TOGETHER FOREVER: Bic Runga
SISTER ACT: Boh Runga will support sister
Original article is at: Sunday Star Times
Date: 3 November, 2002
By: Grant SmithiesBetween them, they've made New Zealand's two biggest albums. What will happen when sisters Bic and Boh Runga start playing together? Grant Smithies can't wait.
It's a rough old life. Here I am, in a hot, foamy bath in LA with pop siblings Bic and Boh Runga, trying to take notes on a soggy notepad. My champagne is warm, the cold tap is digging into my back and it will probably be ages before I get to use the soap because Bic and Boh are far more famous than me.
Outside the Pacific Palisades Hotel, sleek cars hum down an avenue of tall palms. Even the stray dogs several stories below are taut, tanned and aloof.
It's all so far from the chilly flatlands of Christchurch where the Runga sisters grew up and - with other sister Pearl - wrote their first classic. "It was called I Can See Your Ass Shining in the Moonlight," says Bic. "That was the first song we ever wrote. I would have been four and Boh would have been about 10. Pearl, Boh and I recorded it on a little tape deck, then we became really fearful that mum and dad would find it so we erased it. What a shame! It could have been one of those things you release miles down the track. We used to record rude songs all the time - it was great fun."
As was the bath idea, but alas it's just a warm and bubbly fabrication. Time for some cold, hard facts. The watery sound is Bic at the sink making coffee. She and Boh are stationed in the Palisades while Bic launches her Beautiful Collision album in the United States.
They've been playing showcase gigs in American centres and it's gone so well, Bic has invited Boh to join her New Zealand tour in December. Also joining the tour will be superb Auckland band Golden-horse, Australian singer Paul Kelly and - in Bic's backing band - members of last year's most interesting new band, Pluto. It promises to be a ripper. Bic is also playing at Rumba in Auckland on November 30.
"It's great to be singing backed by a band where everyone's a lead singer in their own bands, because it means the harmonies will be really strong," says Bic. "It's taken a few years to find the right people but I'm looking forward to this tour. I asked for Boh's musical support because she's a great singer and guitarist as well as being my sister."
Bic's 1997 debut album Drive is New Zealand's highest-selling album by a local artist since charts began. Second highest? Mix, the 1999 debut album by her sister Boh's band Stellar. Both women have since released successful follow-ups. Sister Pearl also made a dent in the local pop scene with Christchurch band Locust among others and still sings when she can fit it in around her teaching career. How did all this chart-trouncing talent emerge from one family? It must have been a very noisy household.
"Well, dad always had a passion for the arts and was a driving force behind us being creative," offers Boh. "And mum was a lounge singer in Malaysia," adds Bic. "She travelled around Malacca and Singapore and all over singing with bands in fancy hotels, looking like a superstar, wearing these gorgeous evening dresses. The photos from that time are amazing.
"Mum and dad have two video recorders set up, one in the lounge and one in the bedroom, and if either of us is on telly they run into both rooms and hit record. It's the cutest thing. I don't know why they need two copies - maybe if they split up later or something."
Both sisters laugh the easy, secure laugh of people who know this would never happen. They talk about the early days: Boh singing on the way to school, Bic learning to play the drums aged 11, Duran Duran and Adam Ant posters on bedroom walls. Boh recalls Bic getting her into trouble all the time, moaning "Daaad, Boh won't play with me!" Bic admits she was "the little shit in the family".
'There's a lull in commercial music these days. It doesn't have the purity a lot of '60s music had. - Bic Runga
Several years later Bic recalls Boh going off to high school and discovering The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees - "all those dark English bands" - and becoming a goth, a term that raises loud protests from Boh. When Bic hit high school, everyone was rediscovering '60s bands such as Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Deep Purple and Jimi Hendrix.
"We had quite different musical influences during those years," says Bic, "which probably helps explain why we've gone in such different directions musically.
"I'd certainly say we have very different audiences. The people who go to a Stellar concert probably don't go to my shows. There's probably some crossover there but not as much as you might think for a couple of sisters making music."
Boh skirts diplomatically around the fact that there are probably a lot more grey-haired old codgers in Bic's audience. "Hmm, well, I guess Bic's audience would definitely be a lot broader and span a larger age-group than mine." Much laughter ensues.
The sisters express admiration for each other's work and disdain for the blandness endemic in the music industry. "I think there's a lull in commercial music these days," says Bic. "I look around for something that will give me that feeling I got when I heard Led Zeppelin for the first time, or Kate Bush, all those people I used to love at high school, and I haven't heard that. Music is such a self-conscious industry now, it doesn't have the purity a lot of '60s music had."
Purity. It's an interesting choice of word. Listening to Beautiful Collision, you get a strong sense this is what Bic might be aiming for with her own music. Put this album on in the background and you could dismiss it as just clever, articulate, symphonic pop - more diverting and decorative than truly substantial.
But listen harder to the best songs and there it is, the simplicity and grace Joni Mitchell nailed with her Blue album 30 years ago. It may have sold fewer copies (blame the CD burners) but Beautiful Collision is better than 1997's big-selling Drive. Conceptually richer, musically more adventurous, a good deal more optimistic and - on the best songs - quite breathtaking in its beauty.
Bic: "Doing it all live is huge fun as well, so I hope people come out to the gigs. I'm gonna make sure it's a really pleasant night out."
Boh is unimpressed. "A pleasant night out?" she says, aware of how painfully un-rock this sounds. "It'll be a damn sight better than that.
"If people are really lucky, we might even do I Can See Your Ass Shining in the Moonlight as an encore."
Original content copyright 2002 to Sunday Star Times