Composers / Musicians

Olivia Newton John: Two Conversations with ONJ

She doesn’t like the words ‘bucket list’, considers allowing oneself negative thoughts a form of self-defeat and bristles at the implication that it’s time to retire ‘Let’s Get Physical’. “You think it stops now?” she asks, obviously enjoying putting a journalist on the spot. A few minutes later she says, “Someone told me in Sri Lanka that if you’re over forty they think you’re over the hill. Let me tell you, I’m not.” The stage at the Musaeus auditorium is bathed in lights, the instruments stand waiting to be claimed, and somewhere behind us, the audience has already begun to pour in. We’re seated off to the left of the stage – three reasonably star struck journalists sitting down for a few minutes with the evening’s luminary. The question is – have I just succeeded in mortally offending Olivia Newton John, beloved of millions? Probably not, Olivia is far more resilient than one would imagine.

Her fight with breast cancer and eventual triumph is a perfect example of this. Olivia, who seems to attribute her recovery as much to her positive attitude as to her treatment has dedicated a great deal of her energy to raising awareness about the disease and after a decade of campaigning she’s ready to throw open the doors to the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre this June. She and her husband ‘Amazon John’ Easterling got married in the Amazon, and their interest in alternative medicines and treatments extends into their business – The Amazon Herb Company. In fact, her trip to Sri Lanka might inspire a new range of products. “My husband is meeting tomorrow with some Sri Lankan herbalists to talk about the plants here,” she tells us.

She doesn’t hide her eagerness for their work; gesticulating gracefully, those famous blue eyes alight with enthusiasm. The years have been kind to her. Her age, when it shows at all, is only visible in the gentle lines that form in the creases at the corner of her eyes. She glitters – dressed in white and pale blue, she wears diamonds at her throat and sequins on her slippers. In an interesting contrast, her nails are painted black. But none of it conceals the fact that Olivia is clearly tired.

It only adds to my curiosity – why would a star who should be able to rest comfortably on her laurels still sign up for relentless touring? This time, she’ll do something like 19 shows on her Asia 2012 tour, hopping between Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Hong Kong and Indonesia with only a day off in the whole time. It’s clear she’s finding it tiring: “It’s been a lot of the travel. Two or three times it felt like we were going to Australia every day from LA.” A scheduled press conference was cancelled and in person, she does seem weary. It shows in the cast of her face and the way she responds to some questions with almost uncharacteristic brevity – sometimes her answers are shorter than the questions themselves.

When she says she still touring because “I like to sing, it’s who I am. I’ll do it until I don’t enjoy it or people don’t show up,” it sounds like an easy answer. It’s only later, when Olivia steps onto stage that we realize it’s the exact truth – and that at 63, she still has what it takes. She loves performing, she loves her crowd, and they can’t seem to help but love her back – it’s clear this Sri Lankan audience adores her. They’re clapping even before she steps on stage, and when she does walk on dressed all in glittering black, the applause swells. (The De Lanerolle brothers having already done a stellar job of warming us up for her with renditions of ‘Spanish Eyes’ and ‘Show Me The Way to Amarillo’.)

The next hour and a half is an education in how a star gets a crowd eating out of her hand. We’re up on the balcony (somewhere below are people who’ve paid Rs.15,000 a head to get as close as they can) from where we have a clear view as she launches into the first song of the evening – a quiet, heartfelt rendition of ‘Pearls on a Chain’. She follows with her hit ‘A Little More Love’ off her 1978 album ‘Totally Hot’. Wrapping up, she turns to us and says “Ayubowan,” and bows and then spoils the solemnity with a smiling “Did I get it right?”

It’s the first time she wins a laugh from us, but it’s far from the last. Olivia is warm and forthcoming with her audience; she displays a quirky, irreverent wit, and reveals a more vulnerable aspect when she confesses to having nights during her illness where she would wake up in her bed, afraid. “I thought I was going to retire,” she says in her husky voice, “but then I realized I could never give into it.” You get a sense, she relies greatly on the members of her band whom she treats like old friends: Marlen Landin Chapman and Steve Real Y Vasquez are on vocals, Timothy McDonald on keys, her long time music director Andrew Timmons on guitar, Warren Ham on horns and vocals, Matthew Mc Kenzie on bass and Mark Beckett on drums.

A particularly charming tableau is offered up when they gather around three stools to perform a series of covers of country songs – she begins with one of her earliest hits, a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘If Not For You’. In her hands, it’s a fluffier beast but when she sings ‘Jolene’ she gives the song some teeth. And yes, everyone knows the words to ‘Country Roads’ and with Olivia’s encouragement the whole auditorium sings along.

Over the course of the show, she orchestrates more than one switch in mood, none more dramatic than when she goes from a rousing rendition of ‘Let’s Get Physical’ to sit in the spotlight alone and sing ‘Send in the Clowns’. Like Judy Collins and Barbra Streisand before her, she soars, she whispers, she breaks hearts.

She saves the songs from ‘Grease’ for the very end. (She’s amazed, she says, at how the movie is loved wherever she goes and is amused by how everyone always wants to know what it was like to kiss John Travolta. Unfortunately, her lips are sealed on the subject.) Donning a leather jacket she and Marlen take one corner of the stage and Steve and Warren take the other. They get the audience singing with them. From ‘Summer Nights’ to ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’ and ‘We Go Together’ these songs are all old friends, tunes we’ve known for years. She leaves us with a rendition of ‘I Honestly Love You’ and the feeling, which is perhaps her gift as a performer, that after our evening with her we might just be old friends too.

