Rita Wilson says her love of music -- and ability to sing -- "was kind of a private thing I kept to myself. You don't want to be that person who's like, 'Oh yeah, and now I'm a singer... And yet, here I am, I guess."
Wilson, who's acted in nearly 30 films and produced "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and the film adaptation of "Mama Mia!," releases her debut album, "AM/FM," on May 8. It's the result of a turn as Roxie Hart in "Chicago" on Broadway during the summer of 2006 that she says "reignited the love that I have for music" and led to subsequent discussions about future musical projects with Decca Records A&R exec Jay Landers -- including a musical built around songs from the 60s and 70s.
"He asked me if I sang," Wilson, who's married to Academy Award-winning actor/director/producer Tom Hanks, tells Billboard.com, "and I said,'Yeah...' Then he said, 'Have you ever recorded anything?' I sent him two things I had recorded... and Jay said, 'Well, we can do the play, but would you ever considering doing an album?' That's how it started, and it was kind of scary. But sometimes you have to scare yourself in order to make things happen and grow, I guess."
"AM/FM" features Wilson's takes on a variety of songs by the Everly Brothers ("All I Have to Do is Dream"), the Association ("Cherish"), Glen Campbell ("Wichita Lineman"), Joni Mitchell ("The River"), the Supremes ("Come See About Me" and more. Conceptually, she says the 11-song set hearkens back to her youth. "The songs I selected reminded me of what I heard on the radio, AM or FM," Wilson explains. "The AM stuff are things I remember my parents playing, either in the car or on the HiFi at home. Then FM radio came into existence...and I had my own car and full control of the dial. The AM section represents all this hope, giddiness, romance, joy, then the singer-songwriters came around for the FM side and were like, 'Yeah, that didn't quite work out, and let me tell you this little story about it...' "
Wilson also recorded good friend Patti Scialfa's unreleased "Every Perfect Picture" as an iTunes bonus track for "AM/FM." Scialfa co-produced that song, as well as "Come See About Me" for the album. "I'm her biggest fan," Wilson says. "That's a song she's had for many years, and I've always loved it. Whenever I see her, I'm like, 'Can you sing 'Every Perfect Picture?' I've tired to get other people I know who are big recording artists to record it. Then I had this window and I asked, and she said yes. So I was very honored and excited to record it. I guess it's like my XM song."
Scialfa and Sheryl Crow, another Wilson pal, guest on a pair of songs each on "AM/FM," along with Jackson Browne ("Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues"), Chris Cornell ("All I Have to Do is Dream") and Vince Gill ("Faithless Love"). But the real coupe, she says, was having Jimmy Webb play piano on his "Wichita Lineman." "My producer (Fred Mollin) had coincidentally produced some of Jimmy's albums, and after we knew I wanted to cut 'Wichita Lineman' he said, 'Maybe I should get Jimmy to come in and play piano on this,' " Wilson recalls. "I said, 'Are you joking?' 'No, I'll ask him,' and Jimmy said sure. He happened to be in L.A., so we got together and it was the first song we cut. He was so gracious and amazing, I still can't believe it."
Wilson has lined up shows in New York (May 10) and Los Angeles (June 9) to promote "AM/FM." But Wilson isn't prediction whether music will become a going concern amidst her film and TV projects and writing for Harper's Bazaar and the Huffington Post. "This is all kind of new to me," she notes. "I will continue doing music; whether or not I do another album, we'll see. I just hope people will like what they hear and I'll get to do it again, because (music) is something I really love to do."