This article is part of our series 'Nice Song, What's It About?,' where we revisit old greats and go deep to get the stories behind them. To see the column's archive, click here.
It's been 20 years since Bic Runga first released Drive, her 1997 debut album that went seven-times platinum in New Zealand and quickly propelled the then-teenaged musician to local stardom. International recognition followed two years later when "Sway", the second single from the album, found itself in adolescent bedrooms everywhere after it soundtracked a pivotal scene in one of the horniest teen movies of all time, American Pie. (So central was the innocent love song to the movie that it even made another appearance in the 2012 sequel, American Reunion.)
"Sway" debuted at number one on the New Zealand charts, and in 2001 the Australasian Performing Rights Association (APRA) named it the sixth best New Zealand song of all time, in a top ten that also included songs by Dave Dobbyn, Crowded House, Dragon and Split Enz. Since Drive, Runga's output has been sparse but strong, with countless accolades and five studio albums to her name, including two produced with her partner Kody Nielson (Silicon, Opossum, The Mint Chicks).
In June, Runga will play three Australian shows in Melbourne and Sydney to celebrate 20 years in music and the release of her new The Very Best Of compilation. We caught up with her ahead of the tour to find out the story behind her biggest hit.
Noisey: When you were writing Drive, did you have a sense that "Sway" would be the big hit of the album?
Bic Runga: I distinctly remember writing the song – I was sitting on my porch in Auckland, in a flat that I was renting in pretty uninteresting part of town, when I was maybe 19 years old. It was one of those songs that just happened, it wrote itself. But I don't remember thinking anything about it, like whether it was good or not. I didn't have any judgement when I was writing it. It just happened.
Is the song about anyone in particular?
No, not really. It was all just pure feeling and no specifics, just about the general feeling of being in love.
Can you describe where you were at in your life when "Sway" came out?
I'd actually already had a single out with the title track of the record, Drive, and suddenly I felt like I was an actual musician. I had a new confidence about songwriting, I think. Before that I'd been working in a shoe shop and a record store, and I guess I didn't really consider myself a real musician until that moment.
I read somewhere that you think a lot of people seem to know the song 'Sway' but maybe don't know your other material that well. Do you still feel like that?
Oh, definitely. It's a blessing and a curse to have a song become something of a hit when you're just starting out. It's like beginner's luck. For some reason the stars just aligned for that song – 'Sway' bought me a house, and I haven't had to work in a shoe shop again. At the same time though, I think a lot of my subsequent work hasn't sunk in with people. But it doesn't matter. I do have some loyal fans that know all my albums, but there are a lot of people who only know this one song. I think a lot of people think I'm from Thailand too. [Laughs.]
I love "Sway", but my favourite song on the album is the one after it, "Hey", which I think shows a different, angstier side to your music. What kind of music were you listening to around the time you wrote the songs on Drive?
You have to remember it was, like, 1997, so things like grunge had only just happened. I remember seeing Radiohead in my hometown, Christchurch, just after "Creep" and Pablo Honey had been released. I saw them in a pub where there were only like 200 people in the audience. Actually, when you listen to "Hey", that song has an ultra-dynamic, big chorus that's so clearly Radiohead-influenced, only through the brain of a 19-year-old girl. So I guess that's what was happening with me musically in the late '90s.
I'm dying to know what you think of American Pie. Was it weird to see your song appear in the scene where all the characters finally get laid?
Things happened quite quickly for me after I wrote "Sway". The record label moved me to New York when really I was still a naive 20-year-old, and I fell in with a funny bunch of friends that I met on the music video shoot for "Sway" – actors and students, all young kids like me. I was the token weird one from New Zealand. Anyway, I told them I had a song in some new movie and we all went to see it together at Union Square. I had no idea what to expect. It was funny – I just thought the movie was so American, and I was already having major culture shocks over there as it was. Then the scene with my song came on, and I was dumbfounded! I couldn't believe the context and the strangeness of hearing my own music in that particular scene.
I actually thought the movie was really clunky. It's of a certain genre… almost like Porky's 'lite' or something. More than anything though I was just shocked by the experience of seeing a song of mine in a big movie. But I did love it. When we all left the movie theatre, the kids I was with thought it was so awesome. I don't know if it's because they're American, but they really seemed to understand the movie and think it was great.
Where's the grocery store in the music video for "Sway"?
There's actually two music videos! One was made in New Zealand, before I got shipped over by the record company in America. Then the record company made another one. It's pretty funny, and a wild waste of money, really. In this day and age you probably wouldn't spend that sort of money on a music video, and you certainly wouldn't do it twice.
Which version am I thinking of then?
That's the American one – the one where I met all my American friends at the shoot. The New Zealand one is actually a slightly different version of the song too. We recorded the first version in Ireland, of all places, at the studio owned by U2. That was the record company's attempt at finding me a producer and finding me a 'sound', then I ended up taking the song back to New Zealand with me. Later, I ended up re-recording it with myself as producer – I actually produced the rest of the record myself. I'd gone through this whole thing of being a new, young artist getting wheeled out with all these old producer dudes. I experienced quite a lot of that at a young age and, realising it could go on forever, I decided I just wanted to produce the album myself.
Do you feel pressure to perform the song at every live show, even now?
I actually always sing the song live. Maybe surprisingly, I don't really have strong opinions about it. Sometimes I don't even feel like I wrote it, in the sense that I kind of have a respect for it as its own entity. I still think it's good though. I just look back on it as a song of mine that was made properly.
A lot of the YouTube comments on the "Sway" music video are from people who arrived at your song by being on hold to Vodafone and hearing the song on repeat.
That's what happens when you've been around for 20 years – your music becomes part of the landscape. I actually tried to get my music taken off the pool of songs that gets used for hold music, because I don't think it's a great context to hear music! They probably just choose music to placate people, and I guess mine is of that nature. [Laughs.] But I couldn't do it – I talked to the Australasian Performing Rights Association (APRA), who said it's actually not a straightforward thing to do. So I'm like, oh well, in another 10 years Lorde will be the hold music instead.
You've got three kids now, who didn't grow up in the "Sway" era. What do they think of the song?
I think [my eldest child] Joe is understanding that some of his teachers and friends' mums know my music, but I also think he's slightly bemused and baffled by it. My kids like some of my music, but mainly I think they'd rather listen to Psy.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about you or your music?
I think people think I'm really serious, or at least that I take myself really seriously. But I've got a healthy taste for the absurd. I go out of my way to find things to follow and be influenced by, especially on social media. Young, funny, punk-spirited women – I get a lot of energy from people like that.
'The Very Best of Bic Runga' (2017) is out now through Sony.
Catch her touring Australia in June, including at Vivid Sydney – details here.
Sara Savage is a writer, editor & broadcaster in Melbourne. Follow her on Twitter.
Illustration: Ashley Goodall