started it all.
What was it like growing up in a family of wildly talented musicians?
My mother and two older sisters were all singers, and that was taken care of, so I learned to play the drums instead. My Mum bought me a drum kit when I was 11 and all I wanted to do was be the drummer in my sister Boh’s band. I didn’t start singing till a bit later, I didn’t think that was my calling until I fell in love with songwriting and wrote things I felt I could sing.
How did growing up in Christchurch shape you as a musician?
Christchurch is an astoundingly good place to learn music. I came up through the CSIM (Christchurch School of Instrumental Music) and really owe a lot to people like Stu Buchanan. He always helped me to play the drums – especially because I was really shy about it, and I’d often get pushed off them by older boys! But he used to always whisper to me, “You get back on those drums, that guy sounds like a pea on a pumpkin”. He also encouraged me to sing as a soloist with the CSIM, it made me so nervous but that’s the beauty of starting early in such a safe environment, you get to make mistakes. My favourite memories of growing up are playing and rehearsing in the beautiful Christchurch Arts Centre.
Where did you play your first Christchurch gig?
I think it would’ve been at a party when I was in high school. I had quite strict parents so the only way I would’ve been allowed to a party was if I was in the band, innocently playing music! When I think about those parties now, my Mum would’ve been horrified; the police would often show up!
You have a flock of Tui (among many other awards). where do you keep them all, and are they a nightmare to dust?
Yes they are a nightmare to dust, so I keep them hidden away. I agree with the idea that form should follow function, and the Tui Award doesn’t have a function which is a shame because it could almost be a bottle opener.
What was the inspiration behind Drive?
I really loved making the Drive album, I was so young and excited about this new thing that I loved – songwriting! I wrote so much. I was also learning about love for the first time. Songs like ‘Sway’ are about how full of contradictions being in love is. How can a thing make you happy but also make you sick? How can it make you feel strong one minute and then powerless and stupid the next? It’s such an adolescent record, it’s so funny to play it now.
Did you know you had captured lightning in a jar when you heard it for the first time?
I wasn’t thinking much when I made Drive, I really just did it. I was very single-mindedly focused on the making of it. So I was shocked and surprised at how well it ended up doing, because I’d never thought about how to make a hit or what other people thought or wanted. It’s hard to recapture that kind of unaware, single-mindedness.
‘Sway’ is a key song in American Pie – how did you feel hearing your song come on while you were watching the movie?
I had been moved by Sony to New York because the album was about to come out in the US. I didn’t know much about the movie that ‘Sway’ was going to be in, so I went to see it at Union Square with some friends I’d just made. It really blew my mind to hear my song in an American movie, in an American movie theatre! I was having culture shocks on so many levels. I honestly didn’t know what to make of it. American Pie recently came on when I was flicking through channels in a hotel room, when the scene came on with my song on it I was literally cry-laughing and wincing, it was so hilarious to me. Funny how 20 years can make the same thing seem so different.
New Zealanders have so many memories attached to this album – where does it take you when you listen to it?
I feel young again to be honest. I cringe at myself and I laugh my head off too, but songs like ‘Sway’, ‘Drive’, ‘Bursting Through’, ‘Suddenly Strange’ and ‘Roll Into One’ I still think hold up really well, and I feel happy about them.
If you could give your younger self some advice, what would it be?
Oh! Don’t get me started … here’s a list:
1. Get a good lawyer.
2. Take vitamins.
3. Exercise, and not just a little bit.
4. Dump your boyfriend.
5. Don’t get another boyfriend.
6. Listen to your mother.
7. Buy property, not lots of really expensive shoes.
8. Leave your hair alone.
Tell us about your role with the Maia Health Foundation.
I’m really honoured to be an ambassador for the Maia Health Foundation along with Jake Bailey and Brendon McCullum. It’s made me feel reconnected to my home town, and to contribute to it, and there’s always a lot that needs to be done. At the moment we are raising money for more beds for parents to stay with children in the children’s ward, and a much needed helipad so that emergency patients brought in by helicopter don’t need to drive from Hagley Park to the hospital. On a personal note, the good people at Christchurch Hospital saved my dad’s life the first time he had a heart attack, so I got to spend three more years with him. For my show at the Isaac Theatre Royal we are donating $5 per ticket to Maia because it’s still a very new charity and we need to keep raising awareness of it.
What are you most looking forward to while you’re back in Christchurch?
I love the souvlaki at Dimitris in Riccarton. I think I ate them through high school, they’ve been around so long. Also, we’re spending time in Banks Peninsula when we come, which I’m REALLY excited about. That really is one of my favourite places on earth.
Bic Runga: Drive 20th Anniversary Tour
Isaac Theatre Royal, Oct 20