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Interview: Robyn Welsh talks about Wired for Sound

Updated: Nov 22, 2019

A friend introduced me as a ‘published author’ the other day and I turned around to see who she was talking about. It seems I’ve morphed from a writer into an ‘author’, following the release of Wired for Sound – the Stebbing History of New Zealand Music, but it’s a title that feels very strange to me.

Sure, I had earlier published a short story called 95 Bushels to the Acre for my NZIBS writing course and I’m proud of that. But I’ve always thought of myself as ‘just a writer’ because, for 35 years, I’ve fitted freelance work in and around all that family life entails.

On reflection, that phrase ‘just a writer’ is a terrible one to define oneself by. So now I shall describe myself as an author/writer, with a 45-year-long background in journalism that has included the Parliamentary Press Gallery and extensive magazine work.

The publication of my first non-fiction book Wired for Sound has been brought together all that has gone before. I like to think that, rather than marking the end of something huge, it could be the beginning of something new.

Tell us a little about your book Wired for Sound – the Stebbing History of New Zealand Music by Grant Gillanders and Robyn Welsh

This vibrant social history is the long-awaited story of the Stebbing family’s recording legacy, as told by the singers, songwriters, musicians and bands that number among New Zealand’s most well-known artists.

Lavishly illustrated, this 345-page book covers the music genres, Stebbing’s record labels, the recording formats, the famous Galaxie nightclub and the stories behind our greatest advertising jingles.

From Howard Morrison, Ray Columbus, the La De Da’s and Sandy Edmonds through to Patsy Riggir, Hello Sailor and Th’Dudes and more, it’s all there complete with exclusive photographs.

Wired for Sound is one family’s untold, 75-year-long story of enterprise, diversity and tenacity through changing technologies and industry politics.

How did you become involved in becoming the co-author of Wired for Sound?

I’m married to Vaughan, the youngest son of Eldred and Margaret Stebbing who started their home-based recording studio after their marriage in 1945, but I didn’t think that necessarily made me the right person to document the wider story.

Even when this book was mooted, I still knew very little about Stebbing’s history because it was rarely ever talked about. I’d never heard of Stebbing’s until I arrived in Auckland from Wellington in 1981 and drove past the studio to where I was about to board with a New Zealand Woman’s Weekly work colleague. Certainly I initially declined the book project because I felt I was too close to it as a family member.

I came on board shortly after music historian Grant Gillanders began work because of the sheer scale of the project. Only then did I realise how little I knew. From then on, I approached this as a journalist would every other job – telling other peoples’ stories, assuming nothing, asking follow-up questions and not leaving an interview until I’d understood everything I’d learned. It has been thrilling to discover the depth of stories in a project such as this.

What research was involved?

Countless hours hunting down interviewees, countless hours interviewing them all, and just as many hours peering deep into old newspapers, magazines, periodicals and photo albums. There was the valuable geneological research by extended family that included hitherto unknown published material. There were also visits to Archives New Zealand where trolleys bearing documents typed on now-fragile paper arrived up from somewhere safe for me to peruse. That was fascinating.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

Grant and I initially divided up the draft chapter list. He concentrated on the bulk of the music content including the early Stebbing record labels and that music, the Galaxie nightclub bands, and Hello Sailor and Th’Dudes in the early 1980s. I picked up the historical chapters, the early 1950s era of the 78s pressing plant, the studio artists of the new 1970 flagship studio and the final chapter that brings the story into the digital age.

As new information and new photographs came to light, we overlapped to plug the gaps through the book which has more than 400-plus images. From there, I worked alongside Stebbing’s in-house designer Andrew Aguilar who brought this book to life.

We had envisaged self-publishing until Bateman Books picked it up for printing and distribution, just months before it was published in November 2019. For us after almost 10 years work, it was time to wrap it up and move on.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would want included?

Bunny Walters’ ‘Take the Money and Run’, one of the first songs recorded on the Stebbing-designed/built recording desk in the new Jervois Rd studios in the early 1970s. The orchestral backing harked back to Eldred Stebbing’s violin days and his dream of building a studio equipped for a full-sized orchestra to capture the depth of sound that has become a Stebbing recording trademark. And how about ‘Wired for Sound’ by Cliff Richard? His lyrics are fabulous; his song title, well, unbeatable.

If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

Gary Oldman, who played Winston Churchill, would be ideal as Eldred in his latter years. Perhaps alongside Julianne Moore playing Margaret Stebbing who was a gorgeous strawberry blonde in her latter years. I initially thought of George Clooney as Eldred in his earlier days; then I could put my hand up to play Margaret. Who wouldn’t want to get up close with George Clooney? Am I even allowed to say that these days?

What did you enjoy most about the writing for Wired for Sound?

The research thrilled me and I rarely felt frustrated with the process en route to the discovery. Bringing those stories to life and working towards an intuitive sense that the book was working as an honest, complete body of work was rewarding.

What experience in your working life was most helpful to you in the writing?

A solid background in journalism – for interviewing, identifying angles, structuring stories, whatever their length, and self-editing. It’s always about the self-editing in the first instance.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

The Writing Life – Twelve New Zealand Authors by Deborah Shephard (MUP). For reminding me that authors climb big mountains to get published and for inspiring me to keep climbing mine.

If I’m allowed a second book, it’s Miss Bugle Saw God in the Cabbages by Sara Yeomans. It’s a $2 hospice shop find, sub-titled ‘Enid Blyton for Bitches’ and I couldn’t resist its hilarity. It reminds me that reading for fun is as important as writing for your supper.

What’s your next project?

I’m completing my ‘Writing Stories for Children’ course with Janice Marriott (NZIBS) which is a rewarding challenge. I’m continuing with my short stories, inspired by the great Katherine Mansfield, and my NZIBS tutor Tina Shaw. Plus I have been asked to consider taking on another book project which is exciting.


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