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A bit of research has Bic Runga reaching for new highs with Tiny Ruins, writes Shane Gilchrist.
Bic Runga has an admission to make. She's guilty of internet stalking. Her target? Hollie Fullbrook, the folky performer otherwise known as Tiny Ruins.
A forthcoming series of concerts (including in Dunedin and Oamaru) in which the acclaimed voices of both artists will blend, the songs of each artist bolstered by the other's input.
Oh, and there will be some left-field covers, too.
''Hollie starts the show with a 40-minute set before an intermission; then I play for another 30 minutes before she comes back on stage; then we spend the next 40 minutes doing a joint set,'' Runga explains from her Auckland home earlier this week.
Joining the pair on tour will be Runga's partner, Kody Nielson, formerly of the Mint Chicks, on drums, as well as Fullbrook's Tiny Ruins line-up, comprising bassist Cass Basil and drummer Alexander Freer, with Tom Healy on electric guitar.
''We had our first group practice a couple of days ago,'' Fullbrook says.
''It was nice to bring all the elements together. It's starting to feel like a real beast.''
Describing the collaboration as ''quite surreal'', Fullbrook recalls her parents buying Runga's first album, 1997's Drive, when she was 12.
''Hearing this voice I'd grown up with ... it took me a while to get my head around the fact my voice was merging with hers.
''I hadn't met Bic, but I think she became aware of our music about the time of the New Zealand Music Awards last year (when Tiny Ruins' 2014 sophomore release, Brightly Painted One, was named Best Alternative Album).
''She emailed me about four months ago asking if we'd be keen to do something together, or even just getting together to share ideas. I was on tour in Australia, opening for Sharon Van Etten. The prospect of working with another amazing woman was quite enticing.''
Runga says she watched Fullbrook from a distance, replaying plenty of online interviews to get a sense of her potential musical partner.
''I hadn't crossed paths with her but I knew she was doing well overseas. I did spend a lot of time researching her. I didn't want to ask Hollie if I wasn't 100% sure it would work on every level.
''I have a lot of respect for her songwriting and I knew our voices would work together,'' Runga explains.
''I reached out and contacted Hollie. She was overseas at the time but we met up when she got home (Auckland). We emailed songs to each other, stuff we thought might suit. I was delighted to find we had similar tastes.''
Thus the duo explored a shared love of '60s and '70s-era pop, folk and rock, ranging from the Kinks, Simon and Garfunkel to Neil Young and Nick Drake.
Runga also threw some more obscure artists into the mix, including American civil rights activist and folk singer Odetta, French chanson Francois Hardy and Greenwich Village folk artist Karen Dalton.
''Bic's ones were off my radar,'' Fullbrook says.
''She suggested some quite obscure stuff, so I had my musical horizons broadened a bit.''
Still, some material didn't translate particularly well.
''One of the artists we were really excited about was Nina Simone. We tried covering Black is the Colour of My True Love's Hair, an old Scottish traditional song which Simone did,'' Fullbrook says.
''We also tried songs by Karen Dalton, Neil Young and the Kinks, but we felt they were really hard to do.
''For example, in the Neil Young song, there was just something in the production that made the song sound off when done by someone else.
''We ended up going with slightly different choices.''
Though she doesn't want to give too much away, Fullbrook mentions Simon and Garfunkel's So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright, a composition that features some less obvious chord structures and, thus, some difficult guitar playing.
''For me, it's about not resting on my laurels and pushing myself to learn more skills on guitar.
''And when you take apart someone else's songs, whether they are by Bic or someone else, you do learn a lot about the songwriting craft. You are always adding to your own way of doing things.''
That said, the pair stopped short of attempting to co-write any new material.
''We both talked about it, but we've struggled to do that with others in the past. I think we both feel it's quite a personal, solitary activity. But you never know,'' Fullbrook says.
Yet new songs have filtered into the mix, including Runga's forthcoming single, I Dreamed A Dream, her first independent release since ending contractual obligations with Sony.
''Bic had a really fresh song, as did I (Hurtling Through). Playing those new songs to each other was a good bonding exercise.
''You get an insight into the really early stages of a song, when it is just being played on a guitar in a room, and you haven't even thought of the instruments you might add when you record it.''
Runga points out it wasn't just Fullbrook's singing and songwriting that prompted her to make contact.
She also rates her new friend's ability on guitar.
''I think she's a really good guitarist. She's really good at finger-picking, but I thought she might want to play some lead guitar. I think it's easy to under-rate someone like her as an instrumentalist.
''Also, I think there is an empathy between two female songwriters; there's a bit of shorthand. We don't have to explain things.''
The obvious question is, where will this live collaboration lead?
An album perhaps?
''The more we get to know each other, the more likely it is we will do something,'' Runga hints.
''I also rate Hollie as a producer.
''We have been practising so much and the band is sounding so good that I don't want to waste an opportunity to record if we can.''
• Since her debut 1996 single, Drive, Bic Runga has won a range of musical honours in New Zealand, including the APRA Silver Scroll Songwriting Award, a brace of Tuis and multi-platinum discs.
• Her 1997 debut album Drive went platinum seven times; Beautiful Collision followed in 2002 (11 times platinum) and Birds in 2005 (triple platinum).
Belle, her fourth album, was released in 2011.
• Runga was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2006.
• Hollie Fullbrook began Tiny Ruins as a solo project in 2009, quickly recording debut album Some Were Meant For Sea.
Expanding to include bassist Cass Basil and drummer Alexander Freer, Tiny Ruins has spent much of the past three years touring Australia, Europe and the United States, including performing with Sharon Van Etten, Calexico and The Handsome Family.
• The group's sophomore album, Brightly Painted One, was named Best Alternative Album at the 2014 NZ Music Awards.
Bic Runga and Tiny Ruins perform the following shows in the South:
• Mayfair Theatre, Dunedin, Thursday, June 25.
• Oamaru Opera House, Oamaru, Friday June 26.