By Rush Evans
The opening lines of the title track from Olivia Newton-John’s latest release, “Liv On,” are as hopeful and positive as the entirety of the musical career of one of the most beloved recording artists of the last 40 years. Gone is the dismissiveness of the so-called too-soft pop music of the ‘70s. Her music has stood the test of time. It has endured, and I can prove it: When this Goldmine contributor makes a Facebook post that says simply, “I just hung up the phone with Olivia Newton-John!” it is met with a barrage of hundreds of loving comments and excitement with reignited memories of glorious pop songs in the minds of music lovers of all ages. It’s 2017, and who doesn’t love Olivia Newton-John?
Olivia has stayed on the same positive journey throughout her career, and “Liv On,” a concept album by Olivia and two other like-minded songwriters (Beth Nielsen Chapman and Amy Sky) on the grieving process, is another beautiful installment in her canon of work. It would have been very easy for the delightful pop singer behind “Please Mr. Please,” “If You Love Me (Let Me Know),” and “I Honestly Love You,” to either disappear by the end of the decade from which she sprang or simply work the oldies circuit singing only those songs. Instead, she chose to continue creating, to use her acclaim for the greater good in other areas like cancer research, and yes, to keep those early songs alive, not as nostalgia, but as timeless gems that new generations need to hear. And as hard work and good fortune have it, the voice behind them is still strong, still distinctive, still unmistakably Olivia.
But let’s get back to that phone call. I am the perfect age for the arc of Olivia Newton-John’s career. I was in junior high when those first hits from the stunningly beautiful young Australian woman began taking America by storm and in high school by the time she won everyone’s heart as Sandy in the film version of the musical, “Grease.” My record collecting friend Daniel and I got into The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Bruce Springsteen, The Beatles and The Boomtown Rats together, but I was also always a big John Denver fan and he was always a big Olivia fan (our worlds collided when Olivia sang so hauntingly on John’s “Fly Away”). We shared their music with each other, and we never worried about whether it was cool to love those artists. The beauty and joy in their work resonated with us, and what they were up to musically was every bit as sincere as that first Sex Pistols album. Daniel and I were in college when we saw Olivia together for the Physical tour, by which time she had been elevated to superstardom, thanks to an energetic and sexy new album. So when a phone call comes in from Olivia Newton-John, it surely means something significant to this hopelessly devoted music journalist.
And she’s still looking forward, creating beauty, eager to live on, and very happy to speak about “Liv On,” an album which is actually a collaborative project with two other fine artists and songwriters, Amy Sky and Beth Nielsen Chapman. All I had to ask was how this unique recording venture came together.
“It really began three years ago,” she said. “I lost my sister to brain cancer. It was a very shocking experience. It was depressing, and I’ve always found that music helps me heal, so I wrote a song in her memory. I asked my friend Amy Sky if she would help me finish this song and produce it. We began talking about the fact that there isn’t an album just for people who are going through grief. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to do a whole album of songs like that? We decided that we would do that, and we invited our friend Beth Nielsen Chapman who had written this amazing song called ‘Sand and Water’ after her husband had passed away of cancer 14 years ago. It’s a beautiful song. We invited her to join us.
“We had three writing sessions where we got together and wrote some new songs, and we re-recorded some songs we were known for. Me, ‘Grace and Gratitude,’ Amy had a hit with a song called ‘I Will Take Care of You’ in Canada. And Beth for ‘Sand and Water.’ We recorded them over the period of a year. We’re getting such positive reaction that is quite amazing. We’re opening up conversations that need to be had, because people are afraid to talk about grief. People tend to hold it in, and it’s a healthy thing to discuss, and people will realize that they’re not alone and that other people have these emotions.”
I told Olivia about a similarly thoughtful and hopeful Texas singer-songwriter named Terri Hendrix, whom I had just recently seen, and who had sung the line, “some things you don’t get over, you just get through.” That seemed to me to be the overall message of the “Liv On” collaboration. “Exactly,” Olivia responded. “And that you live on through it. The song ‘Live On’ we’ve created to be an awareness and a global community that we want to create for people who have been through loss and difficulty and come through the other side to live on. We’re putting that on the ONJcancercentre.org website, which is my cancer wellness and research hospital. That is very important to me, it’s been a passion of mine for many years, and to share these stories will help people and uplift them, and realize that you will go through grief and it’s not something that you just get over. Everyone has their own time to do it. And to realize that other people are out there going through the same and that they care. I think it’s a very powerful subject, and I knew it was when I started and I’m very thrilled that it’s touching people.”
“There’s a stone in my pocket that bears your name, feels like a locked up hurricane. There are tears that will not stop once they start, in the stone in the pocket of my heart.”
“Stone in My Pocket” is a bold and powerful song of grief ownership, co-written and sung by all three women, each having dealt all too recently with love and loss. The words are sad but not defeated, the music strong and defiant, carried beautifully by the three voices coming together in hope. A co-write like this falls right in line with the writing Olivia Newton-John has done all along. Many of her hits were written by others, like longtime collaborator John Farrar and Peter Allen, but Olivia has always had her own stories to tell, such as the powerful “The Promise (The Dolphin Song),” from the 1981 “Physical” album.
