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‘Just let her do the album by herself’: An oral history of Bic Runga’s Drive

To mark the 20th anniversary of Drive, and the upcoming anniversary tour to celebrate it, Hussein Moses talks to Bic Runga and those involved in the recording to find out how it became one of the most significant albums in New Zealand music history.

It’s been 20 years since the release of Drive, the album that would make Bic Runga a household name in New Zealand. Released in 1997, the record includes some of her best-known singles, including ‘Drive’, ‘Sway’, ‘Suddenly Strange’ and ‘Bursting Through’. It went on to be certified seven-times platinum and scored her New Zealand Music Awards for Album of the Year, Single of the Year and Best Female Vocalist. This is the story of how one of New Zealand music’s most iconic albums came to be.

Film from the Drive cover shoot, 1997 (photo: supplied)

“That’s when I started to think that maybe I could really be a musician professionally”

Trevor Reekie (Pagan Records): Bic was always going to be discovered. We were just the first to notice her basically and that was by virtue of the fact that I was a judge at the Smokefree Rockquest. I went down to Christchurch and Love Soup were one of the performers, which was Bic and Kelly Horgan. She was remarkable. She was just so fearless. She reminded me of Shona Laing, because Shona’s another fearless performer. I just thought, ‘wow, she’s really got a lot of courage to pull that off in front of that sort of audience’.

Bic Runga: Trevor Reekie was really good to us. He was good to a lot of bands around that time. He was one of those people that had a good ear. As part of the Rockquest prize, we recorded an EP with him and I guess that’s when I started to think that maybe I could really be a musician professionally and make records.

Trevor Reekie: We brought Bic and Kelly up from Christchurch to Wellington. She had sent me a letter of stuff they were going to do and they were all covers. So I got her to play me some of the songs and then somewhere in the conversation I just sort of said, ‘so are you writing any stuff?’ She said ‘oh yeah, I got a few songs’ and I said ‘let’s hear them’. I just said ‘why don’t you take this opportunity to just do your own stuff?’

They were just really great songs. You could tell there was a certain amount of naivety there, but at the same time it was a charming naivety. She was quite forthright about what she wanted and what she didn’t want, especially about what she didn’t want. It’s hard for a young person at that age to know exactly what they do want.

Wayne Bell (musician): Around 1995, I was flatting with Bic’s sister Boh, so I knew of Bic and presumed correctly that if she was anything like her two sisters, she was most likely a huge talent. I had also talked about her with Trevor Reekie who has an eye and an ear for spotting a prodigious talent. Bic ended up relocating to Auckland, moving her double bed into my dining room, and eventually we started messing around with her songs.

Boh Runga: I remember how focused and driven she was. I also remember how much she loved my cat Brian that I had way back then and I would come home and find her on the couch cuddling him and watching telly.

Andrew Thorne (musician): I guess I was lucky in that she was new to Auckland and hadn’t yet met any proper guitar players. I ended up playing in her live band, on Drive, and touring through New Zealand, Australia and Europe in support of the album.

Hugh Sundae (host, Music Nation): I’d heard through someone that Karyn Hay was going to make a music show. I was volunteering at 95bFM and I would’ve been about 17 at the time. So I auditioned for it and all we really knew was that it was going to be a half hour music show and that it was going to be studio-based with some field stories. So I went for it and I got this call from Karyn saying ‘we liked you, but we also like this other girl from Christchurch. She’s young and a bit of a musician and she’s really, really good, so we thought about the idea of you both doing it’.

Karyn Hay (producer, Music Nation): I was surprised that she applied for the job, and liked her immediately because she wasn’t an obvious choice. She was very shy and not at all comfortable with the television medium, but then, most people aren’t comfortable with that to begin with, except for the ‘ambitioneers’ as I like to call them: the pushy and the cocky. She was neither.

