In addition to being an accomplished actor, producer and Mrs. Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson has always been a gifted vocalist. She was good enough to play Roxie Hart in “Chicago” on Broadway in 2006.
But when she brings her cabaret show to the Segerstrom Center’s Samueli Theater on Oct. 11-13, Wilson will be playing a role that most people are unfamiliar with: sensitive singer-songwriter.
Wilson released her first album, AM/FM – covers of some of her favorite songs – in 2012. Since then she dived headlong into songwriting, studying with some of Nashville’s best, including the Warren Brothers and Darrell Brown. In 2016, we got our first taste of her songwriting talents in her self-titled album.
Wilson will be singing from her latest album, “Bigger Picture,” which features nothing but original songs, many of them down-tempo country tunes and ballads. It’s part of a short tour for Wilson and her tight-knit band, culminating with a performance at Nashville’s Grand Ol’ Opry on June 23.
We talked with Wilson about her inspiration, her music and what it takes to pen a decent song these days.
Voice of OC: You’ve described your approach to songwriting as a form of musical scrapbooking. Could you explain that?
Rita Wilson: When I think of the kind of music I love and the songs on this album, each song is a little bit like flipping through my life in a musical sense. I was a scrapbook maker when I was younger and kept tons of photo albums. I still do, though less now that everything’s digital. For me, (creating this this album) was like trying to capture the sensations and memories of different parts of my life — parts that could really resonate through stories.
VOC: How would you describe your songwriting style?
Wilson: First of all, I love stories. Even as a kid I felt that the songs I gravitated to had these great stories in them, anything from the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” to Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” to The Supremes’ “Love Child.” It didn’t really matter about genre so much as about the stories. I kept finding stories in country music that resonated with me. The songwriting process for me is important because I feel that when you go to write something you really have to open up and dissect yourself.
VOC: The Warren Brothers, Darrell Brown – you’re working with some of the best talent in Nashville. What have they taught you about the craft of songwriting?
Wilson: Darrell Brown taught me that there should be four elements in a song: physical, spiritual, emotional and tactile. And that was a revelation (regarding) how do you better tell that story. What do things smell and feel like in that world? For me it was like learning how to paint a picture. For a long time I was confused by the concept of the bridge. What is it supposed to do? Man, people told me all kinds of things: it could be musical. A shift. Lyrically, what do you want to say that you haven’t said before? Another songwriter, Emily Shackleton, told me, “I like to think of the bridge as the ‘drop the mic’ moment.” There’s a song I do called “New Girl,” based on a girlfriend whose husband was cheating on her. What would it be like if my friend could talk to this woman — what would she say? To me that bridge is the drop the mic moment.
VOC: Tell us about your vocal experience.
Wilson: I started singing in this way in 2012, on my first album. It was a cover album. And when you’ve never done anything like that before, you get cracking. I started working with a couple of different coaches. It’s one thing when you’re working with a Broadway musical and have to project to the back of the house, but there’s another way of trying to create intimacy. A lot of it was just technical.
VOC: One of your new songs is very personal: “Heart He Handed Down.” It’s about your dad. Your son sings on that song, too. Tell us about it.
Wilson: Well, I’ve not sung that song live a lot. In fact I’ve never sung it live. Yesterday, I had to do something at Billboard where they do a live session. It was super fun and I was really excited. But I sang that song, and at the end I started crying. The very last line of the song! It came out of nowhere. My dad was an immigrant from Bulgaria. He grew up under Communism. He escaped, but they caught him and put him in a labor camp. He managed to escape this camp, the most dangerous one in Bulgaria. He made his way to Turkey, got a job on a freighter shovelling coal. He got to Philadelphia, jumped ship and never went back. He made his way to New York City and became a bartender. He did that all of our lives. Met my mom and moved to California. His vision of freedom was America. (In writing the song ) I thought, “How could someone endure all of the pain and hardship, still keep that vision in his head? I thought that if he had that strength, that’s a quality that I hope can be passed on from me to my children. I want them to have his strength.
VOC: You’re debuting at Grand Ole Opry on Oct. 23. What are your feelings about that place and that gig?
Wilson: Is it okay to be terrified? That’s what I am. There are certain moments where you know where you stand in the world of music. I’m think I’m maybe not even on the ground level. It’s completely extraordinary. I’m really so excited and terrified at the same time. Don’t make me think about it any more.
VOC: You’re an actor and producer. What drew you to become a singer-songwriter as well?
Wilson: I still love movies. I produce them and star in them when they’re the right roles. All of that is great. But there is something different about writing your own music. As an actor you’re a character, and there’s something very liberating about showing truth through different characters. With producing, you can put a great team together but they’re going to do what they’re going to do without you. Songwriting is for me a pure expression of who I am as an artist. It is extremely creatively satisfying.
VOC: Branching out seems to be a thing with your family. Tom Hanks’ book of short stories was very well received when it was published last year.
Wilson: I think (multiple outlets for creativity) are true for all creative people. I don’t know any creative person who just does one thing. Everyone I know who is creative is active in different areas. I do watercolors on the side. It’s a hobby. I just think as an actor you’re reliant on other people to do what you do. It’s really nice to have a solitary creative outlet that doesn’t require other people to help make it happen.
Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.