Rita Wilson Creates Conversational ‘Duets’

Dean Budnick on February 14, 2023
Rita Wilson Creates Conversational ‘Duets’

“I have such reverence for these songs, the songwriters and the original artists who did them, that I didn’t want to reinvent too much,” Rita Wilson says of her approach to the arrangements on her new album, Now & Forever: Duets. “The reinvention here was really about making these into duets and conversations between people.”

On Now & Forever, Wilson shares those conversations with Willie Nelson (“Slip Slidin’ Away”), Smokey Robinson (“Where Is the Love?”), Elvis Costello (“Fire”), Jackson Browne (“Let It Be Me”) and many others. “I felt that every singer who came in had their own connection to these songs— emotional connections, musical connections, life connections. So while we had so much fun, there was also a deep respect for the songs. People weren’t taking them for granted.”

 Can you recall a show you attended when you were growing up that set you on the path to becoming a musical performer?

When I was growing up in Hollywood, there was a venue in Studio City called the Universal Amphitheater. Now it’s a theme park and where the amphitheater once stood is the Harry Potter ride.

I became a ticket taker, which meant that I could watch the concerts because after I took the tickets, there wasn’t much for me to do until after the show when we had to clean the bathrooms and pick up trash. Everybody came through there: Joni Mitchell, Linda Rondstadt, Carole King, the Eagles, Elton John.

I remember so clearly sitting on the steps and thinking, “How do I do it? How do I get to be up there?”

It was an outdoor venue and there was a night when I was watching Joni. It was a full moon, she was wearing a vintage dress and, when she sang “California,” it was such a beautiful moment. I thought, “This is like a dream. I’m from California. Maybe one day I could travel and come back to this place I call home.”

Since you mention California, what led you to include “Massachusetts,” a song that spans both coasts, on Now & Forever?

I love the Bee Gees. I think they’re amazing and those harmonies are incredible. They obviously have been covered a lot, but that song really had not been covered that much. When I was selecting the songs, I asked myself, “What are the stories that are being told and can they be told as a conversation?”

With that one, the story that came to me was two people in love, who couldn’t work it out for that moment. So she stays in Massachusetts, and he goes to San Francisco. Then, at some point, they find themselves back in Massachusetts together again. There’s something beautiful about that. Sometimes people take pauses from each other, but they end up coming back and finding each other again.

Did you find that most of these songs took on new tones and colors when you began performing them as duets?

That’s what I was trying to accomplish. Envisioning each of them as conversations between two people—as opposed to just coming from one point of view— was really interesting to me.

I feel like “Songbird” with Josh Groban could be somebody’s wedding vows. It could be something beautiful and simple that you would say to someone about your undying love for them. I don’t think I’ve heard a guy cover “Songbird” and there was something about the tenderness of a man saying those words that was just dreamy.

The Bread song “If” by David Gates that I did with Tim McGraw, felt like the same kind of thing. It was really romantic, and I envisioned that the two of them “would simply fly away,” like it says in the last phrase of the song. I just love that they would be together forever in the universe somehow.

“Slip Slidin’ Away” with Willie Nelson really took on a different meaning when I started thinking of it as a woman talking about her man or somebody important in her life, and this man talking about his woman or somebody important in his life. Is she Dolores? Is she the person that he mentions in the song when he sings, “A woman who became a wife/ These are the very words she uses to describe her life?” I thought, “Wow, that’s interesting if they’re talking to each other in that way.” It’s almost about deeply knowing someone and then reflecting them back to themselves.

Matt Rollings, who produced this record, also produced Blues Traveler’s Traveler’s Blues, where you guested on a cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” Can you talk about the intersection of the two projects?

When Matt asked me to do that song, at first I was like, “Me, on a blues album? Are you sure about this?” [Laughs.] But I had a blast doing it.

Matt had played piano and keys on my very first album, [2012’s] AM/FM. We remained friends and, when I did a stripped-down acoustic album of original songs called Bigger Picture [in 2018], I had Matt on keys and Bryan Sutton on guitars.

I’m a fan of Matt as a musician, but also as a producer. He produced Willie Nelson’s Gershwin and Sinatra albums and won two Grammys. So when this album idea came about, I thought, “I’ve got to get Matt on this. He’ll get what I’m trying to do here.”

What was the process like of connecting someone with a song?

Tim McGraw does a lovely job with “If,” a selection that will surprise plenty of people. I would present each singer with a few songs so that they could pick something that they felt connected to. Tim loved “If,” and I was really glad about that because I thought it would be really different for him to do and for his fans to hear. Tim is an encyclopedia of music knowledge. He knows a lot of ‘70s songs, and he does that sometimes as the warmup backstage before he goes on. They’ll sit around and do a bunch of vintage songs.

You and Elvis Costello deliver a rousing version of “Fire.” It almost feels inevitable—and not just because Springsteen wrote it for another Elvis.

My understanding is that Elvis Presley died before he could hear it. Then Robert Gordon recorded it before the Pointer Sisters recorded their version, which was great. I really like what Elvis did on this one. There’s this one part where people typically sing, “When we kiss, ooh, fire.” But Elvis came in and he took the word kiss, and he made that word have every drop of desire, frustration, exhilaration and craziness about this person. So he draws out the word kiss, leaves out the “ooh” completely and ends with this sort of exclamation point after the word “fire.” It just sounds so good. I also love that he throws in this “goodness gracious” at the end. I was thrilled with the way it turned out and this record has lots of wonderful moments like that.

Having said that, is this an approach that you might revisit on your next record or down the road?

I have another album of original songs that’s ready to go, although I’m holding onto it for a little bit. I do love interpreting songs, though. It’s so satisfying. It’d be really fun to do a volume two of all female duets. That would be so great.