Earlier this year, Rita Wilson went to the Kia Forum in Los Angeles to see the Eagles perform the hits that kept the band topping the charts in the ‘70s and can still be heard on classic rock radio today. She noticed two men in their twenties behind her singing every word. During intermission, she turned to ask them how they knew the songs, and realized they were British singer/songwriter Lewis Capaldi and One Direction’s Niall Horan. “[Lewis] said, ‘I grew up on this music. It’s just everything I know about music,’” Wilson recounts, imitating Capaldi’s British accent.
It was confirmation to her that her new album, Rita Wilson Now & Forever: Duets, would hit a sweet spot, not just with her peers, but with younger generations raised on these 50-year-old pop classics by their parents. The set, which came out Tuesday (Sept. 27) on her own Orchard-distributed Sing It Loud imprint, features the singer/actress performing primarily soft-rock hits from the ‘70s, such as “Without You,” “Crazy Love,” “Slip Slidin’ Away”and “If,” with a cadre of male artists, including legends Willie Nelson and Smokey Robinson, as well as country stars Keith Urban, Tim McGraw and Vince Gill, among others.
For Wilson, these revered songs are her version of the Great American Songbook, the term given to many jazz and Broadway show tunes released between the 1920s and 1950s that have become standards. “I have a theory that some of those songwriters were writing from an incredibly personal view for characters in musicals,” she says during a Zoom interview in mid-September, “and when singer-songwriters started to emerge out of the ‘60s, because of what was happening politically and with the war, I think you have this same feeling of people writing from a very personal point of view [into the ‘70s].”
Wilson and co-producer Matt Rollings took their initial list of close to 150 ‘70s tunes and whittled them down to ones they could remake as duets (the only song on the album originally recorded by a duo is Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s “Where Is the Love”). “It was how do you take the story and reinvent it as a duet, a conversation between two people,” she says.
Then they began reaching out to her wish list of partners to cast the album. Nelson was the first to sign on for a re-imagining of Paul Simon’s “Slip Slidin’ Away” as a discussion between a couple in a long-term relationship.
“It’s a conversation that they’re having about life,” Wilson says. “I found that there was an enormous poignancy in Willie singing it, when he’s probably one of the most vibrant and vital performers out there. I’m like, ‘Is Willie really slip sliding away?’ I don’t think so,” she says of the 89-year-old icon.
Conversely, with Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird,” Wilson and Josh Groban approached the song as if they were new partners starting their life together. “It’s almost like vows you would say to each other,” she says. “Imagine a couple at an altar, getting married and saying those things to each other.”
Though some of her duet partners — like Costello, Nelson, Robinson and Browne — were already registering their own hits in the ‘70s, she opted against remaking songs they had already made famous themselves. “I thought they would have more fun doing songs that weren’t their own,” Wilson says.
That certainly seems the case with Costello, who turns Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire” (also a hit for the Pointer Sisters) into a delightfully spirited romp. “He comes in hot, I love it so much,” Wilson says. “When Elvis came in with that vocal, it was so surprising because it was like he put all that longing and all of that emotion and desire into [it.]” (Wilson and husband Tom Hanks are good friends with Springsteen and his wife, Patti Scialfa, and Wilson adds that Springsteen has heard the new version and gave it a “thumbs up.”)
While each remake has its own flair, Wilson says it was important “to not veer too far from what the originals were. They have lasted and endured for so many years,” she says. “The new thing here was that we were making them into duets.”
She also felt the history of the tunes and the weight they carried. “All the years that the songs have been there, all the covers, all the people who have sung of them, they somehow have become part of us,” she says. “And that’s what it felt like when we were recording. It just felt like there was something very spiritual about it. It wasn’t just like, ‘Okay, let’s record this song.’ There was a reverence.”
Because of the pandemic, Wilson was only able to record with Browne (“Let It Be Me”) and Leslie Odom Jr. (“Massachusetts”) in person, but studio technology allowed her to record in real time with her other collaborators. “Technology was working in our favor this time,” she says. “We were a year into the pandemic, so everyone had familiarized themselves with doing things on a screen, but at the same time not touring, not going out. People had a lot of creative energy.”
She admits that going toe-to-toe with artists like Nelson and Robinson was intimidating. “It’s all scary,” she says. “Even though I’ve been doing this for 10 years now and I have a number of albums, I still started relatively late. And so the fact that these artists came on and have sort of anointed [the project], it’s like you’re going to church. Working with any of these people is humbling. I’m in awe of them.”
Wilson says recording only with men was a nod to the traditional duets of her youth and the classics from the Great American Songbook, but she also tips her hand to the future: “Because we need to have a Now & Forever Volume 2: Duets with women. God willing!”
To celebrate the album’s release, Wilson will play a two-week residency starting Oct. 25 at New York’s Café Carlyle. The first week will feature her performing songs from the new album with actor and former The Tenors member Fraser Walters. The second week will be a continuation of her Rita Wilson’s Liner Notes series, where she is joined by songwriters in the round. Wilson adds she would also like to tour the album by playing with full orchestras at the Hollywood Bowl or Virginia’s historic Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts.
“It could be playing these outdoor venues and just have this gorgeous orchestra and sing the songs we all love,” she says. “That would be fantastic.”
RITA WILSON NOW & FOREVER: DUETS TRACKLISTING
“Crazy Love” with Keith Urban
“Where Is The Love?” with Smokey Robinson
“Slip Slidin’ Away” with Willie Nelson
“Let It Be Me” with Jackson Browne
“Massachusetts” with Leslie Odom Jr.
“Fire” with Elvis Costello
“If” with Tim McGraw
“I’ll Be There” with Jimmie Allen
“Without You” with Vince Gill
“Songbird” with Josh Groban