When actor and singer Rita Wilson was a young girl, she and her Greek mother would bond over listening to songs on the radio, especially ’70s singer-songwriters.
Wilson’s mother would engage her in conversation about the meanings of the songs and what the artist was trying to say, sometimes giving her daughter a new way to think about lyrics.
“I think hearing songs from someone else’s perspective and them hearing it differently is always a great way to hear a song and also says how powerful it is with music because we’re all interpreting them in our own ways,” said Wilson.
Now Wilson is doing just that with her favorite ’70s songs and turning them into duets for her new record “Rita Wilson Now & Forever: Duets.” Her musical collaborators include Willie Nelson, Smokey Robinson, Keith Urban, Leslie Odom Jr., Jackson Browne, Tim McGraw, Elvis Costello and many more.
She talked to The Associated Press about creating a conversation with her duet partners, working with artists who she loved and bridging her love of music and acting. Remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity.
AP: Most of these songs were not originally recorded as duets. Why did you want to transform them in that way?
WILSON: Well, I love these songs and I revere the songwriters who wrote them and the original artists who recorded them. And when songs are great the way these are, I didn’t want to mess with them too much. I didn’t want to reinvent the melody or reinvent the tempo. I wanted to stay connected to that emotional reaction I had when I heard them when I was younger. So I thought, ‘All right, then what makes this different and what makes it fresh?’ And when I started thinking about my mom and those connections and well, maybe this is people talking to each other, maybe there’s a conversation here that could be had. So in the initial — let’s call them the bag of songs — there were so many and we just threw in everything that we loved. My co-producer is Matt Rawlings, an amazing pianist, arranger, orchestrator. He’s an incredible musician. So we just put everything that we loved in there and as we started thinking about, all right, but what are these songs saying? Because some songs are just great songs, but is there really an opportunity for a duet here?”
AP: How many of these singers did you know well already and how many were like a cold call?
WILSON: I didn’t know a lot of people, had maybe met some people in passing. I didn’t know Willie Nelson at all. But Matt Rawlings, my co-producer, had produced and won Grammys with Willie Nelson’s Gershwin album and his Sinatra album. So he reached out to Willie, and I reached out to Jackson Browne because we had done that song live before together, and we really enjoyed doing that song together, “Let It Be Me.” Josh Groban, I had met, didn’t really know that well, but I could hear his voice on that, on “Songbird.” I could just hear it. And it was so cool because he said, “Thank you for asking me to do this. No one ever asks me to sing like this.” Because his audience has an expectation of his incredible instrument and voice. And he can blow the roof off something. And I think he was intrigued by singing in a more intimate way.
AP: Did you and Matt give the duet partners creative freedom to sing their own way?
WILSON: When Elvis Costello sang on ”Fire,” the Bruce Springsteen song, I was so blown away. He came in and he had this way of singing “fire” that was unlike any thing I’d ever heard. Normally it goes, “and when we kiss, ooh, fire.” Right? He brought in to the word “kiss” every ounce of desire, longing, desperation, frustration. I mean, you just hear it in his voice and there’s no, “ooh,” it’s just “kiss.” And then “fire” is like an exclamation point, like, I can’t take it anymore! That I just loved. It was exhilarating. I still talk about it. I still get goose bumps on that.
AP: You’ve been putting out albums since 2012, but what made you decide to pursue songwriting and singing on top of your acting career?
WILSON: When I started songwriting, it felt so wildly creative to me in a way that I had not been able to experience as an actor because I kept playing the same roles over and over again… I feel like I’ve said this before, but I feel like I’ve exhausted the canon of a warm, kind, nurturing mother, sister, wife, daughter, you know? There’s only so many ways that character can be written and you get tired of it… And creatively, songwriting is such an intimate process that became so satisfying that I felt like I had found a creative home for myself that I could do and not have to wait on other people to do it. Meaning that if you’re producing a movie, sometimes that takes years. And if you’re in a movie, you have control of one aspect of your performance, but then it’s out of your hands. So it enabled me to stay in that creative conversation and in a very connected way.