Rita Wilson is best known as an actress and producer who’s film credits include the likes of romantic comedy ‘Runaway Bride’ and family christmas favourite ‘Jingle All The Way’ as well as TV shows, ‘The Good Wife’ and ‘Girls’. As a producer, her biggest success came from the movie franchise Mamma Mia. However, in 2012 a spot of soul searching led to Wilson discovering a talent for music and she began to release a number of records. With the release of her latest album ‘Rita Wilson Now & Forever: Duets’ Wilson revisits some of the songs that made her fall in love with music and whilst she’s in a reflective mood she talks me through her musical journey up until this point.
Wilson vividly remembers the music that filled the house when she was a child growing up. “We mostly listened to the radio, AM radio. One of the things that I believe made a difference in my musical tastes, was that AM radio in the day, there were maybe four channels, but so many of those channels had a variety of genres on them. So you would be hearing anything from country to r&b to soul to rock. So I had great exposure to groups like, the Beatles, The Beach Boys, the Temptations, Diana Ross, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Bobbie Gentry. Just a huge variety. I didn’t know growing up that there were these things called genres. I just heard good music and that was what I was attracted to.”
After years of acting in various movies and TV shows, in 2012 Wilson brought out her first album but it was just before that, that Wilson went soul searching and found that music was the only thing missing in her life. “It wasn’t a career move,” she reflects upon the timing of the decision. “It came out of some soul searching. I had read an article which said if you know what it is that you want to do, you can take the steps to make that happen. I thought about that, and it just seemed odd to me, because I had been working as an actor since I was 14 years old. I felt that I was doing everything that I wanted to do. I had a beautiful family, my health and all those things people ask for in their lives,” She gushes.
But there was still something about that article that bothered her. “I played an actor’s game that we have called What If? And so I started asking myself, well, what if I wanted something else? It took about two to three months to come to me, many walks, many hikes and many drives in the car, trying to come up with an answer and it was music.” She began to look at ways in which music could filter into her life and work. “I started looking for music projects, I did a musical called Chicago on Broadway and then I found Mamma Mia. I saw the musical in London when it was out only a few weeks and started to pursue the rights to make that into a movie. After about five years, we finally were able to do that. So I had a bit of a mission statement to have music in my life.”
Following those successful adventures, Wilson began work on her debut album which initially had started out as she planned a musical based on 70s music. Whilst recording the project with her producer, the head of Decca heard what she was up to and came to the studio to have a listen. Not long after that and Wilson was heading to Nashville, Music City on a regular basis as she began writing and crafting her own songs. “I started going down to Nashville to write in 2013. It was a very daunting experience. I liken it to sort of going to graduate school having never been to college before,” she says, setting the scene. “You just jump right in to these sessions with very, very successful and very artistic songwriters whose craft is just so well honed, and so just elevated.”
The writing community and the country music community in Nashville embraced Wilson and her work ethic. “They were incredibly welcoming, I think, because I showed such consistency by going down there all the time and writing.” For as daunting as it was opening up to these people in writers rooms, Wilson learnt to embrace her vulnerability and channel it into her music. “It’s actually doubling down with the vulnerability because a great writing session, as they say, in Nashville is three chords and the truth. Everybody was opening themselves up into a very truthful and honest place. And everybody I wrote with made me feel very safe. I understood that this was like musical therapy. I learned from some of the best songwriters.”
For her latest foray into music though, Wilson sets aside her own writing but doesn’t set aside her identity as an artist as she interprets some of her favourite songs with some of her favourite artists. The end product is a beautiful collaborative record that crosses genres and showcases Wilson’s talents as a vocalist. Narrowing down the song choices was the biggest task for Wilson and producer Matt Rollings. “We had a musical basket and we would just throw all our ideas into that. We thought, we have so many songs we have to stop,” she laughed. “Then we went through and looked at songs that would work as duets. Some songs just didn’t lend themselves to a duet format, so those were eliminated. Then we would look at the range for male and female vocals. We were left with these essentially beautiful songs.”
The next task was finding duet partners and the first person to show an interest in the project had legendary status, Willie Nelson. “Sometimes it takes the first person right?” She laughs, “Matt had a relationship with Willie Nelson because he produced Willie’s two Grammy winning albums. So he asked Willie if he would be involved, and the song that I thought would be fantastic for Willie and I to sing together was Paul Simon’s ‘Slip Sliding Away’. I looked at that song as a conversation between two people that have known each other all their lives.”
