By Deborah Evans Price
Receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is a tremendous honor, and for actress Rita Wilson the day was even sweeter because it was also the release date for her new album Halfway to Home. Fans will get a taste of Wilson’s music as she performs at the upcoming CMA Music Fest, Chicago’s Country LakeShake Festival, Stagecoach Festival in Indio, CA and other venues throughout the spring and summer.
“I love songwriting and I love performing because I think it’s a very intimate act and you have control over all of the aspects of it,” Wilson tells Sounds Like Nashville. “When you do a film, you shoot it and then somebody is editing it. You don’t know if the best takes are being used and how it will turn out in final product, so live performing and songwriting is really satisfying.”
Though satisfying, Wilson admits launching a music career was really scary, but she couldn’t help but take the leap. “When you get to a certain point in your life where there’s something that you’ve wanted to do for as long as you can remember, and you finally have the courage to do it, even if that scares you at the same time, you just have to do it,” she says. “That’s where I was in 2012 when I put out my first album.”
These days, she’s busy promoting her fourth album, Halfway to Home, released through Sing it Loud/The Orchard. On a recent spring afternoon, Wilson has just finished an appearance on Pickler & Ben and has changed to jeans and a casual blue sweater, looking just as lovely off camera as she has in films like Sleepless in Seattle, It’s Complicated, Runaway Bride and many, many others. Seated in the Green Room of a North Nashville television studio, she’s friendly and upbeat as she chats with SLN about her burgeoning music career.
The actress, film producer and activist added singer/songwriter to her already impressive resume seven years ago with her debut album AM/FM, an homage to the music she loved during her youth. Wilson covered such ‘60s and ‘70s hits as “All I Have to Do is Dream,” “Angel of the Morning,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Please Come to Boston” and “Faithless Love” with special guest appearances by Vince Gill, Chris Cornell, Sheryl Crow, Jimmy Webb, Jackson Browne and others. “It was well received and that gave me courage [to think] ‘Oh well, maybe I can do this again,’ but then I met Kara DioGuardi, the amazing songwriter/producer and actor, and she said, ‘Why don’t you write music?’”
Wilson explained that she didn’t play any instruments and DioGuardi (who has worked with P!nk and Kelly Clarkson) admonished her to not let that stand in the way of her writing songs. “She said, ‘but Rita, do you have something that you want to say?’ And when she said that, it completely opened up my brain and it was like, ‘What? You mean I don’t have to play an instrument? I can just tell these stories that I have in my head that I want to say?’ She said, ‘yes,’ and she wrote my first two songs with me.”
DioGuardi’s encouragement opened up a whole new creative avenue for Wilson, who had grown up in Hollywood and began her acting career in TV comedies such as The Brady Bunch, M*A*S*H, Bosom Buddies and Three’s Company. In addition to co-writing with DioGuardi, she also began collaborating with Nashville-based writers and one of the first was Sugarland’s Kristian Bush. “He’s a great guy,” Wilson smiles. “He said to me when I opened for Sugarland, ‘If you ever decide you want to write music, call me up.’ I called him and he said, ‘Oh I absolutely remember saying that and I’m keeping my word. When can we get together?’ So I started writing with him and everything was very different after that because once Kara and Kristian write with you, people sort of go, ‘Oh, okay!’ Some good word has been put in for you.”
Bush and DioGuardi are among Wilson’s collaborators on Halfway to Home along with such notables as Matraca Berg, Richard Marx, Jason Wade, John Shanks, Jack Tempchin and Liz Rose, among others. “Nashville is a town that reveres the songwriter,” she says. “I started writing with a lot of people down here and I learned so much from every single person that I’ve written with. These people are in Nashville writing every single day. I know people who are writing 200-300 songs a year without even blinking an eye. There is a discipline and a craft here that is extraordinary and I’ve been able to learn from the best.”
Wilson is a gifted, insightful songwriter and she brings her words to life with a voice that is both strong, yet sweet and vulnerable. Many of the songs on the new album came from a writer’s camp Wilson put together at DioGuardi’s suggestion. “She said, ‘You should have a writing camp. Get people that you know and don’t know and just write with them,’” she recalls. “I didn’t know Liz [Rose] at that time and I didn’t know Mitch Allen. I knew Kristian and Kara, and I had met Mozella through a show that I do called ‘Liner Notes’ . . .We went the mountains in Idaho and it was incredible. We would write all morning, all evening, but in the afternoon we would go out on a hike or we’d go shopping, just to break up the day a little bit. It was one of the best things anybody could do. It was incredibly creative and inspiring.”
Wilson penned the album’s first single, “Throw Me a Party,” with Rose and Bush during the writer’s retreat. The song was inspired by Wilson’s battle with breast cancer in 2015. “After I had been diagnosed with breast cancer I really was terrified,” Wilson says. “I couldn’t even believe it because at first I had been misdiagnosed and was told I did not have cancer. Then a girlfriend of mine said, ‘You should get a second opinion on your pathology,’ which I did and it came back cancer.”
Wilson says the diagnosis left her stunned and sad. “It was on the heels of so many bad things. My mom had just died after many years of Alzheimer’s. It was just a tough time. So I said, ‘Well Tom if I should go before you, I just want you to know a couple things,’” she says recalling the conversation she had with her husband Tom Hanks. “I said, ‘I want you to be super sad for sure but I want to have a party. I want to have a lot of music. I want to have people singing and I want them to tell stories. I want it to be fun and full of love and laughs.’ So I had the title ‘Throw Me A Party’ and then I wrote it with Liz and Kristian.”
