Rita Wilson’s self-titled new album, her second, not only marks the singer and actress’ debut as a songwriter, it also showcases her knack for creating insightful, eloquent singer-songwriter pop that is etched with stunning honesty. Working with a host of the country’s finest and best-selling songwriters and producers, including several Grammy Award winners and nominees, Wilson taps into the bittersweet moments of her own personal experiences on songs like “Grateful,” “Forgiving Me, Forgiving You,” and “Crying, Crying,” giving the listener a window into the interior emotional life of someone known primarily for the indelible characters she has brought to the screen in It’s Complicated, Sleepless in Seattle, The Good Wife, and Girls. “At one point in the writing process, I realized that there was a theme emerging from the songs that had to do with different levels of being vulnerable, or weak, or strong, or courageous,” Wilson says. “It seemed that there was something going on there and I tried to not get in the way and see what would come through.”
After the positive reception she received for her 2012 debut album AM/FM, an intimate collection of covers of her favorite songs from the ’60s and ’70s, Wilson knew she wanted to continue making music. “I thought, ‘I have to keep doing this,’” she says. “I didn’t know what form it was going to take. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. But with the help of some really amazing people, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and going down the path, not without fear, for sure, I was terrified, but excited enough to see where it would lead.”
The path led to co-writing sessions in Los Angeles and Nashville with Grammy Award winners/nominees Jessi Alexander (Blake Shelton), Kristian Bush (Sugarland), Nathan Chapman (Taylor Swift), Kara DioGuardi (Carrie Underwood), Lauren Christy (Avril Lavigne), Richard Marx (Keith Urban), and Dan Wilson (Adele); acclaimed songwriters Kelly Archer (Jason Aldean), Darrell Brown (Keith Urban), Blair Daly (Rascal Flatts), Stephan Moccio (The Weeknd), Jon Randall (Sheryl Crow), and Jason Reeves (Colbie Caillat), as well as the producers Ron Aniello (Bruce Springsteen), Mikal Blue (Colbie Caillat), John Shanks (Melissa Etheridge), and Babyface (Whitney Houston), in addition to Chapman, Marx, and Dan Wilson.
“I was very humbled,” Wilson says of working with her veteran collaborators. “It was a learning curve to be able to, for lack of a better expression, find my voice. Writers are artists, so they are open. They want to get to something good. The songwriting process is kind of like falling in love. You meet somebody you’ve never met before. You strip naked emotionally. You have musical intercourse. Then, you leave with a gorgeous song baby.”
The result is a smart, assured album that features Wilson’s clear-eyed observations and flair for telling it like it is on the more up-tempo songs like “Girls Night In,” “Along for the Ride,” “What You See Is What You Get,” “I’m Guilty,” and “Say Yes,” while allowing Wilson to show a vulnerable side on plaintive, wistful songs like “Forgiving Me, Forgiving You,” “Grateful,” “In the Dark,” “Joni,” the Babyface-produced “Stay Low” (“about that inner voice always telling you that you can’t do something”), and “Still Gone,” an affecting song about grieving the loss of someone you love.
The first song to emerge was “Grateful” (co-written with Kara DioGuardi and Jason Reeves and produced by Mikal Blue), which Wilson says is about “realizing that when something less than positive happens in your life, and you think things will never get better, you can look back and see how the dots were connected. That without that unfortunate event, you wouldn’t be in the place you are now, which is usually better than where you were. I found myself looking at some of those experiences that I thought were unshakeable and realizing that if they hadn’t happened, I would have missed out on so many other wonderful things.”
Of “Crying, Crying,” which Wilson wrote with Darrell Brown and Dan Wilson (who also produced the track), the singer says: “I’m a pretty private person. And I don’t like to burden people with stuff. I had been going through some difficult periods while we were writing the song. All I wanted was to be able to talk about what was going on, but I had to just maintain focus, since so much of it was personal.” Wilson was diagnosed with breast cancer while starring on Broadway in Larry David’s play Fish in the Dark. “At one point, I really felt like I had those two masks of comedy and tragedy following me around. And all I wanted to do was cry.”
On “Forgiving Me, Forgiving You” (co-written with and produced by Darrell Brown), Wilson explores the idea of being at a crossroads with someone and wondering who’s going to make the first move. “To me, the song is not just about relationships but about any form of forgiveness that has to take place,” Wilson says. “I wanted to write about that moment of decision-making, who’s going to go first, and wanting to have, ultimately, forgiveness from the other person and to take responsibility for your own actions as well.”
Wilson wrote the Mikal Blue-produced “Joni” with Jason Reeves and Danelle Leverett as something of a tribute to one of her favorite songwriters. “I had been watching an American Masters special on Joni Mitchell and started reflecting on everything she has represented to me as an artist as well as the struggles she’s had while still being true to herself,” Wilson says. “I wanted to write about the effect she had on me as a listener and my experience of her music because I grew up in Hollywood not far from Laurel Canyon where all my musical heroes seemed to live.”
The weightier songs on the album are balanced out by spirited tracks like “Girls Night In,” a slice of contemporary country pop that Wilson wrote in Nashville with two-time Grammy-winner Nathan Chapman (who was a producer on all five of Taylor Swift’s multi-platinum albums) and his wife Stephanie. “Everybody talks about girls’ nights out,” Wilson says, “but what about girls’ nights in? Years ago, I was on the treadmill watching music videos with all these great dance routines and I thought, ‘I really want to learn how to dance like that.’ I asked a friend of mine who’s a dancer if she could teach me and some of my friends these dances. I rented a little dance studio and had my girlfriends come over. We had margaritas and Mexican food and we learned how to do Britney Spears’ ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’ and Janet Jackson’s ‘All For You.’ We had so much fun. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a bunch of 40-something women trying to dance like 20-year-olds.”
Taken as a whole, Rita Wilson peels back the layers surrounding this thoughtful, attuned artist and reveals someone who refuses to be hemmed in by her struggles, but instead relishes the lessons they have taught her. “Life has certainly thrown some curve balls at me as of late, but I am not unique in having to go through hard times,” Wilson says. “We all have stuff we’re dealing with and we’re all in this together. Life happens. Even with the crazy stuff that has gone down, I am honestly so thankful for this life and all of its blessings. Writing these songs has allowed me to share a lot of that, the happy and the sad. I wouldn’t change a thing.”