Bic Runga: I moved up and worked in a record store. I worked at The CD Store in 277 in Newmarket. Then I was playing little cafe shows and stuff, just with my guitar, and then I got asked to audition for that show and that was good for me to get out of working in retail. I think what Karyn Hay said about the audition for that show was that a lot of the other people auditioning for it – we were given a piece to talk about music – didn’t actually read out the piece of writing as if it meant anything. Because I was talking about something I really cared about, and I was working in a record store, it felt good to me. If I was asked to present a cooking show, I’d be out of my depth.

Hugh Sundae: She was just lovely. Even at that stage, I had been at bFM for a couple of years and you hear that this person has got a demo and all that stuff, and your initial reaction is like ‘here we go’. She gave me a cassette to listen to. I think it had like four or five songs on it and I was like fuck. She was just fucking great.

“It just blew up around her very, very quickly”

Trevor Reekie: She scored that job on Music Nation and by this time it was starting to leak out. I don’t know if she had done many shows, but it suddenly just got out. All of a sudden this bidding war went crazy. Festival started making approaches. Warner started making approaches. By that time I knew I was blown out of the picture because all I had was a letter of intent with her, and to be quite honest, I kind of knew we couldn’t take her that much further.

When I started to sense that, I actually rang up Campbell Smith. I said ‘we’ve got this girl we’ve done some recordings with, the word’s out there and everyone’s sniffing around. She probably needs representation.’ And that’s how Campbell ended up being her manager. I said I just want to be remunerated for what we’ve done. I don’t mind where she goes. And the other thing I said is any money I get should not come off Bic’s advances. That should be the label’s costs, not Bic’s costs.

Paul Ellis (Sony Music): I was running the A&R division for Sony. I was doing Sony Music Publishing and Sony Records at the same time. When she came to my office, I think she was 17 years old and I was quite concerned that she was so young and she was going into the vortex of a major record company. Wayne Bell, who’s a very well known drummer, rang me and said ‘I want to come in and play you some demos’, which were on cassette at the time, obviously. I think there were four songs on the cassette and the last song was ‘Drive’. I remember staring at the carpet, thinking ‘this is a life-changing song’.

I sat in my office after she left and played that over and over and over again. Michael Glading, who was the managing director of Sony at the time, was standing at the lifts going ‘what is that you’re playing?’ And I said, ‘I think I’ve found a great artist’. He goes, ‘you should just go and sign her tomorrow’. In my mind, I was thinking like, she’s 17. Do I really want to sign someone who’s so young to a multinational label?

Trevor Reekie: It just blew up around her very, very quickly.

Paul Ellis: She had recorded four or five songs with Trevor. But I think that she knew and Wayne knew and I knew that Pagan didn’t have the resources to put behind her at the time. I had already done work with Strawpeople, Dave Dobbyn, Greg Johnson and The Exponents, so at the time Sony A&R was on a roll so I had the budget to promote an artist.

Bic Runga: Sony ended up buying that recording off Trevor and buying him out, I suppose. I owe a lot to him really. He was the first person to show any belief in me in a serious way.

Paul Ellis: We paid Trevor a handsome cheque at the time, which was actually pathetic. Trevor’s a great person and very magnanimous. I stole not one, but two artists off him at the time.

Bic Runga: No one at Sony was quite sure what to do with me. I was quite an awkward person, but also a weird combination of being unable to express myself and also sure of what I was doing. I guess I didn’t know how to speak up in a way.

Paul Ellis: I just knew that she was born for greatness. The measuring point for me was a Joni Mitchell of our time. Joni Mitchell hasn’t written many hit singles in her career, but she has a body of work and I knew that the body of work would outweigh what radio could do for us in this country and internationally. I remember when ‘Drive’ was first released, I made all the staff ring bFM to get it on their top 10 lists because commercial radio would not play her. At the time, bFM mattered. The video was made for bugger all money and it was a real struggle.

Bic Runga: ‘Drive’ went top 10 off the back of a tour I got on, which was with the Finn Brothers. I played support for them and the person that ran their fan club, a guy called Peter Green, he just took me under his wing and let me sell my CD single at the shows, which was really nice. Because of that it charted and it went to number 10. It was really when it started getting kind of interesting.

