The singer and the song

For actress and film producer Rita Wilson, family is incomplete without a dog.

“We’ve had, I guess, four or five dogs over the course of our children’s lives and ours, and we’ll always have a dog,” she says. “We just love, love, love them.”

WAG had a chance to see that love in action when we did a story for last April’s “Animal Passion” issue on the “Today” show team raising Wrangler, a Labrador Retriever puppy, on behalf of Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights. Wilson was in the show’s green room waiting to be interviewed when Wrangler bounded in. It was not long before Wilson, all smiles and coos, was giving him a tummy rub. Perhaps she was thinking of her own magnificent-looking pooch.

“I have a fantastic white German Shepherd and she is extraordinary. She’s really man and woman’s best friend. She’s extremely protective and at the same time, extremely loving.”

These days, Wilson has another love in her life — and no, hubby Tom Hanks needn’t be jealous. She’s exploring her passion for music, appearing at Ridgefield Playhouse on April 27, with selections from her just-released album of original material, “Rita Wilson,” as well as covers of 1960s and ’70s hits from her 2012 release, “AM/FM.”

Writing about her recent gig at Café Carlyle in Manhattan, The New York Times’ critic Stephen Holden observes, “As a stage performer, Ms. Wilson is gregarious and forthright: a natural entertainer. Her original songs, most of them collaborations…don’t beat around the bush in addressing the same relationship issues that inspired hits by Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles and Joni Mitchell back in the day.

“Ms. Wilson has a catch in her voice that conveys yearning and potential heartbreak behind a façade of cheer….She suggests a softer Sheryl Crow or Rosanne Cash.”

It’s no surprise that Holden should be reminded of Mitchell. Wilson wrote “Joni” as a tribute to her.

“When the singer/songwriters came out in the late ’60s and early ’70s, that was really another wonderful way to sort of hear personal stories from these artists that were writing about their own experiences,” Wilson says. “So I’ve always been a fan of singer/songwriters, and I think that’s probably why much of my influence comes from them.

“I love a good story,” she adds. “I love being able to visualize who the people are in the song and where they are and imagining sort of their eyes after something happens in the song or before. So I think that traces back to being a kid in the back of my parents’ car and hearing AM radio and really understanding that there were stories to be told through song.”

WAG listened to the new album, and it’s clear that Wilson has gotten inspiration from a number of different styles.

“My musical influences are varied, because I like multi-genre music. I like pop, I like country, I like singer-songwriter, I like some indie, I like some hip-hop. …But I think what I’m most attracted to is a really good melody and a really good hook. I like things that you can sing along to.”

Her leading single, “Along for the Ride,” and  “Crying, Crying” have a country feel, while songs like “Say Yes” and “Talking to Me” clearly draw on more pop influences. Then you have “Girls Night In,” a bridge between the two.

“Each song had a different process going into it,” she says. “Sometimes a song started with a title. Sometimes a song started with a melody. Sometimes a song started with lyrics. Sometimes a song started with stream of consciousness. …If I was thinking about something, I would write everything down that had to do with that and just see where it went, and then I would go back and circle words that sort of felt like they could be a lyric.”

As Holden’s review suggests, Wilson taps into ideas about love and friendship, exposing a vulnerability in songs like “Strong Tonight” and “Forgiving Me, Forgiving You.”

“The songs to me are sort of a reflection of the past couple of years and what I’ve been experiencing personally,” says Wilson, who has battled breast cancer. “They are a very truthful representation of what’s been going on with me.”

With songs like “Grateful,” Wilson plumbs what it’s like to look back and appreciate the bad times, because they were a stepping stone to better times. Then with her single “Along for the Ride,” she considers the effects of those bad times.

“It reflects my attitude about life in the sense that, look, I had a difficult year last year with some health issues but everybody (does). I’m not unique in that. Everybody has things that they’re dealing with, and ‘Along for the Ride,’  even though it may seem that it’s about a car and getting in a car and going somewhere and having a good time, it’s really about what your life’s trip is and how you deal with it. Are you going to rise to the occasion and try to get through things with some modicum of positivity and grace, or are you going to sink into the black hole and not come out again? For me, I think, ‘Along for the Ride’ reflects the desire I have to be positive about anything that’s coming my way.”

That attitude is what has enabled Wilson to connect so readily with audiences in such films as “Sleepless in Seattle” and “Runaway Bride” and what makes her “a natural entertainer,” in Holden’s words, onstage.

“I love live performing. I love the audience, because I feel them. I get them. I love performing for them. I love meeting them afterwards on some occasions when it’s set up to do that, and I feel like we’re the same person. I don’t really feel like there’s anything different about my experiences than the experiences that anybody in the audience would have, whether it’s a 30-year-old girl or her mom or dad, because I think we’re all dealing with similar issues of courage, risk-taking and doubt and all of those things that life throws at you at any day.”

She wrote her album with all of this in mind, inspired by the idea that we all lead different lives, but we’re not really that different after all.

“I think the theme is about taking chances and having courage and that we all have ups and downs and bumpy roads and things that happen. That’s just the nature of being fortunate enough to be alive on this planet.”

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