New Zealand pop queen and recent mother, Bic Runga tells Nick Argyriou that her new album Belle had to have an edge to avoid being “revoltingly mumsy”.
Bic Runga never even contemplated making her fourth record until her son, Joseph, was almost three-years-old. It was late 2009 and it had been four-plus years since her last release, Birds, and aside from some occasional re-releases and some soundtrack contributions, Runga was a full-time mother dealing with a relationship breakdown to long-time partner and Joseph's father, photographer Darryl Ward, plus the dilemma of knowing when to return to music proper. “I was trying to get back into music for an hour here and there when my son was asleep but there's so much concentration that it takes [being a mother] that it felt like too much [of an] indulgence going off and doing music during the early years,” she says.
But artists being artists, Runga simply wished for her creative roll to endure and was longing to forge ahead with her musical evolution and a career that spawned 1997's Drive, which featured smash-single Sway, her 2002 follow-up Beautiful Collision, and 2005's Birds. The result is her most recent effort, Belle. While all her records have taken on their own character and genre-fit, Belle, recorded with former Mint Chicks leader/producer and Runga's current-day partner Kody Nielson is her most detailed and jaunty yet. “Well, I had to come up with something that was poppy and fresh but it still had that continuity from past to new records I'd done,” admits Runga. Claiming that her last record [2005's Birds] was a pretty dark one and in some ways was “kind of a career-death because there were only a few people that really understood it”, Runga puts it down to being just one of those records that wasn't poppy enough and radio wouldn't go anywhere near it. “Yeah, so that's why I wanted to make something that was more social, upbeat and hearted this time!” she says.
It has to be noted that if career-death means an album goes triple-platinum, then, well, we're doing well in life! I guess when you compare it to Drive (platinum seven times) and Beautiful Collision (11 times platinum) it puts it all in some perspective; yet it still garners one big sheesh. Runga was introduced to Nielson through Mushroom Music's Paul McLaney after the New Zealand performer had engaged in a series of uninspired professional songwriting workshops in Los Angeles in preparation for Belle. McLaney viewed the punk and unhinged creative force that Nielson possessed to be just the right fit for the new musical angle that Runga was hinting at. There was a stipulation though: it had to be pop, but pop with a hard edge and the unsystematic former Mint Chicks chief was just the man to take Belle into the unchartered, melodious waters it needed to enter.
“Kody's one of the weirdest people ever,” laughs Runga. “He's my boyfriend now and we clashed musically during recording and there was pushing and pulling and with him coming from a punk band to my pop, but we both appreciated the spirit of [our respective] genres and there was a meeting of the minds, really,” she reflects. Runga was feeling as inspired as she had been for some time at this point; the most in her 15-year career in fact, and while she has documented her motherhood on Belle she was careful not to make the record too schmaltzy for its own good – that's another area that the screwy intellect of Nielson helped carve out. “I didn't want to record and produce everything on my own because I thought it would have come out as a pretty revoltingly 'mumsy' record,” she laughs. “I mean there are still about maybe four songs on Belle about being a mother and the relationships and the rest is collaborative with Kody; he helped heaps with avoiding all that and really rekindled that fire in me to perform.”
In advancing her musical knowledge, Nielson also enlisted Runga as drummer in his latest garage-psych incarnation, Opossum, that features fellow Mint Chicks member Michael Logie; they also perform as Kody & Bic. All the indifference in the playing helps the songstress's range tenfold and helps push her in groovy, quirky and industrial areas of genre. Belle takes on an at-times Ennio Morricone film score (This Girl's Prepared For War) feel littered with hip hop beats (Good Love); there's a Dan Hume of Evermore-fame co-write (Hello Hello) and shades of Motown (Tiny Little Piece Of My Heart). There's even an interpretation of the theme music to the French television series Belle et Sebastien that finds Runga singing in a distinctly more higher-pitched Chinese-Malaysian falsetto. To realise the full potential of the album, Nielson and Runga took their contributions to internationally-praised producers/engineers/mixers, Justin Gerrish (Vampire Weekend), Tom Rothrock (Beck, James Blunt, Elliot Smith) and Jon Brion (Kanye West, Aimee Mann, Crystal Method) to further augment the ambitious nature of the tunes.
“We went over to Britain to work with Tom after Pete Murray's recommendation from the vocals Tom gave him after his last record, and he'd produced one of my favourite Beck records [Mellow Gold] which was cool so he really brought out the vocals on Belle,” explains Runga. While Brion's role was purely to master Belle, Gerrish mixed with what Runga refers to as a “wonderfully pop sensibility with an edge”. The trio had plenty to work with considering the breadth of inventive, rowdy material that Runga and Nielson were channelling, with spacey, atmospheric-y narratives being the order of the day early on in the piece. “Yeah, Kody contributed some crazy zombie-like keyboards to the record,” jokes Runga. “He's a great drummer and bass player too, but the keyboards were kind of derived from this [Johann Sebastian] Bach type of [technical Baroque-based] thinking and the ideas behind that went into the songs.”
The music and films of Messrs' David Lynch, Leonard Cohen, Dengue Fever and other assorted underground Cambodian psych songs also influenced the recording of Belle. “When I first met Kody I played him strange Cambodian music from the '70s and he would always say: “This stuff is ape-shit!” recalls Runga. “This psychedelic movement was pre-Pol Pot and was American-based guitar and synth music that was called The Cambodian Cassette Archives compilation and it really guided the production,” she confirms, before adding that despite all these stimuli it was actually Histoire de Melody Nelson – the 1971 concept album by French songwriter Serge Gainsbourg – that entrenched the couple even further in the twisted pop afterlife. “It's the perfect pop record for me and we strived to make something as well-thought-out as this as it was really our inspiration.”