When Worlds Collide

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Bic Runga is marooned in the spirituality section of the folksy Gertrude & Alice Bookstore at Sydney's Bondi Beach. Searching for a Sufi text by Idries Shah, all she can find are well-thumbed copies of Shirley MacLaine biographies and The Celestine Prophecy. Instead, the Kiwi singer-songwriter, whose lyrics and cheekbones are as fine as Delft china, sits herself down, pours herself an Earl Grey tea, and names her favorite writers-Truman Capote and J.D. Salinger. "I love short stories," says the 26-year-old, "because I've got the attention span of a gnat."

Musically, Runga has more ambition and scope. Her 1997 debut CD Drive became the highest-selling homegrown record in New Zealand recording history (the single Sway even found its way on to the soundtrack of the movie American Pie), and she has spent the last three years trying to follow up on Drive's successful mix of folky, intimate pop-rock. The pressure of expectation has been huge. So when Runga speaks of Prime Minister Helen Clark-"She's always got this furrowed brow, but she's just got the weight of the country on her shoulders, that's all"-she could be describing herself.

The process took her on various false starts (a dance album was jettisoned when Runga realized she was "no drum programmer. I was just trying to do something that was maybe based on fashion, or trying to be cooler than I am"), and saw her work with 12 different sound engineers in eight studios in five cities around the world. It was as if Runga was following the lyrics of her own Sway: "my head is battling with my heart." What she has finally arrived at-Beautiful Collision (Columbia), for which Runga begins a two-week Australian concert tour on Sept. 16-is true to its title: eclectic but emotionally resonant.

Producing Beautiful Collision (as she did Drive) Runga likens to directing a movie. "You have to pull a performance out of a player, and you have to know what's worth keeping and what's worth trying again," she says. "You have to know when to stop." Working with Kiwi idols Neil Finn and Dave Dobbyn, Runga has produced something of an epic, sonically more spacious than the first CD, and filled with musical vignettes that allow her voice-which has the purity of Joan Baez and the emotional edge of Björk-to star. On the country-hued The Be All and End All, she channels Johnny Cash. The single Get Some Sleep was inspired by the tambourine-tinged California sound of The Mamas and the Papas, while Listening for the Weather is a gorgeous pop ode to Crowded House, with Finn helping out on vocals.

But the album's darkly romantic streak-replete with lyrics about falling and flying, ethereal trills ("something good just might come crashing from the stars," she soars on Something Good) and lush orchestrations-is Runga's own. And peculiarly New Zealand. "It's got a kind of dark under-current as much as you wouldn't think so," she says of her homeland. "It's pretty, but at the same time it's so cut off from the world that you feel a bit stranded there."

Born into a musical family of Chinese and Maori ancestry in Christchurch (her sister Boh is lead singer of the rock band stellar*), Runga has always been happy to play wandering minstrel. At 18 she moved to Auckland, then to New York City after the release of Drive. Following her Australian tour, Runga will base herself in Los Angeles, with a regular gig at Largo, a hip showcase venue favored by the likes of Beck and Aimee Mann. Her talent is just as singular. "Bic [pronounced 'beck'] is Chinese and means the color of jade," she explains. "Runga is Maori for heaven or sky." Musically, it's a beautiful collision.