She continues to take me through some of her other collaborators, “Some people I knew, like, Jimmie Allen, I had done a duet on his album, ‘Bette James’. So I asked him if he would be involved, and I didn’t even get the question out. I just said, Hey, I’m doing this duets project and he said, Yes!” A stand out track for me, is album opener ‘Crazy Love’ which she teams up with Keith Urban for. “I had met Keith Urban many, many years ago, at a cream reunion concert at the Royal Albert Hall and there was an after party. I was standing with my friend Sheryl Crow, and an amazing songwriter Jeff Barry and Keith. So the the four of us were standing there talking, and I was introducing Jeff and I said, Jeff’s written huge hits like ‘Chapel of Love’ and we all broke out into a spontaneous version harmonising that song. Keith and I’ve crossed paths a couple of times since because of our friendship with Nicole. So I asked him thinking he’d sound incredible on ‘Crazy Love’, which he did.”
Wilson also teamed up with country stars Vince Gill and Tim McGraw on the record, “Vince Gill had done harmonies on my first album. He’s one of the greatest people ever and Tim McGraw is a friend, he said yes, very early on and loved that bread song. He knows so much about music, I think he sounds incredible,” she gushes.
There are some shared skills that Wilson has taken into her music from her acting career. “We’re telling stories, whether we’re acting a film, or singing a song,” she reflects. “The only difference is the delivery system of how that story is being received. I look at the people in the songs that I sing as characters, even if they’re coming from my own personal experience. In film, you’re taking that character and you’re trying to apply that character to your own artistic interpretation of what that is and how does that fit into this overall movie. There’s a vulnerability I think that comes from performing in music that is also required when you’re acting, because really what you’re trying to get to is some form of the truth.”
However, Wilson’s career has not been without it’s struggles. As a woman in the creative industry, she has often had to work twice as hard as her male counterparts and the media seem to have a microscope when it comes to analysing women’s careers as opposed to men’s. “I’m very aware that there are still double standards for women and men in our business, whether it’s music or film. One of the things I’ve noticed is that if you’re a woman, and you multitask, let’s say you have many things that you’re pursuing, it’s like, how could you possibly be doing all of those things? Yet, I find that men aren’t asked that question. Men are allowed to have brands and tours and have products, a variety of projects going on at different times. Sometimes I’m met with a bit of surprise that I can do more than one thing, and be serious about it.”
Wilson’s husband is also a famous actor, Tom Hanks. For all her success as an actress, producer and musician she sometimes gets blindsided by the media into talking about his projects instead of her own. “There was a bit of an experience where I did a piece for a UK paper, a very big profile, and it came out and my name wasn’t even mentioned in any of the bold headlines, because they chose to write about my husband and who I was married to. You don’t want to resent having this amazing marriage and this wonderful life that you’ve shared with someone. But it often can be overshadowing, if you’re trying to have a project over here that you’re working on and someone doesn’t respect that that project has its own life and its own creative force behind it. This person didn’t even ask about the record, or working with these people. He was more enamoured with what my husband was doing and details like looking in the backseat of my car and seeing a hat that belonged to my husband!” Wilson laughs, slightly exasperated, “I also laugh, because could you imagine if a male artist was called Mr. Insert wife’s name here – that would never happen.”
She goes on to speak more widely about how small details like that have a bigger impact and message on women’s rights around the world. “I’m not at all comparing this to any of the greater struggles that women face around the world. But if you see what’s happening around the world, in terms of women losing their rights, women losing their voices, through losing their rights, metaphorically, literally, in some cases, if a message that you are belonging, if you are referred to as Mrs. And then your husband’s name that takes away a certain autonomy that you have, and it is a message that is imprinted in something that is that goes back to a time where women were sort of invisible in terms of their identities. And I think that, that is really how it translates for me is if journalists keep writing about women in this way, that message keeps getting embedded and impacted in and imprinted into our psyches, as opposed to looking at things in a more modern way.”
Wilson and Hanks are happily married with a beautiful family and are very supportive of each others projects and achievements and she concludes by clarifying this. “This doesn’t mean to say that we can’t be completely proud of our marriages and our partners and who we’re with. But it’s not the only message out there.”
Wilson has overcome and conquered these struggles and become a woman who juggles multiple creative projects and manages to make each one a huge success. This album and the queue of talented musicians that formed to help her out with these duets, is testament to her work ethic, her drive, ambition and heart. She reflects on her longevity with creativity and I’m keen to know what’s been her main highlights. “I think every time you’re working on something, it’s your proudest moment. Just like you love all of your children equally, you love your projects equally. I feel that I’ve learned from everything that I’ve worked on going back to when I was a teenager, I’ve learned from every person that I’ve worked with. I feel so lucky to have made incredible friendships through the work that I do. So I guess my proudest moment might just be longevity – I’m still here.”
As her latest album continues to gain traction, Wilson is already thinking about the next project and has several exciting musical performances planned. She also has a movie she produced coming out on christmas day starring Tom Hanks called ‘A Man Called Otto’.