For someone who came to the music world a little bit late in the game, Rita Wilson is certainly making up for lost time. In recent weeks, she has delivered a moving soundtrack song and a stand-alone country single that is hitting home for listeners in many ways. She has been popping up as a guest vocalist all over the place as well.
American Songwriter caught up with her recently to talk about all this activity, beginning with “Everybody Cries,” which is heavily featured in the new film The Outpost. Wilson performs the song and is also a co-writer with Larry Groupe and the film’s director, Rod Lurie. The track is incredibly personal, in part because it reflects the true story of soldiers lost in Afghanistan as depicted in the film, and in part because of a somber personal connection for Lurie.
“It was so interesting, because I’ve written songs for movies before, but I’ve never actually written with the director,” Wilson says. “First of all, it was an unusual situation, because the song, which is in the film where the soldiers sing it and then is a part of the end credits, was impacted and made a bit more heartbreaking because Rod, the director, had lost his son during the filming of the movie. It was a song that meant a lot to Rod, and I think there was a sensitivity and a desire to tell the story of the song as clearly as we could and as truthfully as we could. Such a horrible battle these young men fought, and eight men died. And Rod lost his own son. You have to take all of that into consideration when you’re writing. But he was a wonderful person to write with and showed enormous courage to even want to do that.”
“The song had been started with Rod and Larry and I came in and helped revise it to just clarify some ideas and to also have a female point of view on it. I always think of, whenever anybody is going off to battle, there is a mother who gave birth to that child. And at a certain point, they make their decisions in their lives and you as a parent can no longer protect them. They’re on their own. I think, for me, I felt connected to that emotion of just saying, ‘I have no control over this.’ They’re off fighting for their country, so it’s noble. You wouldn’t say, ‘No don’t do that.’ And at the same time, you’re a Mom and you don’t want to lose your kid.”
Wilson gives a beautiful, understated performance of the song, something borne of an instinctual reaction in the studio. “I can’t explain it other than it tells you what it wants to be,” she says of her approach. “You can’t impose your own thing on it. You have to be sensitive enough to understand, to trust what’s coming through in the writing process and the composing of it, so that you feel as if it’s guiding you more than you’re guiding it. It’s almost like the two roads have to intersect at some point and meet up. It should feel natural and like it came from a real place and not something like, ‘Hey, let me show you how I can do these fancy tricks over here.’ I think those things stand out in a song, whenever you hear something and you’re like ‘What? What are they trying to do there?’ That always throws you off and takes you out of it.”
Wilson is also receiving raves for “Where’s My Country Song?”, an affecting ode to unsung heroes. “I go down to Nashville and write down there,” Wilson says of the song’s inspiration. “I’m a big country music fan and I listen to country music by choice. And I’m always looking for what’s the story, what are they saying now. I was thinking about how a lot of times, in country music, women are idealized in songs. And I have no issue with that, because there’s room for everything. But I started thinking about the people that I knew that were single Moms and raising kids and having their Moms help them. And then I started expanding that into, yeah, that was kind of like my Mom. She was a person who didn’t work the traditional job, but she was a Mom and raised a family and cooked and cleaned and made our dresses and made us laugh. Sometimes we look at that as not being that valuable, but it really is the most valuable thing, raising human beings and putting them out into the world.”
“And then I started thinking about the women that are out there that we don’t ever see, people who might be working in factories or working in warehouses or in agriculture, or people upstairs at the bank that we don’t see. I read an article in the New York Times that said that, during Coronavirus, 75 percent of essential workers are women. So those are the nurses and the technicians and the doctors and the people taking your tests. I wanted to write a song that sort of honored that experience in a way. There are women that we may not necessarily think about in music but I wanted to write about them. That’s why the lines are ‘It’s not lipstick and a red dress/More like a name tag and a paycheck.’ Because that, to me, is another part of society that is out there, just as valuable. I think she was asking that question: ‘Where’s my country song? Are you gonna write about me?’”
In addition, Wilson has been busy on the singing side as well. She recently contributed vocals to Jimmie Allen’s “When This Is Over,” which also features Tauren Wells and The Oak Ridge Boys. “Do you know when someone calls you up and says, ‘Hey, I’d love for you to collaborate on this song with me’ and you haven’t heard the song yet?” she asks with a knowing laugh. “And you’re like crossing your fingers that the song is going to come in and be really good. I said yes to Jimmie just because I’m such a huge fan of his and I think that everything that he does is good and quality, so I trusted that he was going to send something along that was great. I was blown away by the song. I loved it.”
Just for good measure, she performed in the recent online tribute to John Prine put together by his wife Fiona. “She said to just send your top songs that you’d like to sing and we’ll see what people want to do,” Wilson recalls. “I love ‘Summer’s End’ so much and she came back to me saying, ‘We’d love for you to sing that.’ It was intimidating. I was very worried. But I love that song and I love John. And I remember I texted Fiona and said, ‘OK, please tell me about John’s phrasing, because I feel like it only works if I use his phrasing. If I try to do my own thing on it, it feels odd. It feels like I’m trying to sing it, as opposed to just tell the story.’ And she said, ‘Ha ha: You and every other duet partner that John’s ever sung with.’ I thought OK, at least I’m not alone. I must be in some good company.”
For someone who really only started composing her own material in the last decade, Wilson, who also contributes “Because Love” to the upcoming film Love Is Love Is Love, in which she also stars, and estimates she has enough songs for two new albums ready to go, credits her belated songwriting burst to a sage piece of advice from a friend who just happens to be a music legend. “We all have something that we’re probably good at that we probably always wanted to do and got sidelined because we were told ‘You can’t do that.’ We were having a conversation one day with Bruce Springsteen, who is a friend of ours. He was in a mood to talk about songwriting and was telling his own experiences in songwriting. So, when there was a pause in the conversation, I asked him: ‘You’ve been writing all your life. What makes me think that I can start doing this now?’ And he said, ‘Because, Rita, creativity is time-independent.’”
“When he said that, it freaking blew my mind. It was like, if you have something to say and you feel the need to say it now, this is your time. Some people get that in their 20s and some people get that in their 30s. But there isn’t a big creativity clock that says, ‘Oh, you have 20 seconds left to write your opus.’ That literally freed me. It unlocked something for me, because I felt up until that time quiet about it. But then I thought, who’s to say that I can’t do this? There are no rules about this, only self-imposed restrictions, nothing more. I think that’s really important for people to know, because they may have a talent. It’s never too late to start something.”
Photo: Jim Jordan