Rita Wilson insists her music career is no fluke, nor does it warrant the “vanity project” label often applied to actors who record on the side. For one thing, Wilson said, she is now touring behind her third album, “Bigger Picture,” which includes a three-night stand at the Segerstrom Center Oct. 11-13.
“I think if there was one album, and it never went anywhere, that would be one thing, but I’m committed to songwriting and music,” Wilson said of the follow-up to her self-titled 2016 album.
Wilson, a veteran of over 70 films and also a producer — she famously brought “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” to the screen after seeing fellow Greek-American Nia Vardalos’ play — said she would likely have pursued music as her vocation long ago if she had only known how.
“I didn’t know how you put a band together. I thought you had to play instruments and read music,” she said.
Accordingly, she shelved such musical ambitions until she was nearly 60, when songwriter Kara DioGuardi encouraged Wilson to get some of those songs running around her head down onto paper.
But she still wasn’t sure how precisely to write the songs. For that, she’d need collaborators.
“I needed a co-writer, because I don’t play any instruments, but [DioGuardi] taught me how to hear melodies in your head and write down ideas and be OK saying the things that you want to say,” Wilson said. “That made me look at songwriting in a very different way.”
Wilson’s co-writers on “Bigger Picture” include the Warren Brothers (Tim McGraw, Dierks Bentley, Toby Keith), Kristian Bush of Sugarland and Darrell Brown (LeAnn Rimes, Keith Urban, Ariana Grande). Like her 2016 album, “Bigger Picture” bears the stamp of the Nashville sound, although Wilson won’t precisely label her own music as “country.”
“I love country music, I always have,” Wilson, now 61, said. “However, when it comes to categorizing what genre my music is in, some people say it’s not country at all, some people say it’s totally country, some people call it Americana. I don’t know how to define it. I’m just as confused.”
“Bigger Picture,” recorded in Los Angeles, offers songs of both hope and sadness, some of which turn on the idea of the road not taken. “Good Man,” the album’s second track, offers a somewhat lamentory alternative history of Wilson’s life from when, as a young woman, she found herself in an unhappy relationship. The tune was penned with guitarist Andrew Doolittle as a “What if?” had she stayed in that relationship.
“I wasn’t in love with this guy, and my mom said to me, in her inimitable Greek accent, ‘Don’t worry, you grow to love him,’” Wilson recalled. “To me that was somewhat of an indication of how that generation looked at relationships and marriages: You didn’t have these sorts of expectations about [falling] madly in love and they have to give me everything I’ve ever dreamed of.
The hopeful “Heart He Handed Down” presents a narrative loosely based on Wilson’s father, a Bulgarian immigrant who came to the U.S. after nearly unimaginable suffering in his homeland—much of which Wilson never knew about until she appeared on an emotional episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” in 2012.
“I never knew that my dad had been married [previously]. I had never known that he had a baby; I had never known that his wife died in childbirth and the baby [died] four months later,” Wilson said, adding that such compounded sorrow likely led to his decision to immigrate to America, where he eventually met Wilson’s Greek immigrant mother.
“Heart He Handed Down” relates her father’s experiences in a Bulgarian labor camp, followed by his Atlantic passage, wherein he worked as a stevedore and helped a friend stowaway for the ocean voyage.
“I thought when I was writing this song, if my dad could keep this vision for a better life in his head and risk his life in order to get that, then it is possible that [ambition] gets handed down to your kids and then to your grandkids.
“So I wanted to write that really for my children, to really let them know that they come from a line of courage.”
Wilson successfully battled breast cancer in 2015, during which she underwent a double mastectomy and reconstruction. She remains cancer-free, but that new lease on life informs her songwriting, particularly in the ironically upbeat “It Goes So Fast” and the title track, “Bigger Picture.”
“Going through a health crisis [makes you] look at things in different ways — certainly time,” Wilson said. “You think, `Wow, how much time do I have left, what am I going to do with it, how am I going to spend it, and what’s the most meaningful and valuable thing?’”
Wilson said she has recorded so much new material that she has enough for two more albums in 2019 alone. Her current tour to promote “Bigger Picture” has only a limited run, but she imagines more dates will be added.
IF YOU GO
What: “Rita Wilson: Liner Notes”
When: Oct. 11-13 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Cost: Tickets start at $89