Since her first U.S. hit in 1971, Olivia Newton-John has maintained her standing as a beloved artist across a demographic swath that is practically unparalleled. A staple at country, pop, AC and dance, she has logged more than 40 songs on the Billboard Hot 100. Her new “Grace & Gratitude,” available exclusively at Walgreens, is her way of trying to return the favor with a collection of comforting, healing songs.
“Grace & Gratitude” is beautiful, serene, accepting. Please explain the concept, why the time was right and what you hope listeners will gain from it.
I really made this for myself as a journey of healing, and I feel that in doing so maybe I can help other people who have gone through something difficult, as well. [Producer and co-writer] Amy Sky and I did a couple of tracks on a previous album, including a beautiful song called “Serenity” that she had written, and I thought, I really want to do an album of these kinds of songs. I didn’t know what or when, but it was in my psyche. And then I had a difficult year, so we got together and both had ideas.
The body is broken up in chakras — in seven layers — and there are the Christian seven sacraments as well as the seven trees of the Kabala. There’s a wonderful woman named Caroline Myss who wrote a book called “Anatomy of the Spirit: The Seven Stages of Power and Healing,” where she combines those three ideas. Amy had read the book about the merging of these three belief systems and how we really are one-and how our emotions are caught in our bodies.
We’ve combined Tibetan chanting and Japanese Buddhism and some Islam, some Hebrew. The last song the poem is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. The first song, “Pearls on a Chain,” represents us as pearls and every pearl is a little bit different-in our imperfections or our perfections, whichever way you want to look at it — but we’re all joined. And I believe that everybody wants to know god, but there are a billion ways to know god, and everyone on the planet probably looks at it from a different view, but we’re all looking for the same thing, I believe. If only we could have more compassion and understanding between us-and perhaps music could be a link for that.
It was kind of a wonderful, wild notion to write an album based on the different levels of healing and belief systems. Amy came to my house and I have this beautiful white room that has a lot of light coming through it. In five days we wrote seven songs. If you asked me where they came from now, we can’t even imagine how we did it, but it just flowed through us. Then we decided to make the album seamless, with no breaks between the tracks so that you can listen to it as one piece. So if you’re in meditation or having a massage, you’re not jolted between tracks.
The title came from the idea that no matter what you’ve gone through, if you have gratitude for something, it creates a feeling of well-being. It always makes you feel good to thank whatever it is that you want to thank: the universe, the planet, the god you believe in. It’s true — no matter what I’ve gone through, I still have incredible gratitude.
The disc is an exclusive with Walgreens, where you also have a new line of women’s wellness products. How did the alliance come about?
I met with Walgreens, because they were interested in my Olivia Breast Health Kit and Olivia Breast Health Dietary Supplement and I had the idea that we should put them together with the CD — that music is part of the healing and the wellness. I went to the Walgreens offices at 9 in the morning with my computer, under fluorescent lights and sang with a track to the head of the company. And he went, “Yes, I like this.” He got together the head of the music department and the women’s health department and said, “I don’t know how you’re going to make this happen, but do.” He got what I was trying to do. It’s amazing.
The breast health exam kit is designed to help women find lumps more easily. It’s like a magnifying glass for your fingers, so if you have any changes whatsoever it will show the lumps much more easily. We’re giving 10% of the profits to the Y-Me Breast Cancer Organization and the City of Hope, which is another reason Walgreens is partnering with me, because they’re also giving money.
Your output has been generous in recent years, with three albums over the past three alone. Your fans thank you for that.
I love to sing and I think I appreciate more now that I’ve been given this gift. I don’t know how many more years I’ll be able to do it or want to do it, so I want to while I can. But thank you.
So you’ve been entertaining for more than 35 years. What keeps it rewarding and what do you most enjoy now?
I love the writing and the creative part of the process. It’s such a rush when you’re writing a song, and I get to use my brain! I also really enjoy the recording process. And now I like the touring. I guess I’ve discovered that I like it all. I’ve learned to let go of a lot of the fear. When I was younger I used to be afraid of forgetting the words; I always had to be perfect. Now I know there’s no such thing. It’s okay to make a mistake; people actually forgive you for it. So I enjoy going out onstage and singing songs that I love, and there being no expectations. I don’t need to create a hit record. I’ve done it long enough, so I’m very fortunate to have a core group of fans that keep coming back. I can’t believe that they’re still coming. A few times I’ve thought of retiring and I think, okay, what would I do that I like better? I couldn’t think of anything. What an amazing position to be in.
I have a great band. I love the whole bus thing and I take my dog Jack, a big Irish setter, with me. And my daughter Chloe is coming with me. She’s 20 and has a new CD coming out, which is fantastic. She’ll do a couple of her songs, maybe do some backups for me; it will be a lot of fun.
How much are you on the road? And are you touring internationally?
I’m out every year. We’re on the road now in October through part of December. I was in Japan this year. I did Australia a couple of years ago, and they keep asking me to go to Europe, but I haven’t done it in a long time. I’m going to China next year for the first time. I’ve been to Hong Kong and Singapore. I haven’t done a huge tour in a long time; I prefer to break it up into fun, smaller trips.
There are some artists that the world holds dear. Everyone has a favorite Elton John or Beach Boys song, and a favorite Olivia song. What’s yours?
Oh, there are many that bring back a memory or a feeling. I never tire of performing “I Honestly Love You,” because every night I find something new in that song; it’s such an amazing lyric and melody. John Farrar wrote so many great songs that are all spiritual and haunting in their own way. His melodies are beautiful and they go to unexpected places and they’re so timeless. There are some more obscure songs of his like “Suspended in Time” and “Falling” that are incredible. And “Suddenly.” He was very deep, Mr. Farrar. Stevie Kipner also wrote me great songs.
So here’s an impossible question. Looking over all of it — the hits, the tours, the movies, the enduring fame — do you have a prized memory that stands above all others?
There are so many, of course. Singing with Cliff Richard on television in the early days, the Sydney Olympics where I sang with John Farnham. But overall, “Grease” was the most fun in every area. It was a blast to make, the music is great, and people still seem to love those songs. The whole “Grease” experience was magical, it really was. That was a gift.