An outtake from the ‘Drive’ photo shoot (photo: supplied)

“In a way, it was wasted on me because I was so naive”

John Campbell (broadcaster/journalist): I did Saturday Morning on Radio New Zealand for a couple of years. I was the host of it, but I think this was before I was host. I think Brian Edwards was still doing it then and I filled in for him. I thought ‘what can I do that Brian Edwards isn’t already doing wonderfully?’ And I thought ‘I know, I’ll interview young people. I’ll interview people who won’t be known to the Radio New Zealand audience’.

95bFM was playing her a lot but she had no commercial radio airplay and she was just sort of starting to pop up. So she came in and the thing I remember was that she brought her guitar and it was live. I interviewed her for a bit. She was quite shy – Radio NZ is an intimidating audience, particularly when you’re filling in for the big names like Brian Edwards – so I was uncertain how it was going. Every time either of us hit the wall, I’d say ‘sing another song, Bic’. She would sing these songs and I genuinely believe you could’ve heard a pin drop in the home of every single person listening to it, because it was extraordinary.

Bic Runga: To win the Silver Scroll that early for my first song was pretty amazing. I just felt lucky. I don’t think I had any awareness how fortunate I was. In a way, it was wasted on me because I was so naive. If you struggle for 20 years and then suddenly you get a lot of luck, you really appreciate it. But I was just oblivious.

Karl Steven (musician): I would’ve been finished with Supergroove by that stage and I was doing the odd production job. I had heard the song ‘Drive’ then I was contacted by Campbell Smith, who was her manager at the time, and he said ‘would you like to discuss doing some production for Bic’. So then I had a meeting with him and a meeting with the record company. Sony seemed to think a more produced sort of sound would be good, like a pop music sort of thing, but my philosophy is always to go with what the artist wants and also go with the song. Both Bic and I were very young, but she was young and just sort of starting this music career and I was young and had just finished mine.

Bic Runga: Karl is really smart and he was probably the most sensitive to me. He probably had the most appreciation for where I was coming from because he was an artist.

Karl Steven: ‘Bursting Through’ was the main one I worked on because that was looking like it was going to be the next single. Then there were two or three others. I think one was called ‘Making A Scene’, which was just her playing the piano.

The sessions were really fun. The first time I met her, if I remember rightly, was at her place. She was there with, I think, the rhythm section from The Exponents and they were jamming away and learning the songs. That’s the first time I had blackcurrant cordial with hot water. It was a Bic Runga innovation.

Bic Runga: In those days, I didn’t even drink coffee. I was really like a child. I probably thought I was being rebellious having it hot. It was probably just a drink for a baby.

Karl Steven: What was immediately striking about working with her, was first of all going straight to this domestic setting in her living room where she practised and jammed. Then when she came to first do her vocals in the studio, we had already tracked the guitars and stuff, but on vocal day she came and she had her pyjamas on and had a duvet. I’d never seen that before. She just said it was just so she would feel comfortable, y’know?  

“Just let her do the album by herself”

Bic Runga: I think I asked Dave Dobbyn to be producer. I can’t remember exactly. I might’ve asked him, I might’ve asked Neil Finn at some point. I asked Tim Rogers from You Am I, which was a random choice but it made sense to me at the time. There was a guy in Sony America who suggested we go to Ireland. I think Sony New Zealand being part of a big global company, they took their cues from Sony New York and if they had shown any interest in it at all, it was probably quite amazing, and we did what we were told. So it was his suggestion to try out Nick Seymour just after Crowded House had broken up and a guy called Niall Macken.

To be fair, they were brilliant. They were really great musically and we were using the studio that U2’s long-time engineer started. That’s where the original version of ‘Sway’ comes from. And it’s beautiful. It’s really pillowy and warm and analogue. But something happened at that session where it all started to fall apart. To be honest, it was partly to do with a conflict between Nick and Niall. I remember everything getting a bit emotional and strange, but I don’t remember being involved in it. I was sort of watching it unfold. I didn’t hold it against anyone. We still got a really good version of ‘Sway’ out of it.

