Lyrically Speaking: An Interview With Rita Wilson
We love interviewing influential women from all across the country, but we can’t deny that there is something exciting about a conversation with a California native. Growing up in Hollywood, actress, producer and singer, Rita Wilson, recalls, “I knew all the short-cuts; we would go to movies at the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. It just seemed normal to me.”
In fact, there is a lot about Rita Wilson’s not-so-normal life that she lets inspire her.
Born to a Bulgarian father and a Greek mother, Rita’s experience as a first- generation American would come into play years later during her career as a producer. But first was a childhood in Hollywood and an acting career that spanned television, film and the stage. With roles on shows like M*A*S*H*, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Girls, parts in films like Sleepless in Seattle, Now and Then, and Runaway Bride, and the lead role of Roxy Hart in the musical Chicago, Rita’s performances have run the gamut.
“With acting you are playing a character, but you still have to be very present and in the moment,” Rita explains. “With song writing there’s nowhere to hide; you’re singing about something extremely personal because you’ve written about it.”
Oh, yeah–Rita decided to start writing songs, releasing her album of 60’s and 70’s standards, AM/FM, in 2012, as well as another self-titled album of original songs on March 11 of this year. However, no matter how successful Rita’s endeavor into songwriting seems, she had no plan to become a verified triple threat.
“I didn’t set out to write an album for myself. [Songwriter] Kara DioGuardi and I became friends. I said I wished I could write a song, and Kara said, ‘What makes you think you can’t?’”
Kara then asked Rita if she felt like she had something she wanted to say. And Rita did. “I wanted to write a song about being grateful,” she tells us.
Kara and Rita worked on a song, bringing in songwriter, Jason Reeves, to further flesh out the tune. At a certain point, Rita says she became incredibly emotional, “...because how the song sounds and feels is exactly what I wanted it to feel like.”
Since then, Rita’s written over 60 songs with no sign of slowing down. “I love songwriting so much. I feel that creatively it’s so satisfying. I feel connected to it in a way I wasn’t expecting.”
When asked about her songwriting process, Rita says anything and everything can lead to a great track: “Every songwriting process is different; you don’t quite know what to expect. Sometimes you’re with a writer and you’re talking for three hours, just yakking about life, and sometimes you get to work right away. Sometimes it’s really emotional and sometimes it’s really funny.”
What really tells her a song is good? “I’m always attracted to storytelling in the songwriting. And the melody–something you can’t get out of your head.”
When Rita is asked about musicians who inspired her, the list is impressive, including Carole King, James Taylor and Fleetwood Mac. She mentions Linda Ronstadt as an inspiration, as well, who didn’t write songs, but interpreted them in a beautiful way.
“The disco era had really great women, Stevie Wonder and the Supremes; the 80’s had the Police...” Rita adds.
We could honestly keep cataloguing Rita’s favorite musicians, but that would be almost as long as the list of varied roles Rita’s had throughout her acting career.
In fact, her first album AM/FM was a sort of homage to all the artists that have inspired her, filled with covers of 60’s and 70’s radio hits and accompanied by contemporary singers with hefty resumes. Accompanied by the likes of Jackson Browne, Faith Hill and Sheryl Crowe, Rita makes a compelling entrance into the world of music, flanked by established crooners.
Rita’s new album is filled with songs she’s penned herself, inspired by life as she’s lived it.
“There’s a song called What You See is What You Get ... women are complex characters; they aren’t just the obvious, so this song plays with that. Girls Night In is a song about exactly that: being with your girlfriends, cutting loose, letting your hair down, you don’t care what you look like—but I wrote it with a man and a woman!”
Each of Rita’s new songs show her willingness to share herself and her openness to the creative process. (Bonus points to the male songwriter who was able to accurately musicalize a girls’ night in, by the way.)
Rita’s decision to begin writing songs is a bigone, since we’ve all had moments where we’ve thought, “I should try something new,” or “I think I could be good at [fill in the blank].” How many of us stop at the thought and continue doing the things we’re already doing? But Rita’s willingness to take risks and stay true to herself have a pretty good track record of paying off. We could all stand to learn a little something from her.
It was Rita who championed a little known film called, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Written by and starring the then-unknown, Nia Vardalos, it was certainly a risky move to produce. But Rita trusted her gut and her own experiences as the child of immigrant parents. And did it pay off? The 2002 romantic comedy became the highest-grossing independent film of all time, with a sequel currently in theaters in which Rita plays a role.
Even though her focus is currently on music, Rita’s past experiences on stage have certainly helped her career.
“The live performance of both, (and) the connection to the audience is something I really love and thrive off of because the audience is your partner in a way.”
Looking back on Rita’s life, connection to her past experiences and to others has really shaped her career. If she hadn’t kept in touch with her Greek roots, she might not have supported the film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding as much as she did. If she hadn’t been so friendly and connected to talented songwriters, she might not have gotten the initial push she needed to enter the world of music.
Rita, it turns out, has some thoughts on the matter. “All life experiences are things that you’ll use at some point creatively, whether you’re trying to access an emotion for a character or you’re trying to put it in a song’s lyrics or melody, which can be painful. It can feel like ‘oh god I’m going there,’ which can ultimately be the most satisfying because it’s more truthful.”
It’s fitting that Rita’s decision to first write a song was driven by a desire to express gratitude, since now she has more inspiration than ever. “I feel really humbled by the people I’ve worked with,” Rita reflects, and who wouldn’t?
Rita’s acted alongside some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. She’s produced successful films that have garnered worldwide acclaim. And the producers on her latest album are definitely no strangers to accomplishment. Top Nashville songwriters such as Matraca Berg, Jessi Alexander and Sugarland’s Kristian Bush played a part in Wilson’s album, as well as producers, Nathan Chapman, Richard Marx, John Shanks and Babyface. Rita just finished up a residency at New York’s famed Café Carlyle, with a nationwide tour to follow.
While that means Rita’s got a lot to think about logistically, the newfound singer in her certainly hasn’t slowed down. At the beginning of our interview I asked, as an ice-breaker, what her favorite breakfast cereal was growing up. Rita Wilson picked the most musical answer, crying out, “Rice Krispies, of course—snap, crackle, pop!”
Stylist Ali Levine
Styling Assistant Melissa Souza
Hair/Makeup Adriana Tesler
Manicurist Elisa Wishan for Zoya Polish
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