OLIVIA BARES HER SOUL IN MUSIC
By DEBBIE KRUGER
Despite the constant media palaver that surrounds Olivia Newton-John, she has, over the years, been extremely guarded about her life and selective about to whom she talks and what she says.
Yet now, with the release of her latest album, Gaia, she has bared her soul in music and is more willing to speak up about her concerns and inspirations to the public.
Newton-Johns career has spanned 30 years, from her earliest days as a television personality in Melbourne, to international stardom with a string of hit singles beginning with If Not For You in 1971, including the classic Grammy winning I Honestly Love You and Physical.
She has starred on film and television and in the late 1980s, after the birth of her daughter Chloe, she became a committed environmentalist.
While she has never been an artists to provoke extreme reactions from the public, her achievements are, on reflection, remarkable.
For three decades Newton-John has steadily plied the middle of the road and maintained a loyal audience.
She was one of the first non-American artists to make a serious impact on the American country charts a feat all the more impressive considering she was an Australian-raised girl in Britain with a hyphenated name and after making a successful transition into mainstream pop music, she hit the big screen with one of the most successful musical moves ever, Grease.
She is aware of the artistic limitations of the middle of the road path she has chosen and of her detractors in the serious rock press, but Olivia Newton-John is a woman for whom integrity and self-awareness are paramount.
They used to call me white bread, she says. Well, thank God white bread is popular.
Im not an outrageous person. I admire someone like Madonna for what she does, I think shes very brave and shes very bold. Thats just not me. I couldnt do that and be true to myself. I dont think Ive ever been cool except with Grease, and it doesnt matter.
I think that wherever you have success its great. The great thing about music is that theres room for everybody. When youre acting theres only one part but 20 actresses want it. But with music everyone can do their own interpretation of the same thing.
Newton-John admits that until recently she had led a fairytale life, and so when she was confronted by a series of personal crises in the past few years, it hit hard.
The much-publicised demise of her Koala Blue retail chain, the death of her father, and then her battle with breast cancer, were gleefully taken up by the tabloid media, thrilled to finally have something meaty to write about the star whose most radical move previously had been marrying a man 11 years younger than herself.
I think I had a very charmed life, and everything seemed really perfect. And then everything seemed to crash at once, and I think its all part of a growth.
What is that saying? Its not what happens to you in life but how you deal with it. These things that have happened to me have happened to millions of people and I think it happened for a reason. I hope these songs can help someone in some way because I was going to write a book about my experience, about breast cancer and try to talk to women about how to get through it and the way I coped with it, but it came out in music instead.
Gaia marks a subtle change from Olivia Newton-Johns albums of the past. For the artist, it is a triumphant return to recording, regardless of its commercial success. She financed the album completely herself, co-produced it, and wrote all the tracks.
The vocals are unmistakably Newton-John, in all their perfect pitch and purity of tone, but the music has a more spiritual aspect, the production is more understated, and most importantly, the lyrics are all the result of the profound personal experiences. From cancer to whales to trees to family, the songs on Gaia are a reflection of the things which are most important to Newton-John as she approaches the age of 46.
Gaia was recorded at the Music Far in Coorabell, near Byron Bay, and was co-produced by Murray Burns and Colin Bayley, who had just finished Carmellas album at Rocking Horse Studios.
After hearing a sample of their work with Carmella, Newton-John approached Burns and Bayley and found herself in an unusual situation, working with people she hardly knew, producing material that was closer to her heart than anything she had ever done.
After 20 years of working with songwriter-producer John Farrar, another Australian based in Los Angeles, it was a challenge to be with new producers.
we were like three people who didnt know each other, and they had been used to working with people who maybe didnt have a strong idea of what they wanted, and I knew in a lot of cases what I wanted.
A few times they guided me in a direction that was good, but I would have through of it probably, so it was a really good balance.
Burns and Bayley are based in Sydney; Burns, originally with the band Mi-Sex, says he was quite taken back with Newton-John and her material.
I was struck by the honesty of the lyrics and what a strong melody writer she is. It was obvious that shed sung so many great songs written by some of the worlds best songwriters that she had set a high standard of writing for herself.
She was great to learn off, and I never realised until she sat beside me at the piano singing, what a fantastic singer she was. Ive worked with a lot of people, but when I sat down and she sang beside me it just blew me away.
Gaia was recorded relatively quickly, from November last year until January this year. Most of the musicians used were local North Coast players, including Jack Thorncraft, Steve Hopes, Dennis Wilson and Dan Harris. Burns and Bayley also played, and backing vocals were provided by Grace Knight, Jo Jo Smith and Elizabeth Lord among others.
Two musicians were brought up from Sydney; flautist Don Burrows played on five tracks, and an erhu (Chinese violin) was played by Xue Bing Ellingworth on two, including the title track.
It was exciting and it was scary and it was everything, Newton-John says. Because I went into it all gung-ho and confident, and then went through a period of self-doubt, and then periods again of feeling good.
And even now, I dont know. I really think this album, whether it makes it or not, was just an important thing for me to do. It was just something I had to do, and I did it, and I feel really pleased that I did it.
Although Festival Records has been behind the project from day one, she has not yet tied up an overseas deal for the album and intends to retain complete control over what happens to it. After years of dealing with record industry bottom lines and the companies insistence on having her photographed in the little black dress, Newton-John is wise and wary.
With this album, I thought, I dont want to deal with that mentality because Im not hot. Youre hot when youve had a big hit, and I havent had a big hit for a long time, so Im cold. So therefore theyll really think they have me in their clutches because then they can dictate to me.
So I really dont want to get into that. If Im going to do this, I have to do it myself, finish it myself, and then I can offer it to them and see if they want it.
Gaia is due to be released by Festival Records on Monday.