Pasan Jayasinghe charts a lifelong fandom with Bic Runga's undersung second album.
July 1 marked 15 years since the release of Bic Runga's much-anticipated second album, Beautiful Collision. It also marked a little over 15 years since Paysan Jayasinghe arrived in NZ with his family, and he writes on how one modest, intimate record soundtracked his coming of age in a new land.
Fifteen years and a few months ago, I first arrived in New Zealand. It was a strange country. I remember a lot of muted colours, all greys and navies and dark greens, and a lot of space – too much, I thought, for so little people. I remember trying to decipher the Kiwi accent, and wondering where all the vowels went. And I remember Bic Runga’s Beautiful Collision, released on 1 July 2002.
Music is an effective marker of shifts in life, and especially so in the midst of trying to adjust to a new country. During those first few years, Bic’s sophomore album was ubiquitous, in its own disarming and quiet manner. Though it doesn’t seem to be hailed the way her 1997 debut Drive still is today, it’s easy to forget that it spent a record 101 weeks on the albums chart on its way to being certified 11-times platinum. The reasons for this success are certainly due to her being well established already. But Beautiful Collision’s sustained success may have stemmed from its easy-going and upbeat appeal compared to its predecessor; its sound is the kind which clings best to memories.
This is captured most efficiently by my first encounter with the album, lead single “Get Some Sleep” which turns a hotline call-in on a road trip into an anthem of sorts. There was something rather charming about a song that talks about a song request (“Tune into the station, make a dedication”) and ends slyly with that dedication turned towards the audience itself (the chorus hums “this is going out to everyone”). A discreetly self-referential piece of songwriting, it’s buoyed by its acoustic arrangement and lovely harmonies, and never seems to be calculated. To my thirteen-year-old self, though, it only briefly registered that it was a song about song. It was just a captivating three-and-a-half minutes of pop.
After “Get Some Sleep” came the album’s other two singles, “Something Good” and “Listening For The Weather”. In those early years, they were pleasantly inescapable, all three having charted within the Top 20 and becoming radio and music TV staples. Other cuts from the album would come a few years later, found on a friend’s MP3 player while on some school trip; she wouldn’t get it back until we got home. I can’t recall when I first acquired the album in full, but I do remember practically all the songs feeling immediately familiar when I did.
Adding to this familiarity was the discovery of previously overlooked lyrical turns at every corner, that kept revealing themselves on repeat listening. These were the days before we were surrounded by pervasive, unending commentary and critique of music (and partiularly then, this wasn’t even a partial reality for New Zealand music), so you were left to your own devices and insights when grappling with a song or album. The understanding I have of Beautiful Collision then, is highly personal and idiosyncratic, in a way that is unconditioned by anyone or anything else. That’s a rare thing, both personally with most other albums I love, and generally within pop music as a genre.
This understanding was derived over fifteen years. Through finishing high school, going to university, acquiring various pieces of expensive paper and clutching at something to call work; from sleepy Hamilton to the grey deluge of Auckland to the glimmering bubble of Wellington, my life would find continuous expression through Beautiful Collision. Drawing a CD cover for “Listening To The Weather” for a fourth form English assignment (the Hillcrest High School English department was rather progressive with its teaching methods); a study of a windowsill with pot plants and books and rain outside was my earliest artistic impression of the song. Falling into the determined, affirmatory optimism of “Something Good” which I needed time and time again through the social and academic trials of the University of Auckland’s cold, tinted-window glisten. Play-acting out the scenes of “Election Night” over three different election nights as I nursed various relationship blues with the vote return being broadcast in the background. Diving into Beautiful Collision was a sort of instant comfort, though never a saccharine or wilfully blind one. Bic acknowledges that life is complicated; boredom, depression, even death hang silently over her characters. But the album encourages accepting those complications, and trying to make peace with them, if only by nervously chasing love and wilfully making resolutions.
Through Beautiful Collision Bic pulls at both the ordinary and the fantastical, and lets the two bleed into each other in alluring ways. The domesticity of the former is most vivid: her characters dance around living rooms (“Gravity”); steel themselves for telephone conversations (“Precious Things”); and waste their lives at traffic lights and turnstiles (“Counting The Days”). It contains both the comfort of familiar routine, and the mild dismay of tedium. In both senses, it speaks to everyday life in New Zealand; innocuous and unspectacular. This imagery is never location-specific, but you can’t help but latching onto it, filling it in with your own detail and inhabitating the songs yourself. So the supermarket checkouts in “Listening For The Weather” easily became the Lim Chhour on K Road or the New World Metro on Lambton Quay for me, just as the ancient stars falling down in “Election Night” could have been the Milky Way opening up above Masterton or Lake Tekapo. And every so often, that domesticity in transcends the mundane in gorgeous detail. The album’s opening couplet – “when I see you smile, first thing in the morning, it raises curtains on your lazy eyes” – is all warm, sun-drenched contentment.
The album also a streak of whimsy and passion. “All the elements conspire, with shiny things that catch the eye” in “Precious Things” whilst the title track explains that a “beautiful collision” is “things that go bump in the night” when “with such beautiful precision, fate could create you and I”. In “The Be All And End All”, the narrator urges her lover to make a start on love, with “the sleepwalking moon watching on”. These are escapisms of a sort, the creation myths between two people that we all create to distract from the monotony of everyday life and to give narrative to the ordinary stories playing out. But in and of themselves, they contain a simple beauty; love and romance drawn out through the night sky. There’s a simplicity even in the fantasy.
