Briolette Kah Bic Runga was born in Hornby, Christchurch (NZ) to Malay/Chinese mother Sophia and Maori father Joe, her early musical influences emanated from her parents record collection which included Shirley Bassey, Cliff Richard, and The Carpenters, to which she added The Smiths. In 1976, she sang with her two siblings and made several records including an EP version of what would become her debut album Drive.
Signed to Sony Music in 1995 she had relocated to Auckland and entered the recording studio to put down the final mix of demo songs from the EP that Runga had submitted, using different arrangements and orchestration to achieve a richer more professional sound.
The single Drive was released in 1996 and was a top ten hit in NZ picking up the APRA Silver Scroll award for Song of the Year, her follow up Bursting Through, released the year after was also a top ten hit and the success of these singles led to the release of her debut album, also entitled Drive in 1997 and the first single lifted from it was the beguiling romantic pop of Sway.
Runga recalls writing Sway on the front porch of a rented flat in Auckland in 1995 when she was nineteen, the inspiration for the title was seeing the word “sway” graffitied on a bridge and musing on how the graffiti artist had managed to dangle from the structure to write the word and the significance it was meant to convey.
Lyrically Sway is honest, direct, and introverted, but not dour or depressing, essentially a lover’s reflection which captures the angst and uncertainty experienced by a girl when the object of her affections is unresponsive and neglectful “Say you’ll stay/ Don’t come and go/ Like you do”
Musically the song is simple, almost sparse, Runga is a multi-instrumentalist and plays to her strengths here using acoustic and electric guitar and percussion with the addition of violin, which is particularly effective at the outro to the song, the melody is catchy and the title is cleverly inserted in the hook.
But the impressive instrument on display here was Bic Runga’s angelic vocals, her honeyed, sinuous voice literally twists and shimmers intimately around the lyrics, imbuing them with an emotional honesty and endearing naivety.
She has been compared to Tori Amos, Norah Jones, Tanita Tikaram and Sarah McLaughlin and there is also a vulnerability about Runga’s vocal interpretation that is reminiscent of Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn, released the year before.
Runga’s second album Beautiful Collision had been in development for three years before it was released in 2002, two different conceptualisations for the album had been discarded before Runga ultimately reverted to a more standard melodic singer/songwriter approach, which included her autobiographical Get Some Sleep, inspired by the rigors of touring and living the nomadic life; but the album failed to resonate outside NZ, stalling at #48 in Australia.
Sway was #7 hit in NZ and charted at #10 in Australia, it was featured on the soundtrack of the teen movie American Pie in 1999 and the follow-up American Reunion in 2012, she took her fourth album Birds to #19 in 2006 in Australia, and released her fifth album Belle in 2009, but there have been no hits since then.
Bic Runga is rightly revered as an original singer-songwriter of great significance in her homeland and has multiple album and single success to her credit there, she was inducted into the NZ Music Hall of Fame in 2016.