And Olivia Newton-John’s songwriting subject matter is still chosen simply by what interests her. “I just write what I write, what comes from the heart. These things are important to me, and the hospital is important to me. When I lost my sister, I realized that so many people are suffering. I’ve been through a lot of losses in my life, and there just isn’t an outlet for that, and music is a great outlet. When I talked to my two wonderful songwriter friends, they agreed it was a great idea. It was something I just felt compelled to do. I’m happy I did it. It has a lot of meaning. It has a lot of meaning for us when we sing the songs. It’s healing. Healing is important.”
The loss of her sister is clearly the primary inspiration for Olivia’s part of “Liv On,” but her own cancer journey began when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992 (made even more devastating as the diagnosis coincided with the loss of her father). In the 25 years since her cancer battle, she has utilized her role as a public figure to assist others in their cancer battles. “Gaia: One Woman’s Journey” came out in 1994, an entire album written by Olivia alone, which was appropriate, as it chronicled her cancer experience, designed to be shared with others going through something similar. Her “Grace and Gratitude” album was a meditative piece that benefited various cancer organizations. And in 2008, it all became more tangible, as Olivia raised funds to help build the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in Melbourne, Australia.
I asked if her ongoing work towards curing and treating cancer is as important to her as her music. “Oh yeah, very much so, but I really like it when I can tie the two together. When one can help the other, it’s like a marrying of my two passions, music and finding a cure for cancer, which I believe my hospital will do. And helping the patients through with the wellness programs, which is what was so important to me when they asked me to lend my name to the cancer center. I thought about it, went to mother, asked her what she thought about it, because I felt kind of strange having my name on a building. And what she said were very simple words that have become my bible, which were, ‘If you can help someone, darling, you should do it.’ So that was easy advice! We jumped right in, we had no money for the hospital. We raised $250 million to build the center, and we built this wonderful facility with a wellness center attached, because that is what I found was incredibly helpful when I was going through cancer myself. So all these things have become huge parts of my life, and it feels really good to give back. I’ve been given so much. I live with gratitude.”
That gratitude covers a lot of ground. She is grateful for her musical daughter, Chloe Rose Lattanzi, who will soon release her own album and with whom she released a Number One dance track, “You Have to Believe,” an updated remix of Olivia’s hit, “Magic,” which originally appeared in her 1980 film, “Xanadu” (that’s the film that featured both of Chloe’s parents, by the way, as Olivia met her first husband, actor Matt Lattanzi on set). She is grateful for her husband John Easterling, founder and president of natural remedy firm, Amazon Herb Company. She is grateful for 45 years of heartfelt recordings, a staggering 40 albums of musical material.
Tony Bennett once said that he believed that “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” gave him the keys to the world. I asked her if she felt the same way about her timeless love song, “I Honestly Love You,” written for her by the late Peter Allen. “I feel that way about a number of my songs, but I think that song was very important to me at that time in my career. I think it put me on a different level. I wasn’t just a country singer. I think that that song is very powerful. But so is ‘Magic’ and so is ‘You’re the One That I Want’ and so is ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You.‘ It’s very hard to choose which one was more important, but that one was a really powerful song, and I love it still.”
She is grateful for the film and television work that she has enjoyed over the years, including the chance to sing and act in the cult comedy, “Sordid Lives,” as the tough talking (and singing) Bitsy Mae Harling. And she is certainly grateful for the ongoing success and pop culture institution that is “Grease.”
I had to ask her if she’d heard the recent urban myth/theory about her character Sandy and John Travolta’s Danny actually having died at the beginning of the movie, the rest of the film being a flashback before the two are seen flying off into the sky. “Yeah, it’s hilarious,” she said. “The only thing I could come up with is that I guess we were the first zombie musical!”
It’s downright miraculous that the particular project came together for her at all. Did Olivia have any idea it would become so iconic? “Not at all! I didn’t think that way,” she answered with a laugh. “I was reticent to do the movie, because I’d done another movie that was a flop (“Toomorrow,” 1970). My career was doing well, and I was anxious about doing another movie that didn’t do well, because my other part was doing so well. So I was a reticent Sandy! I asked for a screen test and all kinds of things. I gave them all obstacles. ‘I can’t do an American accent.’ ‘We’ll make you Australian.’ ‘Maybe I’m too old’ (she was 29 playing 18). So all those things happened, and it turned out to be fantastic. It’s very often the things you’re scared of that you have to do.”
And her multi-generational fan base is grateful that she is still out there performing, still singing with that stunning voice, occasionally on the road, but most frequently in Las Vegas (“Vegas has been fun. I’ve had a good time doing it. I went there for one year; it’s now my third! It’s been really wonderful”).
A few weeks after our phone conversation, my wife and I travelled to San Antonio, Texas to see Olivia perform live again. The vibrant 95-minute show included virtually all of her hits, some strung together as medleys (like the early country songs and the songs from “Grease”). “I Honestly Love You” still sounded fresh and romantic, but the night ended with just piano and the unforgettable voice of Olivia Newton-John on “Over the Rainbow,” the ultimate song of hope, and a fitting piece for a career rooted in living on.
During our phone call, I had to tell her that my wife, too, is a breast cancer survivor, and that she has also made it her life’s work, guiding cancer patients through their own journeys with the help of the non-profit breast cancer service organization where she works. Olivia could relate. “How wonderful! Good on her. She has life with purpose. You need purpose in your life. Music is wonderful, and it’s given me so much, and it can help people too, if you sing songs that have lyrics that are uplifting. That’s important, but to also have something else you can give back to is wonderful.”