From a pre-show email interview:

Early in her career, a critic once quipped that if white bread could sing it would sound like Olivia Newton-John. Though the easy dismissal stung then, Olivia has had the last laugh. Whether she’s singing country or pop, Olivia’s fans love her. She’s sold a 100 million albums, won four Grammy awards and seen 14 of her albums certified gold by the RIAA. Her Asia 2012 tour which began this month will see her catching up with fans in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Sri Lanka where she will perform at the Musaeus College auditorium on April 4 and 5.

Her Sri Lankan fans, perhaps teenagers in the 70’s will best remember her in her role as Sandy to John Travolta’s Danny in the hit musical ‘Grease’. Over the course of the film she transforms from the sweet, wholesome girl next door (Sandy 1, as Olivia likes to call her character) to the confident siren (Sandy 2). More recently, a whole new generation of fans discovered her when she stepped out onto the sets of hit TV series Glee and got ‘Physical’ with Jane Lynch.

Olivia and Lynch who plays coach Sue Sylvester – the one time nemesis of the school’s glee club – donned matching blue headbands for the performance. “Jane and I had so much fun! We laughed so much all day on set that I am surprised we were able to get anything done!” Olivia told The Sunday Times over an email. ‘Physical’ itself remains Olivia’s biggest hit – it clung to the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for 10 consecutive weeks in 1981.

For the time the lyrics were just a little risqué, with the singer radiating sexual confidence and taking charge of her date. ‘There’s nothing left to talk about, unless it’s horizontally,’ Olivia croons. Since the star identified herself more with Sandy 1 than Sandy 2 outside the recording studio, she found herself having to muster up some courage. “I was very nervous about the song and in fact, I told my manager to pull it from the record and he told me ‘It’s too late, it’s gone to radio,’” says Olivia.

To defuse the innuendo a little, they made a workout themed video where Olivia uses exercise to torture several obese men into shape. She had to compromise and allow the one sexy shower scene – but agreed to only if she could keep her clothes on. “Of course that made the scene even sexier for some!” she says.

Her new image was intended to up the ante post-‘Grease,’ where she surprised Danny and everyone else watching the finale by donning a pair of black pants that were so tight she had to be sewn into them. They decided on the look after several attempts to reimagine Sandy’s character – when the crew didn’t recognize her right away they knew this was the one. “It was very funny,” she says. “They were trying all of these different hairstyles and ‘looks’ and when we came up with what was eventually ‘Sandy 2’ as I call her, I walked on set and no one knew it was me. It was very fun!”

In fact, ‘fun’ is the word she uses most often when talking about the movie. “I had so much fun on the set of ‘Grease’. I didn’t go to a high school like that in Australia so that dynamic was new to me. We all really had fun together and it made the summer we filmed that fun,” she says. Though her character was naïve, Olivia was determined she wouldn’t be a complete wimp and kept trying to inject some backbone into her. As her co-star, Travolta backed her all the way. They became fast friends and she remembers he would look out for her. “During one of the scenes at the drive in, he messed up his lines on purpose so they would do another take and he said ‘you can do better’ – he was very caring to make sure everything I did was the best.” The ‘Grease’ soundtrack, on which they sing together, remains a crowd pleaser with remixes like the Grease medley still a staple in nightclubs.

Despite the intervening years, Olivia has remained the ‘good girl’ in the public’s eye. She’s never seemed to feel the need to dramatically reinvent herself to keep her fans’ interest. Olivia is pleased to have stuck to her guns. “I think as an artist as long as you are yourself, and you don’t try to copy someone else’s style, you will have success,” she says, adding that always at the core, it’s been about great music for her.

She has applied the celebrity she has accumulated over the years to many worthwhile causes. She is best known as an advocate for breast cancer, of which she is herself a survivor. Upon first hearing the diagnosis, a Buddhist friend told her, ‘Congratulations, now you will grow’ and Olivia seems to agree with him. “That journey, I know it may sound strange, was a blessing because had I not gone through that I probably wouldn’t have been able to do the things I have done to raise awareness for breast self-examination and the importance of early detection and have had the chance to help so many people going through cancer. This year I celebrate 20 years of being cancer free!!!”

At the time, she found strength in the support of her family and friends, as well as from other women with cancer. But when it came to her daughter, she found herself struggling to decide if Chloe should be told. “I actually didn’t tell Chloe while I was going through treatment. She had lost her best friend Colette to cancer at a young age and I didn’t want to frighten her as she associated the word ‘cancer’ with ‘death.’ Chloe would only find out years later, and Olivia assured her that she was fine then. “She replied with something so sweet I will never forget it. She said ‘mum, why didn’t you tell me, I could have taken care of you’.”

Olivia has spent the last ten years fundraising and building the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in her hometown of Melbourne, Australia (www.OliviaAppeal.com) which will open its doors this June. She’s always been an ardent environmentalist and continues to support many a good cause. Currently she and her second husband ‘Amazon’ John Easterling are on the board of the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER.org), which champions the rights of indigenous communities. For Olivia, the appeal of celebrity seems to lie particularly in leveraging it in the support of others.

Interview first published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on March 25, 2012, with a review of her performance published on April 8, 2012. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Indika Handuwala

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