Happy 20th Anniversary to Bic Runga’s debut album Drive, originally released in her native New Zealand in August 1997 and in the United States on July 21, 1998.
In 1997, women in every genre, from the mainstream stage to the indie realm, showed up and showed out. This swell of power reached a fever pitch on July 5th, 1997, the official start date of the Lilith Fair music festival, which eventually enjoyed a three-year run. It was a positive unification of female power, emblematic in its refutation of the less progressive side of gender politics in the popular music industry. Among the cast of characters assembled during the concert's first summer was a fresh faced New Zealander named Bic Runga.
Born Briolette Kah Bic Runga in 1976 in Christchurch, New Zealand, Runga was encouraged from a young age to pursue her interest in music. Starting with the drums at age 11, Runga would master several more instruments and refine her songwriting. By early adulthood, Runga was a full-blown musician; she began the inevitable cycle of peer collaboration, live performance and artistic refinement tempering her skills. It prepared her for what came next, a recording contract offer with the New Zealand arm of Sony/Columbia Records. Runga signed to the label in September 1995. In that interim between signing her deal and the August 1997 release of her first LP Drive, Runga tasked tirelessly on it, producing and writing the album on her own, in its entirety.
And what an album Drive is. Exquisitely intimate, Runga’s debut is also politely observational in its lyrical storytelling about love. As with most artists, regardless of the medium in which they operate, this perennial topic serves as her muse too. Her songwriting is conversation-like, sharing the excitement and optimism that new love can bestow and her acoustic pop compositions “Sway” and “Bursting Through” communicate this effectively and beautifully. Runga's voice, sweet and affecting, skim these tracks, driving home their softness.
However, Runga reveals range, heft and volume on “Swim” and “Heal.” The cuts were assuredly alternative rock/pop works. But they maintained a mannered disposition, despite their thrash and bash guitar and drumming―just two of the four instruments Runga plays on Drive. The remaining two include the Mellotron (heard on “Hey”) and xylophone (heard on “Sway,” “Suddenly Strange”).
“Bursting Through,” “Sway,” “Suddenly Strange,” “Roll Into One,” and “Hey” were the five singles chosen to represent Drive throughout the record's lifespan from mid-1997 up through early 1998. Though only modestly successful, the singles created buzz for its parent album, leading listeners to purchase it. In New Zealand, Drive exceeded expectations by topping the Official New Zealand Music Chart and striking platinum status seven times over. Accolades came swiftly, notably the “New Zealand Album of the Year” award in 1998.
Abroad, Drive had more difficulty finding its footing. America proved to be tricky despite “Sway” finding favor with the alternative college radio crowd. Two years later, “Sway” was featured in the 1999 romantic comedy, American Pie. It was reprised in the fourth installment of the American Pie film series in 2012, American Reunion. This led to Runga locking in a loyal cult following in America, adding it to her established cult presence in the United Kingdom and Australia.
Runga continued on to further glories post-Drive with five more studio albums: Beautiful Collision (2002), Birds (2005), Belle (2011) and Close Your Eyes (2016). To say nothing of the two live albums, a rarities set and two “best-of” packages released in between these studio efforts. The sequence of original albums have soared critically and commercially in her native country, culminating with two of New Zealand's highest artistic honors gifted to her in 2006 and 2016: appointee of the New Zealand Order of Merit and inductee into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame.
When I interviewed Runga for Blogcritics at the end of 2016 and asked her about Drive, she remarked, “I guess 20 years can fly by pretty fast, I still feel like I’m only just getting started. ‘Sway’ was the biggest song for me on that record, people seem to know the song but maybe don’t know me. This has been quite interesting, I still feel like I’ve got some way to go.” Runga is still traveling musically and Drive, the first chapter in her career story holds fast as a chapter always worth revisiting.