Interview by Alan Weedon
Bic Runga’s second album, Beautiful Collision, longed for a time that wasn’t its own. It was released in 2002, an era in which the Swedes then — as they do now — defined global pop’s palette. A time that was particularly chintzy and sugary: Capital-P pop that came with multi-year sponsorship deals for the likes of Pepsi and Nokia.
Beautiful Collision sat outside of this universe.
It was nostalgic for the music of the 30s, 40s and 70s in the making of that record — miles away from what was offered radio play at the time.
And this was no ordinary second-record. It was the follow-up to 1997’s Drive, which upon its release, was New Zealand’s highest-selling record of all time. So you can just imagine the expectations placed on Beautiful Collision — though it would go on to be certified 11-times platinum, and earn Bic many accolades afterward.
Now 20 years on, that album has bred its own kind of nostalgia. For some, it might conjure a time of polyphonic ringtones and music video request shows, while for others, the album might represent the first time they saw themselves reflected in an otherwise monocultural music landscape.
Ahead of Beautiful Collision's 20th anniversary concert at Melbourne Recital Centre, Soundscapes goes back with Bic to the time that produced that record, and what she’s learned about herself — and the music industry — in time since.
Hello Bic. You’ve said that Beautiful Collision was nostalgic for bygone eras. What are your thoughts on that record now as it’s since become a catalyst for people’s nostalgia, twenty years on?
I often cringe when I hear my own stuff. But I actually don't cringe through a lot of this [album]. Because I think I was trying to make something as cringe proof as possible at the time. What that meant was stepping outside of 2002 and looking back to what I was nostalgic for at that time, which was stuff from the 30s, the 60s, and the 70s.
The jump between your first and second record represents a pretty significant chapter in your life — how did that experience find its way onto Beautiful Collision?
I think all my songs are inherently autobiographical, and I don't mean them to be, you just can't help it. The record took three years, [and] it was a really confusing time. I'd moved away to New York [but] I left after two years or so feeling quite defeated.
So Beautiful Collision is a snapshot of someone in their early 20s, trying to live overseas, not quite succeeding, and coming home. And if it wasn’t for the songwriting, I wouldn't really know what was going on at all. The songwriting was my way of harmonising all the confusion.
After the success of Drive, did you feel as though certain people froze you at that point in time… that Bic on the American Pie soundtrack?
Oh, absolutely. I don't think I ever quite made sense to anyone actually in the scheme of pop music. I would get shipped around to different countries, and I made sense to no one. They would be like, ‘oh, you should go to Asia’, but then I wasn't maybe pop enough. I was just so strange [in comparison] to what needed to be a very focused, homogenous appeal [in pop]
It’s only now that I'm seeing way more diversity, way more women of colour. Twenty years ago, I would have never dreamed that Korean pop music was going to be so mainstream in America.
But I just identified really strongly with being a songwriter and producer. That's all that mattered to me. I knew my songs mattered more than anything, and the wrong production would make them seem either too naff or too delicate. [I wanted] to give them dignity without being pathetic (laughs).
So then, did the success of Drive also allow you to claim creative control for Beautiful Collision?
That's right. I'd self-produced the first album and it became the biggest-selling record in the history of New Zealand music at the time. A self-produced record from a 19-year-old who wrote all the songs… that was such an anomaly.
And I had already been through that circuit of, young girl gets put into a room with a whole lot of older dudes that had a hit 15 years earlier… and let's see what you can do with this young kid. I had this feeling that my songs were getting taken away. I cared for them too much to let that happen. So I had to learn to produce.
Given what we now know about that time in popular music, there were a lot of musicians who were put through the machine and came away from it pretty awfully.
I would say since maybe the pandemic, there's been a real awareness of what the industry does to artists. The attitude was that, ‘You will you get to make music… that's enough, isn't it?’ Or, ‘You just want to be famous, don't you?’
There wasn't a lot of duty of care [then], but I think that’s a real new thing now. It's partly why I want to come back into the industry, because this is actually closer to the industry I would have liked to have been a part of 20 years ago.
Of course Beautiful Collision didn’t repeat the same commercial success as Drive did, but the album resonated with a distinct group of listeners — particularly among people of colour who never previously saw themselves represented in New Zealand music. What are some of the other relationships people have to this record you’ve been told about?
Someone I know well — who never even told me they even liked that record — told me they had their daughter to that record… in the operating room. A couple of people told me they gave birth to that record. And I was like, wow, that's heavy (laughs).
So now you're just playing therapist to people, basically.
It's really neat (laughs).
Twenty years on, what’s your relationship to Beautiful Collision now, and to the person who wrote that record?
I'm really proud of it. And I feel a fondness for that person, because that person was just struggling the whole time. And I think good on you for pursuing, because I knew it was hard, it was physically exhausting. But I get now why it was hard, which I didn't quite have a clear perception of why it was so hard [at the time].
So it was worth it?
Absolutely, everything was worth it.
Interview by Alan Weedon
Photos by Natalie Jurrjens