Romantic vision

In her native New Zealand, Bic Runga's torch pop brought her stardom. But, asks Kevin Harley, will the rest of the world ever catch up with the Kiwis?
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The Independent Culture

Second-album syndrome has cast a shadow over many a pop career. Take Elastica and The Stone Roses, for example, both of whom spent five years preparing sophomore efforts after their overpraised debuts. Sadly, the world had moved on by the time the seconds comings emerged, and it didn't help that the albums in question sounded as though all the work had been left until the last two weeks of recording, after four years and 50 weeks of whatever it is pop bands do to waste so much time.

Bic Runga isn't as famous as those two acts, outside of her native New Zealand, but she is made of tougher stuff. When the then 19-year-old, Chinese-Maori singer-songwriter released her debut album, Drive, in 1997, it became the biggest-selling homegrown record in the country's pop history. The album was pretty good, too, with its crisp torch-pop song-writing overcoming any faintly MOR-ish hints. Leap forward five years, and Beautiful Collision was finally released in New Zealand in 2002, reaching the UK last year. Its sales have outstripped its predecessor's already, but more importantly, its songwriting is streets ahead, breezily combining blissed-out balladry with a bit of swing, the eerie beauty of Stina Nordenstam and subtle operatics on 12 impeccably turned-out songs about the comings and goings of romance.

Those five years weren't wasted, then. Runga spent three of them trying to get the songs right, driving herself "a bit crazy" in between perfecting her piano and guitar playing. Eventually, she took a break by embarking on a triple-headline tour with Neil Finn, formerly of fellow New Zealanders Crowded House, and her home country's pop godfather, Dave Dobbyn. (Both contributed to Beautiful Collision, Finn with some particularly choice humming on the track "The Be All and End All".) Having been road-tested, the songs were ready by the time the dates were over. What's more, when it came to recording, she played drums, guitar, bass and piano on various tracks, taught herself how to produce, and worked through 12 engineers and eight studios between New Zealand and America along the way.

Adding a few more strings to her bow, Runga is driving herself around England when we meet, doubling as her own tour manager and driver for a solo support slot on a tour with Aqualung. It's not exactly pop-star behaviour, and you soon realise that the time lag between her albums was due to the down-to-earth matters of craftsmanship and doing a job properly. "I just didn't want to make a bad album," she says. "So many of my favourite bands have made dog second records, you know? I was a bit nervous, but only because I wanted to learn my craft. Although I produced both of the records, I was only pretending to know how. Now I sort of know. I know what I think, at any rate."

The album certainly sounds like the one Runga set out to make. "I guess I was after something that sounds quite classic," she says. "When you spend three years trying to perfect your craft, you do end up with something like what I have. It's tidy, got its shirt tucked in and its buttons done up. I wanted to make a record that didn't sound like 2001. It's not instantaneous, but I don't think it'll date in a hurry."

For an idea of what it sounds like, the songs she covered at a concert with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra (released as a live album in New Zealand) are fairly indicative. These included tracks by Brel, Bacharach and Dylan, alongside Nick Cave's majestically aching "And No More Shall We Part". Runga compares Cave's recent balladry to "love songs Dracula would sing"; likewise, her songs have teeth and a timelessness to them, often boasting the clarity of standards.

"Get Some Sleep" is an impeccably catchy electric-folk song about life on the road; "Honest Goodbyes" a biting waltz; "When I See You Smile" a sweetly simple ode to domestic bliss that'll ring in your head for days. As for the country-fied "The Be All and End All", it's Elvis Presley in all but name. "I heard 'Are You Lonesome Tonight' while I was driving one night," Runga says, "and it was the most beautiful thing I'd heard on the radio because it sounds so sparse and tender. And I was wondering why you don't hear much of that kind of thing on the airwaves now, when that's exactly how people I know want radio songs to sound - sparse, and good songwriting, and light and shade, and dynamics."

Indeed, despite her album's success in New Zealand, she sees it as being very much out of fashion. "I wouldn't be surprised if it fell by the wayside because it's not, like, sex, y'know?" she says. "Romantic isn't in fashion, sex is. And I don't quite fit in, but that's all right." The album's selling well, though, isn't it? "It's doing all right in New Zealand, sure, but that's like doing all right on Mars. I don't stand a chance in America, say. It's too bombastic and too fast there. I'm not going to wait to have a big American single."

It's up to the rest of the world to catch up with New Zealand, then, and make Runga a star. She's likely to make it easier next time round, though, by picking up the pace for album three. "I'm so over myself now," she says. "I've got songs banked and I'd prefer to make albums more quickly and socially, without being too solitary. I went a bit nuts making this one and I'm glad that's over. It's nice to be back in the real world. Though I guess anyone who does anything creative has to go out there." Ah, but it's the coming back that counts.

Bic Runga plays the Scala, London NW1 (020-7833 2022) on 3 March. 'Beautiful Collision' is out now on Sony, and the single 'Get Some Sleep' is released on 8 March