Boh Runga on swapping shoes for plants, her new “Pick’n’Mix” jewellery line for the people and big birthday plans.
Boh Runga admits she has quite the “obsession” for houseplants.
Her home and office are a veritable leafy paradise filled with different varieties of monstera deliciosa and other leafy friends. She jokes her partner, musician Troy McKubre, probably wishes they weren’t quite so prolific, and she has no idea how many she’s collated or propagated from cuttings – “too many!”
And while monstera house plants are trending right now, Runga’s relationship with the plant goes back to her childhood when she used her pocket money to buy small plants from a lovely lady up the road who had a greenhouse.
Mostly she bought succulents and cacti (though she gave up on cacti “because they are not very friendly”) but one purchase included her now massive and multi-faceted monstera.
“There’s a picture of me aged around 11 standing in front of my monstera plant in the lounge holding my Branston Intermediate Singing Cup,” says Runga. “When my parents moved to Auckland from Christchurch, they brought it with them. It’s now monstrous and more than 40 years old. It’s a weird thought to think it is nearly as old as I am.”
The mother plant is in her mum’s garden, and also in the garden at Runga’s West Auckland home. Sisters Bic and Pearl have cuttings from the original plant, too.
“It’s one of my favourite plants,” says Runga. “They grow really fast and are really satisfying tropical plants to have in your collection.”
Runga’s dream is to have her own greenhouse to house more tropical plants. As a self-employed musician with her own jewellery line, Runga says surrounding herself with plants at home and at the “Bohffice” [Boh-office] makes sense.
“I’ve become quite obsessed with houseplants, but they are beautiful. I guess because I work for myself, I like to be surrounded by plants. I’ve kind of moved on from clothes and shoes to plants.”
Despite her “obsession”, she is quick to point out that she is no expert and has “killed a lot of plants”. She has learned that it’s better to under-water than over-water. “Once the roots start rotting there’s no comeback. They’re like Goldilocks – everything has to be just right!”
Garden and home
Seven years ago, when she and McKubre bought their home in West Auckland, they built raised garden beds in the backyard.
“A big part of growing up was my parents’ amazing garden. My father grew all sorts of things, not just the food that we ate, but also flowers. He was obsessed with gladioli and dahlias. I remember that very fondly,” she says. “I really wanted to have that kind of thing when we got our house but I don’t have the same perseverance and dedication. I enjoy it if I don’t have to maintain it the way that it needs to be maintained. We really need a gardener! Gardening was Dad’s thing. He’s not around anymore but I wish I could just ask ‘Dad, what do I do here?’”
Despite describing herself as a “terrible gardener”, her garden has brought its rewards with crops of kūmara, including one that got away on them.
“When we found it, it was the size of a small child, just massive,” Runga laughs. “And it was delicious because when you grow stuff at home yourself, it’s obviously not as old as what you get from the supermarket. It’s always good when you grow it yourself. Kūmara is easy to grow and you can also eat the leaves.”
Runga is partial to kūmara leaves, which she cooks up with a bit of sugar, but jokes that McKubre still prefers lettuce.
The couple’s backyard bounty includes “crazy good vegetables” like silverbeet, potatoes and pumpkins grown from seeds scattered in the garden, as well as apples and mandarins. “There’s that childlike excitement you get when you see things grow, which I love,” she says.
Eating more vegetables has also been a conscious decision for the couple who have also moved away from eating so much red meat, for health reasons. “We have a high incidence of bowel cancer in New Zealand and I don’t think ingesting meat helps in that regard so we’re just trying to look after ourselves.”
Other garden projects include the installation of a rainwater tank, critical in Auckland with increasingly dry summers and water shortages. The pretty garden hedges out front have also been replaced with succulents and bromeliads that don’t rely on being watered every five minutes.
“I spent so much time trying to keep our little hedges and I got to the point where I had to say, ‘sorry you’ve just got to go’,” says Runga.
Since having a garden of her own, she has learnt to make a date in her diary to pick produce when it’s beginning to ripen, otherwise it will get plundered.
“Don’t assume that you’re going to be able to pick that fruit off your trees before the possums or birds get it. It’s tempting to leave them for a bit longer so that they’ll be juicier and nicer but those animals are waiting for the same juicy moment.”
And, if you have pets, make sure to collect windfall fruit or fence off your fruit trees.
“Our dog Tobey actually collapsed in front of me because he had poisoned himself from eating too many apples. He loves fruit and had eaten so many. Apple seeds contain traces of arsenic and we had to race him to the emergency vet,” she says.
“We’re now really conscious of that and the tree is fenced off.”
Tobey, a Staffy-cross, is one of three “fur babies” in the household – alongside Leroy, a mixed-breed pooch, and cat Gary.
At age 51, Runga is philosophical about being child-free. Unlike many of her friends, who knew they wanted children from the start, it was not something she consciously planned for. Though she thought it might happen. It just never did.
“It’s like most things, if you don’t actively seek it, you can’t assume it is going to happen just because you are a woman. And then you realise it’s not going to happen, that it’s too late. When that happened, I actually had to think about ‘do I feel sad?’ and I did for a week but then I realised I can’t change any of that. You’ve just got to go, ‘oh, well, that’s just the way it is’, and get on with it, and I’m lucky that I’ve got healthy nephews and nieces.”
Runga takes the same practical and philosophical approach when it comes to handling any worries or anxiety, including around Covid. Reading and walking the dogs helps her relax.