Paul Ellis: In my previous life, I also worked with Shona Laing as her manager. So I was very aware that the female artist was not given her voice at a record label. Shona was always in my ear, at the age of 25, how she’d been abused by men in the record industry trying to tell her what to do. I decided that I would never let that happen to Bic at all.

Peter Asher was involved as well. He produced Linda Ronstadt and worked with the Rolling Stones. As much as Bic needed a sounding board, I needed a sounding board as well. We sat down and had a dinner in Auckland one night and he said ‘what’s your gut telling you?’ And I said ‘I just want her to do what she wants to do. Let her be an artist’. So Peter Asher said ‘just let her do the album by herself. Just let her do what she wants to do’.

Andrew Thorne: Although she maybe wasn’t sure what she wanted her material to sound like, she was definite on what she didn’t want. Incredible to think that she wrote, performed, called the shots and produced that album by herself at only 20.

Bic Runga: When your back’s against the wall, you just sort of do it, and I probably couldn’t have done it any earlier than I did. I probably did waste a lot of time and money, but it was OK.

Wayne Bell: The thing that always shone through with Bic was that she knew what she wanted, right from the early days. That really became apparent on Drive. That production credit was no token platitude. She truly produced, steered and drove that record.

Bic Runga: I had to go right to the far edges of my frustration to then really learn how to speak up. You know when you leave school and the principal writes a little thing about you? One of the words my principal used for me when I left school was that I was ‘diffident’. I had to look it up in the dictionary. It means unable to speak up, or not willing to. I really was like that. I don’t know if you would call it shyness, but I learned the hard way how to speak up for myself because I had to go through this quite long process. It’s like when you go to a photo shoot and someone’s putting a wig on you and some really weird makeup and you still can’t speak up. I had a lot of that too. I remember going to one photo shoot in Australia and the stylist saying to me ‘oh, I love your hair, I’m going to make it look like a baby monkey’s’. So you’ve got to learn how to speak up at some point.

Karl Steven: There was no doubting who was in charge of her music and that was her. It was awesome to see.

Andrew Thorne: Bic’s sound is about how her incredible voice works against the chords she plays. I think the best a backing musician can do for her songs is keep out of the way as much as possible.

Bic Runga: It’s funny listening to it now because I can sort of hear what I was trying to do. The songs that really worked still sound OK to me. Some of it sounds reasonably classic but then other stuff does sound of a time. I just remember liking things like U2 and Radiohead and grunge had just happened. I was writing songs in a flat in Mt Eden listening to a Pearl Jam record, so there was definitely all that backdrop of the ‘90s.

The songs I’m really proud of are I guess are ‘Drive’, ‘Sway’, ‘Bursting Through’, ‘Roll Into One’ and ‘Suddenly Strange’. I guess those were the singles. Even back then, I had some awareness of wanting to make a sound that was timeless and I knew that the essence of that was good songwriting and also weirdly, because I was a drummer, it was to do with snare drum sounds. I think a drum sound is what dates things. Specifically the snare sound. I was trying to find classic drum sounds and if I was unsure of what something should sound like, I just referred to sixties pop. It’s where it starts to sound like nineties pop that it sounds bad to my ears.

Wayne Bell: Apart from everything else, Bic is an amazing drummer – one of my faves. She’d tell me what she wanted and I’d try and copy her ideas but really I spent most of my time in the studio recording Drive thinking ‘you should be playing these songs yourself!’

“It was obvious that the songs would make an impact”

Bic Runga: What I remember about the Drive cover is that the coat I got from an op-shop and then the green dress, my sister Pearl had made for me. It wasn’t like someone styled my clothes or anything. It felt quite comfortably me. There’s sort of varying degrees of awkwardness at photo shoots, but that wasn’t one of the worst ones. It wasn’t as bad as the baby monkey one.