The video is a poignant clip directed by Patrick Tracy, whose credits include Dan + Shay’s “Tequila” video. “I had worked with him before and thought he was great,” Wilson says. “I said, ‘I would love to do this, but I don’t think it’s right that I should be focus of this video. I think it has to tell a different kind of story.’ So we came up with this idea that the woman would be leaving things that she wanted for her family to have, but that she was also saying throw me a party. It’s interesting because since the video has been out and people have been posting on social media, it’s not uncommon that people have been very specific about the things that they want to have happen after they go. People have been writing in beautiful stories about either their own experiences what a parent did or what they want for themselves. One lady wrote in that she and her husband wanted their ashes be planted with two trees that would grow side by side. That’s pretty beautiful.”
Wilson is now cancer-free, but admits the experience prompted a lot of soul searching. “It’s hard to think about those things and it’s hard to confront them, but at the same time I don’t want my children to be left with any burdens either,” she says of sons Truman and Chet. “I don’t want them to have to clean out my closets and do all that stuff. I just want to just pair down everything and leave this world cleanly.”
One of the lighter moments on the album is the clever “Oh, No You Didn’t,” which Wilson co-wrote with Berg. The first verse chronicles an experience with a bad boss as Wilson sings, “Working twice as hard and making half the pay/As that man boy playing with his new cell phone/He looks real busy texting all day long/He called me baby, said he’d do someone my age/I hit record and posted on his Facebook page.”
And the lyric gets even feistier from there as the ladies talk about dealing with a disrespectful sales clerk during a shopping expedition and a doctor who suggests a nip and tuck when he wasn’t asked. “It’s tough to be a woman of a certain age,” says Wilson, who is stunning at 62. “It’s just tough to be a woman in many, many aspects… We had written two verses and a bridge and I was performing that song live. I realized people were responding to it, so I called her up one day and I said, ‘I think our song could use a third verse,’ and we came up with the third verse and we wrote it over Skype, which was really funny. We just got on the phone and we laughed. Whenever I write with Matraca I’d say half of the time is spent laughing.”
The only ballad on the album is “New Girl.” “That song is based on a true story,” Wilson shares. “My girlfriend was at a sporting event with her son and she gets a text from her husband. The text says, ‘Honey, I just want you to know everything is going to be okay. I love you so much. Don’t worry and by the way, my wife is going away for the weekend.’ So needless to say they’re not married anymore.”
Wilson says she couldn’t get the situation out of her head and kept thinking about what it would be like to run into the other woman. “That’s an example of creating a character in a song. That’s more like an acting thing and I wrote it with a woman called Emily Shackelton who wrote ‘Every Little Thing’ by Carly Pearce. I love that song and I said to Emily, ‘I have this whole story in my head,’ and it was like I found my singing songwriting soul sister for that particular song because we were on the same wavelength. I really wanted it to be that not that one woman is bad and ‘How dare you do that to me?’ because a lot of times, I think, the guys really don’t take the responsibility they should take in that thing. If you’re going to blame the other woman, you’ve got to blame the guy too. So I imagined, in writing this song, that she’d be having a conversation with her and the other woman would be defending it, saying, ‘He’s not like that with me,’ and I’d say, ‘You’re just the new girl, same old story.’”
“New Girl” is a slice of life ballad that explores betrayal and heartache, but on the other end of the spectrum, “The Spark” celebrates lasting love, and was inspired by Wilson’s 31-year marriage to Hanks. “There’s highs and lows. You go in and out of many different things, but if that spark is there, it’s always going to be there,” she smiles.
“Big City Small Town Girl” is another autobiographical tune, chronicling her early years growing up in Hollywood. “The Walk of Fame thing was surreal because I was born and raised in Hollywood,” says Wilson, whose Walk of Fame ceremony was attended by Hanks, her children and good friend Julia Roberts, among others. “At Christmastime, our family would go down to Hollywood Boulevard and watch the parade come through, but it was my backyard. I still rode my bike, worked at the neighborhood market and got my first bra at the department store on Hollywood Boulevard where I went with my mom while she got her hair colored. We went to the movies at the Chinese Theater. It was just normal.”
From that normal childhood, Wilson grew up to lead an extraordinary life. In addition to acting and making music, she is also a film producer whose credits include My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Mamma Mia. In addition to writing songs for her albums, she has written and performed songs for two of her upcoming films Emmett and Simple Wedding. She’s starred on Broadway as Roxie Hart in Chicago and in Larry David’s hit comedy Fish in the Dark. A noted activist and philanthropist, she’s helped raise over 75 million for the Women’s Cancer Research Fund.
In the midst of all her success, she’s managed to stay grounded, a feat she attributes to her parents. “I have to really thank my parents for that because they were immigrants, but they had great, great values and so they gave us freedom, but they trusted us a lot too,” she smiles. “And we didn’t abuse that. We were really thankful for it.
“When I was a kid and I’d be walking up and down the street and I’d be reading all the names [on the Walk of Fame], what sat with me was all of these people have made some kind of art that has gone out into the world whether it’s producing movies, starring in movies or writing them or singing the music that we all loved growing up. When you take that in collectively, the joy and the people that those names and those stars represent of all the music and film that exists in the world that has lightened our spirits or has made us cry, that’s really something. I remember thinking as a kid, ‘Well how do you do that? How does anyone get to that point?’ Now I guess I can look back and try to figure it out.”