Bigger Than Mum

1 May 2012 | 7:58 am | Michael Smith

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The night The Mint Chicks played their final show, in March 2010, frontman, occasional self-harmer and multi-instrumentalist Kody Nielson decided to ensure the nails were firmly in the coffin, destroying the band's two drum kits and telling the crowd to start their own fucking band. This is pretty standard sort of behaviour for a guy who would swing high above the band on lighting rigs during performances and notoriously took a chainsaw to a corporate sponsor's signage at a 2005 gig. He's the last person, therefore, you'd expect to settle happily into domestic bliss and parenthood with New Zealand's elegant, petite, sophisticated and most successful “pop princess” export, Bic Runga. Together they've produced a son, Joe, but now, six years after her last triple-platinum-NZ-selling album, Birds, comes her new one, Belle.

“It's the first time I've worked with a producer,” the previously exclusively self-producing Runga admits, “He did an amazing job, but he comes from a completely different world. He's also in Unknown Mortal Orchestra and his own project that's called Opossum.”

She could also have mentioned their own side project together, Kody & Bic, but handing over production duties to Nielson wasn't the only big change for Runga in making Belle – she also started co-writing with other people. “That's new for me. I hadn't written with people before and just thought, 'How come everyone else can do this and I can't?' So I just made myself do it. It's actually really awkward at first [laughs], but it's really rewarding 'cause, you know, when you find a great collaborator you do things that are over and above what you've doing on your own stuff.

“That was how Kody and I met. Our publishers put us together and I was a big fan of their band and we wrote Tiny Little Piece Of My Heart, which is the second single and it doesn't sound like either of us really; it sort of sounds like The Supremes or some other '60s girl band thing. Then Devil On Tambourine, I'd written the melody and the guitar line and had that kicking around for ages and Kody went in and wrote the lyrics and he took it from this Miles Davis quote where he was asked who was playing on this record – I think On The Corner – and he says everyone except the devil on tambourine.

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“Then Dann Hume is from [expat NZ band] Evermore and he's also a producer – he produced Lisa Mitchell's big record, Wonder. He's really young! I'm thirty-six and he was twenty-one when I met and wrote with him and it was like, 'Whoa, you're so full on!' Youthful but yeah, this exuberant person and a really great producer, really clever. Evermore, they write these big stadium songs and I write these kind of little sad introspective ones, so we made quite a good writing team, because he drew a bit more out of my songs – at least to the point where I was in the room, rather than just imploding [laughs].”

Two of the songs Runga and Hume wrote together made the final cut for BelleHello Hello and Good Love – are very much more outward-looking and celebratory than the songs that made her name, like her first single, Drive, which she originally recorded back in 1995 and became her first hit, with the album of that name hitting #1 in New Zealand. Along the way, she became one of the highest-selling New Zealand artists in recent history and was awarded an NZ Order of Merit.

“Lyrics are hard,” Runga admits. “I'm a big fan of really great lyrics and you can always be writing better lyrics. Like I just got the new Leonard Cohen record and I was just like, 'Oh yeah, that's right – this is lyric writing,' you know? Just to write better ones, that's what drives me.

Everything Is Beautiful And New – that's mumsy as, yeah,” she laughs again. “It is definitely a direct Joe song. I was reading to him these children's poems by a New Zealand poet called James K Baxter and one of these poems was called The Seagull and it's just all the things a seagull sees 'with his bold bright eye from the sky'. I guess I was influenced by that poem because becoming a mum is seeing things from a completely different vantage point.”

As well as being her producer, Nielson also plays keyboards in Runga's live band, and his brother and fellow former Mint Chick, Ruban Nielson, contributes bass and guitar to the album. The album itself was put together from sessions across several studios including Serj Tankian's in California and, would you believe, Babajim Istanbul Studios?

“I was trying to make this record for a long time before I met Kody and when he took over I just said, 'Look, I just can't do this – you're going to have to help me finish it,' and I gave him all the production credit because really I was just chasing my tail. I'd produced all my own records before but this was different; I just had to accept that I needed help. It was fun to learn the confidence to let other people help you.

“I didn't go over [to Istanbul] but I have a harp, like a proper orchestral harp player and she lives in Turkey. The title track to the album is called Belle and it's this theme song to a French children's TV show and I just recorded it at home and sent it over to her in Turkey and she put harp on it. That's another mumsy song, but it's okay. If I'd made this record completely by myself, it probably would have been like Belle and like Everything Is Beautiful And New, which are kind of lullabies really. But having all these other writers on it gave it a bit more variation and that's what it really needed. I didn't want to make something that was just for mums. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it had to have like a broad range, this album.”