Rita Wilson Talks Songwriting and Duetting with Willie Nelson, Smokey Robinson, Elvis Costello and More on ‘Now and Forever’

After releasing her debut AM/FM in 2012—her renditions of classics by The Everly Brothers, Joni Mitchell, Glen Campbell, and others—Rita Wilson embarked on a journey she always felt she was meant to take, into songwriting. Encouraged by a friend, songwriter, and producer, Kara DioGuardi to write, Wilson collaborated with Dan Wilson, whose credits span Grammy-winning songs like Adele’s 2011 hit “Someone Like You” and The Chicks’ hit “Not Ready to Make Nice,” and ended up writing nearly three dozen original songs.

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As a songwriter, Wilson is still compiling stories into song, and like her debut, decided to revisit some of the songs that helped her discover music for her new duet album, Now & Forever.

For her duets, Wilson brought in a star-studded collection of musical icons, pairing up with Willie Nelson on a jazzy rendition of Paul Simon’s 1975 single “Slip Sliding Away,” Smokey Robinson for a sultry rendition of the Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway duet crooner “Where Is the Love.” Wilson and Jackson Browne revisit The Everly Brothers’ classic “Let It Be Me”—originally released in 1959 and later covered by Bob Dylan in 1970—and Elvis Costello for an explosive rendition of the Bruce Springsteen-penned “Fire,” which was made famous by The Pointer Sisters in 1978.

Rounding out Now & Forever, Tim McGraw and Wilson take on the ballad “If,” originally performed by Bread in 1971, she teams with Josh Groban for Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie-penned “Songbird,” Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” with Keith Urban, Leslie Odom Jr. on the Bee Gees’ “Massachusetts,” the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” with Jimmie Allen, and Badfinger’s “Without You” with Vince Gill.

Co-produced by Wilson and Matt Rollings, Now & Forever is a continuation of songs that impacted Wilson at one point or another, and showcases her ability to interpret another’s lyrics spanning country, R&B, rock, and pop.

“I wanted to honor where I came from with songs from the ’70s,” Wilson tells American Songwriter of her duets. “It was really about showing enormous appreciation for the songwriting of that period—how these songs are still relevant even though they’re 50 years old. This album is really a continuation of sharing who I am musically, and what it is that I want to say.”

Wilson spoke to American Songwriter about her songwriting journey, tackling some of her favorite songs (and transforming some into duets) for her fifth release, and her epiphany around writing a bridge.

American Songwriter: You obviously had a connection to each of these songs on one level or another. How did you want to approach these songs (many of which were never originally recorded as duets) while remaining faithful to each and not straying too far from the core melodies?

Rita Wilson: I love when people put their own spin on things, and at the same time if there’s a beloved song, and you’re trying to cover it … my own personal take on it is to stay true to the song. There was a reason why this song resonated and people loved it. In my case, it was like, “okay, I’m going to make this duet, because that’s sort of the new spin on it that we haven’t really heard before.” 

The interpretations are coming out of not just the song, but also who I’m singing it with. Obviously, there are always new things that you’re bringing to something, and some people do cover songs and reinvent the melody or the tempo. I just thought that the songs were beautiful as they were and we could put our own spin on it but not veer too far from the originals.

AS: Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird” (1977) was never written as a duet. What drew you to this particular song, and chose Josh Groban as your partner?

RW: It’s funny because when I was looking for songs that would be right as duets, I was looking for ones that traditionally were not duets, but could work as a duet. The only one that really was a duet was “Where Is the Love,” so when I thought of “Songbird,” I thought, ‘oh my gosh, this is like two people saying these gorgeous vows to each other,’ and there was something very intimate and very romantic about two people saying these things to each other. I imagine them in bed, each stroking each other’s hair and giving little kisses to one another.

AS: How did you narrow Now & Forever down to just 10 songs?

RW: We started with a lot. It was in the hundreds, I’m sure. We started with a massive playlist, and then it was a process of elimination. When we narrowed it down to 20 or 30 favorite songs, I’d go to my duet partners and give them three songs I thought we could do together, and ask “which ones do you like?” Nine times out of 10, they chose the one that I would have wanted them to choose, so that was great.

AS: Love seems to permeate throughout most of these tracks. Was love the common thread throughout Now & Forever for you?

RW: I really believe that it was these conversations about love, and all the different experiences we have around love—whether we’re breaking up with somebody or whether you’re telling them how much you love them. Those are the two big themes, and keeping that truthful, in a sense. It’s part of life, the way we experience love, the way we talk to each other about love. That is a never-ending conversation, so that was really the theme. How do we talk to each other about love?

AS: What is your own personal connection to some of these songs?

RW: There weren’t any specific things like I remember when I first heard “Slip Sliding Away,” I was swinging out on a porch outside of Nashville—nothing like that—but Simon’s music was very influential to me as a young woman, and I knew that Willie had covered Paul’s songs and that they were friends. Then I did some research and saw that he [Nelson] had never covered “Slip Sliding Away,” so I started imagining it as a duet. I was like “oh my gosh, I hope Willie will sing it,” because there was a poignancy to it. It’s about two people who know each other so well, and they talk to each other in this vague, roundabout way, one about the other, (reciting lyrics) I know a man / He came from my home town / He wore his passion for his woman / Like a thorny crown. Well, I’m thinking this woman is talking about Willie. And then Willie sings that he knows a woman (I know a woman / Became a wife / These are the very words she uses / To describe her life).

I just thought “is he singing about this a woman now? Are they kind of teasing each other with this? I know who you are. You’re calling me out on something. Well, I can call you out on something too.” By the end of the day, it was still full of this love that they had for each other and knowledge of each other that oftentimes couples have when they’ve been together for a long time.

AS: Even though you took a step back from writing for this album, you’re still on this journey. What kind of songwriter do you feel like you are now, at this stage?

RW: I’ve been writing for about 10 years now, and I feel that there’s so much to learn, and I learned so much from the extraordinary people that I’ve worked with. I’ve learned a lot about myself through the songwriting process. Early on, I was afraid to insert myself into the process, because I revere what songwriters do so much in their craft, as an art, so I had to learn, and people encouraged me to start saying what I really wanted to say.

I’ve learned so much about songwriting, and we have so much good music to learn from, and I always hear something. I was writing with a great songwriter Emily Shackelton (Carly Pearce, David Cook), and we were discussing the bridge of a song. There are so many different ways to approach writing a bridge, but she said, “I like to think of writing the bridge as the ‘drop the mic’ moment.” We were writing a song at that time called “New Girl,” a song that came out of a conversation I had with a girlfriend of mine who found out her husband was cheating on her when he sent her a text that was meant for his girlfriend that said “I love you so much, babe. By the way, my wife is going away for the weekend.”

My friend handled it with such class and grace, but I thought about what would happen if you were somewhere and you saw this person and you walked up to them. “Hey, you probably know who I am, but I just want to tell you it’s cool. Go on with your life but there were people before you, and there are women after you.” So when we got to writing the bridge, I knew that was part of the drop-the-mic moment, and here’s what it was: He called me last night / Bet you didn’t know that / But don’t worry about me / I’m not going back. I love thinking of it as a drop-the-mic moment, because what are you really going to say that’s going to impact this particular song, at that particular point?

AS: Is it safe to say you’ve gotten closer to the songwriter that you are?

RW: I hope so. I’m just gonna keep doing it and keep trying to drill down even more and get as truthful and as present and as raw as I can be. 

Photo: Harper Smith / BTPR

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