Q&A: Olivia Newton-John
Aussie songbird Olivia Newton-John revisits her enormous hit catalog with a voice that over the decades has lost none of its ethereal sweetness and emotional intimacy.
As Olivia Newton-John arrived stateside in the early-‘70s, she quickly became a successful crossover artist, landing hits and awards in both the country and adult contemporary music genres. Her lead role in the movie version of the musical Grease, however, led to more movie roles and transitioned her into the pop charts, where she had her biggest career hit with the album and single, Physical.
Her career may have slowed by the late-‘80s, but after successfully fighting breast cancer in the ‘90s, she continued to record while also being active as an entrepreneur and activist for health-awareness issues. Her continued popularity included guest appearances on shows like American Idol, Glee, RuPaul’s Drag Race and Dancing with the Stars. Even after being re-diagnosed with cancer in 2017, Newton-John continues to tour.
Q: Shortly after playing in Tulsa last year, it was revealed that you had been re-diagnosed with cancer, this time metastasizing in your lower back. How are you currently doing?
A: I’m doing great. I’ve done photon radiation treatment and many natural therapies, and I feel great. I postponed some of my shows from the summer after the diagnosis and finished rescheduling those in December. I am really looking forward to seeing my fans and being onstage in Tulsa.
Q: You were one of the early female artists to straddle the line, eventually crossing over from country to pop and rock superstardom, arguably the predecessor for artists like Shania Twain and Taylor Swift. Do you ever consider the role you likely played in that evolution?
A: I never really thought much about it at the time as I was an Aussie girl recording great songs in the United Kingdom with wonderful producers. In the UK there wasn’t such a separation of country or pop — we were just recording good songs. After some of the songs started to become hits in America we were all surprised that there was some resistance in Nashville.
Q: Both as a peer and friend, how instrumental was Cliff Richard in helping launch your career?
A: Cliff was a big part of my career and he really helped launch me in the UK by having me on his television show [It’s Cliff Richard]. That gave me the chance to develop a fan base in the UK, which was instrumental early in my career. He is still, to this day, one of my dearest mates, and we got to sing and have a hit with “Suddenly” from Xanadu, one of my favorite songs written by my longtime friend, producer and songwriter, John Farrar.
Q: We're coming up on the 40th anniversary of the release of Grease. How fondly do you look back on the movie and experience?
A: Grease was such a special time in my life and for my career. While on set, we knew it was special, but we had no idea how big it would become. I never went to a school like that in Australia, so it was a fun time shooting, and to this day, I remain close with many from the film, especially John [Travolta] and Didi [Conn]. When I was doing my show in Vegas, at the Flamingo, a lot of the film cast came to see the show and joined me onstage for “Summer Nights.”
Q: In 1980, you were the featured lead in Xanadu. Although the movie itself bombed, the soundtrack was very successful. Do you think the film may have been better received had its release been timed differently?
A: Yes, there were many script issues [with Xanadu], but Kenny Ortega, our choreographer, was truly ahead of his time by including street dance, breakdancing and so many types of dance in the film. Of course, the music was a big success, and that was John Farrar’s influence by writing some great songs like “Suddenly” and “Magic.” And Jeff Lynne [ELO] wrote the title song, which everyone seems to love.
You know, they turned it into a Broadway musical, and it was fantastic. I was there opening night and laughed so hard.
Dancing with Gene Kelly was a particularly fond memory. I mean, how many people can say that? And he was so wonderful and really helped me. I’m a lucky girl. I got to dance with John Travolta in Grease and Gene Kelly in Xanadu. Who could ask for more?
Q: Over your career, you have perpetually continued to evolve musically, as well as with your branding and image.
A: I think as an artist, you are always looking to do new things and flex your creative muscles. I remember after we finished the song “Physical,” I had second thoughts and told my manager it was too much and that we had to pull it. He said it was too late as the song was racing up the charts. That song allowed me to move into some new music. [Released in 1981, “Physical” spent 10 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became Newton-John’s biggest American hit.]
Q: You've always been multimedia savvy with a presence in music, movies and television. Did you see any noticeable boost in popularity or public interest as a result of those appearances?
A: When fun opportunities come up, I do them. Glee was so much fun, and working with Jane Lynch was hilarious. RuPaul is just so wonderful and ahead of his time too. Dancing with the Stars was a fun opportunity, and Julianne Hough was about to play Sandy in a TV version of Grease, so it just seemed to be a fun thing to do. I had a blast on all three, and I’m sure it did bring a newer audience to my music.
Q: What or who is currently in your playlist? What current artists are you impressed with?
A: There are so many wonderful singers out there. I love my daughter’s [Chloe Rose Lattanzi] music. I’m also a big fan of P!nk, Sam Smith, Rihanna and my fellow Aussie, John Farnham.
Q: What do you have planned for the future?
A: There are some upcoming projects in the works that I can’t talk about just yet, but at the moment I am so proud of my latest album, Liv On, which I recorded with my friends Beth Nielsen Chapman and Amy Sky. The album is meant to help people going through grief or some sort of loss. It’s overwhelming to see how many people the music is helping as they go through a difficult time.
The Joint: Tulsa | Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa
777 W. Cherokee St. | Catoosa
March 22: 8 p.m.
Must be 21 or older to attend
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