“I’m a little bit happy-go-lucky. I just try not to take it in and worry as much as I used to. I’ll take the information and keep up with what is going on, but I won’t dwell on it. You have to accept that this is the way things are. You just have to try and do everything you can to keep you, your family and others safe.”
Turning 50 during the 2020 lockdown meant Runga couldn’t celebrate her significant birthday, but her business, Boh Runga Jewellery, turns 15 in 2022 so she’s planning to turn that into a special celebration.
She’s begun to write songs based on some of the meanings behind some of her jewellery pieces, which she plans to release around the birthday celebrations.
“There’s a lot to tap into if you go into the legends and beliefs culturally which I want to explore,” she says. “I’ve only written three songs in the last six months, but they’ve been written from start to finish, which is highly unusual for me, so I’ve already got the basis of what I want to do. It will be fun to do something next year.”
The storytelling part of creating a piece is something she loves, and thinking about what a piece might mean to someone and how it can relate to the way they may want to gift it “because it’s all about giving”.
And this is where the new Boh Runga Jewellery “Pick’n’Mix” concept comes in. Runga’s parents used to own a dairy when she was growing up and she’s taken the concept from pick’n’mix lollies that you used to buy for 20c.
“It’s a way of choosing bits and pieces from our collection and turning it into something of your own and personalising it,” she says. “I want to make it easier for people to think about what they want to say in a piece. It’s not just about something that’s pretty, it’s about the meaning behind it.”
Her recent collaborations with friends – footwear designer Kathryn Wilson and musician Anika Moa – have been very personal as well as fun.
It saw the release of the “Lola” high heel pendant with Wilson, who named the Lola after her daughter. Incidentally, Wilson also named a shoe after Boh, many years ago!
Anika Moa, with whom Boh has recorded an album and been mates for more than 15 years, also recently approached her to create a special locket to hold a lock of her bubba Marigold’s hair, which resulted in the Marigold pendant.
It’s designed to be a cherished item with aroha, especially in these times.
“I think that with the way the world is now with limitations on travelling overseas, carrying reminders of those you care about becomes even more poignant,” Runga says.
Gold medal moment
More recently, a personal highlight was seeing Lisa Carrington row to victory at the Tokyo Olympics wearing a pair of silver Boh Runga Jewellery Te Teina ō Huia earrings. Runga was watching the race and thought, “Is she? I think she is! OMG, she’s wearing those earrings!”
“She just kept gunning and winning, she’s amazing and it was exciting,” says Runga. “I was getting so many text messages from people and screenshots saying ‘I think she is wearing Teina Huia’. We actually sent her some gold versions of Teina Huia [earrings] as she won gold, to say congratulations.”
More trees, please
For Earth Day, Boh Runga Jewellery also planted a tree for every purchase made online or from the Ponsonby “Bohtique” supporting conservation trust Project Crimson’s “Trees That Count” project.
It’s not the first time Runga has planted trees for a good cause. In the past she worked with Project Crimson as an ambassador of The Mazda Foundation, mucking in with the kids on its past TREEmendous programme for schools.
“It was a small way I could help contribute to taking care of our special part of the Earth,” she says.
Many of her designs are an expression of her love of New Zealand birds and nature. The tui pendant is inspired by birdsong in her garden, and the Teina Huia earrings are a stylised modern take on the huia feather, a taonga revered by Māori and a reminder to protect our birdlife.
Humble home studio
Their private life is something the couple also protect, and as creatives and musicians, it made sense for Runga and McKubre to build a home recording studio. McKubre, one half of the YouTube sensation and parody project The Gentle Men, spends most of his time in the studio writing and recording.
The Gentle Men are releasing their album this year even though McKubre has never met his fellow gentle man – Florida-based YouTube streamer and vocalist Charlie White – in person.
“Their YouTube plays are massive. It’s quite strange. He must be the biggest New Zealand rock artist that people don’t know about,” says Runga.
The pair knew each other for some time before they got together romantically.
“We’ve written songs together in the past, we’ve got similar likes. We both love rock music, sci-fi and we’re currently loving TV show People Just Do Nothing on Netflix which is a British mockumentary about a garage music pirate radio station. It’s quite silly and that’s why we love each other, because we appreciate the same stuff,” she says.
They’re also each other’s cheerleader. McKubre often helps Runga record songs and they own several guitars together.
Runga first picked up a guitar at age 11 but didn’t really start playing until she was in a band. “I was the backing vocalist usually, then all of a sudden, a lead singer and then I had to pick up a guitar because we didn’t have a guitarist,” she says.
At home she will only pick up the guitar with the intention of writing a song, rather than playing for pleasure.
“For me, it’s a vessel for me to write songs or join in,” she says. “For many people, picking up a guitar is probably quite relaxing, but when I pick up a guitar, it’s normally because I want to write something. Maybe that’s why I don’t pick up the guitar as much as I should, but when I do, do that, there’s a great deal of satisfaction when I’ve written something.”
And while there isn’t a new album on the cards for now, she recently wrote a song about playing live, inspired by her band Stellar, which regrouped last summer and has gigs booked for summer 2021/22.
“We never officially broke up, we just stopped talking to each other for a bit and carried on doing other things and then got together again,” she says. “One of the best parts is the camaraderie and hanging out together, it’s just fun.”
Looking ahead to getting “gig-fit”, Runga knows she’ll need to get more active than she is currently, though lately she hasn’t had the motivation. “I’ve got a treadmill and exercycle, but I’ve hardly been on them lately – at all,” she laughs.
She’s also looking forward to helping produce some vocals for little sister Bic’s new project, so watch this space!