Paul Ellis: I was never ever worried about a hit single. The fact is that commercial radio in this country has never played ‘Drive’. You could ring up any station in this country, whether it’s More FM, ZM, The Edge and ask ‘have you ever played ‘Drive’?’ The answer would be ‘no’.

Bic Runga: Only now and then when I play ‘Sway’ live do I realise it was pretty well-written song for someone so young. The purity of the lyrics and stuff, I can’t recapture that kind of innocent unfolding of lyrics. Again, I didn’t have much self-awareness of that either. If it weren’t for that movie American Pie, it might not really have seen the light of day. Sometimes it’s just luck and I don’t really know what decides these things.

Boh Runga: It was obvious that the songs would make an impact. They get under your skin on the first listen.

Bic Runga: I remember driving around Auckland, only just having got my driver’s licence, and I had this really bad Mitsubishi Cordia – I sound like such a bogan – and it only had one speaker working. So what you learn quickly from that is that you can’t rely on production to make something sound good. You have to write a good song, because that’s the only thing that’s going to cut through. I just remember driving around Auckland really happy to have made my first album. Just driving around in this really sad car and just listening to it through one speaker, but being really stoked.

A 1997 photo shoot outtake (photo: supplied)

“She wasn’t equipped to cope with it”

Paul Ellis: I left the country in 1996 and went to New York. She turned up on my doorstep in 1997 and she was half the person that she was. I didn’t understand it because I was living in New York doing A&R for Sony and she was completely burned out and completely freaked out by the whole process. So we had some pretty tough conversations at the time. I’m not drawing comparisons, but she was Lorde at the time but without the international fame. She was 17 or 18, had this huge media presence in New Zealand and she was working really, really hard. But it’s a lot to cope with and she wasn’t equipped to cope with it, basically.

Bic Runga: I suspect I got a really big head and I think that’s the problem with fame happening quite quickly, even in just a small country. If you’re not ready for it, you can kind of lose yourself a little bit. I think I’ve got a good handle on it now, because I’m so distant from it. I’ve been inflated and then deflated and then inflated and then deflated, that I’ve got it in a really good place now. But I think it probably all went to my head. Of course it did. How could it not? It became the biggest selling record in the history of New Zealand music at one point. That’s going to turn anyone into an egomaniac. It has been a lesson in finding your own even keel, that’s for sure.

Boh Runga: Bic was so young and being shot into the public eye through the TV show she did and then her blossoming music career meant she was getting recognised a lot. And that takes its toll if you are a private person. I’ve only ever had to ask a few people to back off at times when I’ve been with her. Sometimes people don’t realise they are being too familiar, or a bit creepy. People are just so happy to meet her and that is always lovely but maybe dial it down?

John Campbell: What I remember was a charisma. She was just so vividly brilliant and authentic. You don’t see it very often.

Hugh Sundae: It’s totally unpretentious. There’s always a chord change or a key that you’re not expecting. Just taking a pop song and flipping it enough to make it really, really unique. It’s an amazing skill that she’s got. She always had it.

Trevor Reekie: The effect that Bic has had on the current glut of great female singer-songwriters is quite amazing. Kids still love her, young adults still love her. She’s a big part of the fabric of New Zealand music now. And we had a little tiny part in it.

John Campbell: The Bic interview is one I’ll remember forever. Not because of the interview, but because of the way she sung. When someone’s doing something really magic on air, the studio goes so quiet that you sense all the homes in the country are doing the same thing. That everyone listening has stopped doing the dishes, they’ve stopped loading the dishwasher, they’ve stopped yelling at the kids. Whatever was happening has stopped in those households. And that was that. That was her.

An outtake from the photo shoot for the ‘Suddenly Strange’ single release (photo: supplied)

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Drive, Bic Runga is heading out on a tour of New Zealand where she’ll be playing the album in its entirety. Tickets are available here.

And at 7 pm, Wednesday 18 October, the Spinoff presents a live stream of Bic Runga and her band playing some songs live from heaven (upstairs at a shop on Ponsonby Road). Tune into the live stream here.


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