Perhaps the through line in between the prosaic and the fantastic is the little wisdoms Bic scatters through the album, deft turns of phrase that have an intricate poetry to them while feeling resolutely true. “Listening For The Weather”, for instance, is filled with them, from the “tomorrows [that] keep on blowing in from somewhere” to the “people that I know, in the apartments down below, busy with their starring roles in their own tragedies”. In adept strokes, the song sketches out life lived away from a loved one, the motions you go through as you try to guess what the other person is doing (“And I’m sure that as I’m writing, you’ll be somewhere on your way/in a supermarket checkout or a restaurant”); the difficulty of living beyond the past (“those restless thoughts that cling to yesterday”); the quiet resignation to your fate (“I’ve been doing what I’m told. I’ve been busy growing old.”); and the bittersweet pain of even the small moments of contact ("I hate to leave you on your own”). All of which makes that time you can finally be together again so heavy with expectation, for better or worse – for its sweetness, “Listening For The Weather” is also deeply irresolute.
To back this songwriting up, the album features gorgeously understated production which lulls between jazz and lounge on one hand to folk on the other, whilst retaining a firm footing on pop sensibilities. These touches help in maintaining each of the songs as distinct, not blurring into each other as sets of songs in this genre (including her contemporaries) can risk doing.
Finally, there’s Bic’s voice, which often goes unremarked. She is technically proficient, to be sure, but is moreover a singer very much aware of her vocal abilities, knowing exactly where a certain inflection or pause would elevate a song. Most enduringly, she has a gorgeous, warm tone which can be strikingly intimate. It results in the album feeling like a telephone conversation with a close friend, reassuring, familiar and necessary.
A few months short of 15 years later, I would leave New Zealand. In navigating a reverse migration of sorts, I am unexpectedly discovering the odd pang of patriotism all New Zealanders must stumble upon when they depart these shores. New Zealand, rather thankfully, does not have much of a thing for concentrated or performative nationalism. Awkward exercises premised on identifying and articulating “New Zealand values”, such as the 2015 and 2016 flag referenda, inevitably collapse. To most of the public, these values seemingly exist outside of enunciation and manufactured symbolism. The country claims none of the monopolies on quantities such freedom, liberty and so forth that apparently fuel many other nations. From our corner of the world, they appear generic and more than a little vacuous. What defines us instead are values which lose their power the moment they are articulated. Modesty, lack of pretention, a certain nonchalance and generosity.
These are a part of living in New Zealand, and as such, go unremarked. But with distance comes the comparative perspective to point them out. That distance has also allowed me to see how clearly these values run through Beautiful Collision, at once narrowing and strengthening its appeal. In the album’s songwriting, production and vocals, there is a distinct lack of self-indulgence. The album is determinedly and simply a collection of songs about love and life from a young woman. But for its introspection, it’s a considerate and generous listen, rewarding repeated listens with stirring images and throwaway insights. There’s this quiet dignity to Bic’s work, about small lives coloured in with tiny details and offhand observations, which feels like New Zealand in a way that most things don’t. For me, Beautiful Collision is very nearly shorthand for New Zealand itself, especially now.
This reflection on values is important because fifteen years later, New Zealand is a different country, and it especially must be so when first encountering it as a place to live. While the idea of migration itself does not seem to be so strange a phenomenon any more, the country’s political space has become depressingly hostile towards immigrants in ways which range from subtle to full-throated. Whilst I would proceed to discover the contours of racism in New Zealand over fifteen years, I rarely felt then that my very presence was questioned. The Kiwi Ora arrival packs and the assorted MPs at cultural events created a sense of welcome that is a far cry from the rather insidious dog whistles dominating discussion today (often, tragically, by the same MPs continuing to turn up to those cultural events).
Perhaps most strongly, there was Bic. Even then, it was clear for me that she was different somehow. I only registered back then that she was simply non-white, but that was difference enough. In 2003, it was still something rare to see and hear a non-Pākehā singer on commercial radio and on TV, let alone one doing so well. Beautiful Collision pre-empted by about half a year the arrival of a more diverse slate of artists onto the New Zealand music scene; 2003 and onward would be the banner year for Nesian Mystik, Scribe, Aarahdna and the Dawn Raid roster (though this arrival was more firmly established in hip-hop and R&B; New Zealand pop itself continued to be Pākehā-dominated). In such a physical space, and a discursive space not yet activated by norms of representation and diversity, Bic was very much an anomaly.
A while after coming here, I vividly recall watching one of Bic’s videos on C4 on a Saturday morning – the adorably dorky one for “Something Good” which has her on Cuba Street playing a Good Samaritan who’s unsure whether she’s a ghost or not (Cuba Street, when it finally became part of my everyday, was thankfully just as Bic pictured it). My dad asked me who the Chinese woman on screen singing in English was. I remember replying reflexively that she was a New Zealander, and his face contorting in incredulous disbelief. I didn’t have the wherewithal to describe Bic’s heritage to him then (for however much or little it matters, her mother is Chinese Malaysian and her father Māori) but the scepticism roiling dad’s mind was the very idea of categorising a non-white person as a “New Zealander”. It was a scepticism that persisted for him even after we became New Zealand citizens; in his mind, he could never be one.
For me, however, Bic has always symbolised the idea that the category of “New Zealander” could be open ended. In no small part due to her, I never really questioned whether I could call myself that or if I belonged here. It was simply a choice to do so, as it should be. But that choice becomes harder when people question your identity and your very existence so openly. I wonder then, if there is a Beautiful Collision for a brown kid arriving in the country today. If there is something that both signifies and explains the fears, drives and values of their new home and does so in an inclusive yet calmly unfussed way. That can provide layers and layers of meaning and belonging for years to come. That somehow becomes one with this tiny, gorgeous, ridiculous place. I sincerely hope there is, because of how much this country means to me. If not, there is always Beautiful Collision, as beautiful as ever.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.