“I have such reverence for these songs, the original songwriters and artists who made them, that I didn’t want to reinvent them too much,” says Rita Wilson of her approach to arranging her new album. Now and Forever: Duets. “The reimagining here was really about turning them into duets and conversations between people.”
In Now and always, Wilson shares those conversations with Willie Nelson (“Slip Slidin’ Away”), Smokey Robinson (“Where’s the Love?”), Elvis Costello (“Fire”), Jackson Browne (“Let It Be Me”) and many others. others. . “I felt like every singer that came in had their own connection to these songs: emotional connections, musical connections, life connections. So while we had a lot of fun, there was also a deep respect for the songs. People didn’t take them for granted.”
Can you remember a show you attended as a child that set you on the path to becoming a musical performer?
When I was growing up in Hollywood, there was a place in Studio City called Universal Amphitheater. It is now a theme park and where the amphitheater once stood is the Harry Potter ride.
I became a ticket collector, which meant I got to see the concerts because after I bought the tickets, I didn’t have much to do until after the show, when we had to clean the bathrooms and pick up the trash. Everybody went there: Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Carole King, the Eagles, Elton John.
I remember so clearly sitting on the steps and thinking, “How do I do it? How do I get to be up there?”
It was an outdoor venue and there was one night where I was seeing Joni. It was a full moon, she was wearing a vintage dress, and when she sang “California,” it was such a beautiful moment. I thought: “This is like a dream. I am from california. Maybe one day I can travel and come back to this place I call home.”
Since you mention California, what led you to include “Massachusetts,” a song that spans both coasts, in Now and always?
I love the Bee Gees. I think they’re amazing and those harmonies are incredible. Obviously, they’ve been covered a lot, but that song hasn’t really been covered that much. When I was selecting the songs, I asked myself: “What are the stories that are told and can be told as a conversation?”
With that, the story that came to me was of two people in love, who couldn’t figure it out at the time. So she stays in Massachusetts and he goes to San Francisco. Then at some point they find themselves back together in Massachusetts. There is something beautiful in that. Sometimes people take breaks from each other, but end up going back and meeting again.
Did you find that most of these songs took on new tones and colors when you started performing them as a duet?
That’s what I was trying to achieve. Visualizing each of them as conversations between two people, rather than just coming from one point of view, was really interesting to me.
I feel like “Songbird” with Josh Groban could be someone’s wedding vows. It could be something beautiful and simple that you would tell someone about your undying love for them. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a guy cover “Songbird” and there was something about the tenderness of a man saying those words that was just dreamy.
The David Gates Bread song “If” that I did with Tim McGraw, it felt like the same kind of thing. It was really romantic, and I imagined that the two of them would “just fly away”, as the last sentence of the song says. I love that they would be together forever in-universe in some way.
“Slip Slidin’ Away” with Willie Nelson really took on a different meaning when I started to think of her as a woman talking about her man or someone important in her life, and this man talking about his woman or someone important in his life. Is she Dolores? Is she the person he mentions in the song when he sings, “A woman who became a wife / These are the same words she uses to describe her life?” I thought, “Wow, that’s interesting if they’re talking to each other that way.” It’s almost about getting to know someone deeply and then reflecting that back on yourself.
Matt Rollings, who produced this record, also produced Blues Traveler’s traveler blues, where you guest-starred on a cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” Can you talk about the intersection of the two projects?
When Matt asked me to do that song, I was initially like, “Me, on a blues album? Are you sure about this?” [Laughs.] But I had a great time doing it.
Matt had played piano and keys on my first album, [2012’s] AM/FM. We’re still friends and when I did a stripped down acoustic album of original songs called bigger picture [in 2018]it had Matt on keyboards and Bryan Sutton on guitars.
I’m a fan of Matt as a musician, but also as a producer. He produced Willie Nelson’s Gershwin and Sinatra albums and won two Grammy Awards. So when the idea for this album came up, I thought, “I’ve got to put Matt on this. He’ll understand what I’m trying to do here.”
What was the process of connecting someone with a song like?
Tim McGraw does a great job with “If”, a selection that will surprise many. He would present each singer with a few songs so they could choose something they felt connected to. Tim loved “If”, and I was very happy about it because I thought it would be very different for him and for his fans to hear. Tim is an encyclopedia of musical knowledge. He knows a lot of ’70s songs, and he does it sometimes as a backstage warm-up before moving on. They sit down and do a bunch of old songs.
You and Elvis Costello deliver a soulful version of “Fire.” It almost feels inevitable, and not just because Springsteen wrote it for another Elvis.
I understand that Elvis Presley died before I could hear it. Then Robert Gordon recorded it before the Pointer Sisters recorded his version, which was great. I really like what Elvis did in this case. There’s a part where people often sing, “When we kiss, ooh, fire.” But Elvis walked in and took the word kiss, and made that word hold every drop of desire, frustration, elation, and madness for this person. So he extracts the word kiss, he leaves out the “ooh” entirely and ends with this kind of exclamation point after the word “fire.” It just sounds so good. I also love that he adds this “good Lord” at the end. I was delighted with the way it turned out and this record has a lot of wonderful moments like that.
Having said that, is this an approach you could revisit on your next record or in the future?
I have another album of original songs that is ready to come out, although I am saving it for a while. However, I love performing songs. It’s so satisfying. It would be really fun to do a volume two of all the female duets. That would be great.