2 Feb 2017

In the Spotlight - Charlotte Wilson

From In the Spotlight
Presenter Charlotte Wilson

Presenter Charlotte Wilson Photo: Clarissa Dunn

When did you first start working for RNZ?

1999. I had just arrived in Wellington, and they were advertising for presenters actually on air. I remember Christine Argyle announcing an “if you are interested in” sort of thing and I galloped in straight away.

You presented Upbeat until the end of 2006, and then were gone for some years. What was it like working for the BBC?

Their resources amazed me. One producer to oversee your music choices, two engineers to actually push the buttons. When I was still living in Oxford they used to lay on a car to drive me all the way home! And, they were all so friendly and it was great fun, but ultimately, take the girl out of NZ, can’t take NZ out of the girl…

What was it like coming back to NZ?

Ecstatic. It was actually supposed only to be for a holiday. But as soon as I saw my cottage again I just knew I would be clinging onto the verandah posts and refusing to leave. The priority then was either to ship back my stuff, or ship back the cats. Obviously I chose the cats.

Describe your average work day morning (if there is such a thing)?

Well, my hours are not exactly what you’d call regular, as the only time and place I really need to be is the evening shift on Concert on Friday nights. But I’m always listening out for stuff, and so in the course of a week there will be a morning or an afternoon when I go in with firm and confident ideas. These are, of course, immediately shot to bits. I then spend three hours in increasing desperation before everything coalesces in the last 10 minutes.

Live radio often throws the unexpected at us? Can you remember a situation or event that took you by surprise (a significant on-air disaster that you can laugh about now?)

That would have to be the time I was playing a CD brought in by one of the contributors on Upbeat. I kicked the track off and wound the volume down so I could chat to him as he hadn’t been in for some time, and there we were chatting away happily when Dan Adams (then the producer) buzzed through and said Umm.. Charlotte, are you sure you are playing the right track? And I wound it up and oh dear.. To say the lyrics were 'Bad Words' puts it mildly. I immediately killed it and apologised and of course we got lots of complaints, but, one guy wrote in to say that he was laughing so much that he almost drove off the road…

You’ve interviewed a lot of people over the years. Who are the most memorable and why?

Heavens. Those I’ve interviewed in the past week. My memory is terrible. But yes there would have to be one I will never forget, the Russian pianist Boris Berman, who was here to perform with the NZSO. He didn’t have much time, so I trotted round to the orchestra offices and they gave us his practice room, just a tiny wee space with a table and an upright piano, sound-proof and light-proof, perfect for my purposes. So far so good. But we were only a few minutes into the interview when the power went off. Black as pitch. Nothing. Oh! He says. Few moments silence. Ah, I’m sorry maestro I say, I’ll find out whether we can go somewhere else. Well, no he said, we are still going, yes? And he’s right, there is the tiny red recording button still glowing on the recorder, the only thing we can see. Ah yes well certainly! – and we carry on like that in the pitch black for the rest of the interview. The light came back on just before we ended. I’m afraid to say I got the giggles.

You’re hosting Sound Lounge RNZ Concert’s contemporary music programme. Contemporary music can be challenging and divisive. What do you say to those who say they can’t stand it?

I’d say that they will certainly have heard something contemporary that they liked without realising!  A movie score maybe, or a contemporary piece working brilliantly in the context of a classical concert. Not all contemporary music is spiky and difficult by any means, but even if it is, there is a way to find it rewarding – you just have to let go of your expectations about what music should be like, because we’d still be stuck with the baroque dance suite if we expected everything to follow the conventions that we’re used to, and how boring would that be! Try to just open your ears and listen without prejudice. You’ll find something to enjoy, and the more you hear, the more familiar and less threatening it will become. All music was new music once, remember – and we need new music, because without it, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate the old music. It’s a refresher for the ears.

Favourite composer?

I was a Mozart groupie when I was young. I tried to get teenage sessions going to listen to everything he ever wrote but we weren’t so good at sourcing it and we gave up after three days. So then, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert… Boulez, Stockhausen, Reich, Pärt… plus whoever I’m playing on Sound Lounge this week (Philip Glass). Oh I’m sorry, you just wanted one?

Favourite place in the world?

Wellington. The sparkling harbour, the native trees and birds, the houses nestled in the hills. The hill I look out upon (Te Ahumairangi) disappears up into the mist when it’s raining, as if you’re living on a Norwegian fjord or something in a myth. In the middle of a capital city! And that’s just the look of the place. We’re so lucky.

What do you do to relax?

Many things, but my favourite is swimming out to one of the rafts in Oriental Bay on a perfect day, that’s the ultimate.

Tea or coffee drinker? Or both?

Coffee! Stove-top espresso. Three in quick succession breakfast only.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Books, brand new. They’re so expensive in this country, but still, I’ve got a bookshop practically at the bottom of my street and I can’t resist going on the occasional splurge. It’s not just the writing – it’s the smell, riffle through the pages under your nose and breathe in deeply. One of the great pleasures in life.

When not behind the microphone, what are you usually doing?


If you hadn’t ended up in radio, what would you be doing?

I always wanted to be a pianist, like my grandfather. Sadly, after 12 years or so, it became apparent that I just didn’t have it. I tried everything else I could think of in the mad hope I had a hidden talent at the cello, say, or the violin, or clarinet, but having exhausted all of that list I decided it was going to have to be motorbikes. This was all before radio, of course, but the best idea I had was to start up a women’s-only mechanics shop blasting out Beethoven. I still quite like that idea!

What do you ride?

Ducati 748.

Which talent would you most like to have?

Jazz piano.

Who are your favourite writers?

Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, EM Forster – though its ages since they’ve written anything new! Currently I’m reading Sarah Bakewell’s Life of Montaigne. Plus, absolutely everything by Andrea Camilleri. 

What is the best thing about working for RNZ Concert?

Well the music, obviously – but beyond that, getting to be part of people’s stories. Of the composers we play – and the people we work with – and the people we interview – and the people listening at home. It’s an unbelievable privilege.

Charlotte Wilson presents Sound Lounge, Fridays 9pm – email soundlounge@radionz.co.nz with requests

Art, Life, Music (repeated Saturdays 1pm)

RNZ National, Culture Spot – Classical


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