Olivia's one tough mother
For a woman whose broad and timeless appeal is based on her perky, sugary-sweet image, it’s almost refreshing to hear a hint of shortness in Olivia Newton-John’s tone.
The Australian songbird is on the phone from her Malibu home to discuss her new album Stronger Than Before, which is filled with only positive and uplifting tracks.
But given the media frenzy that surrounded the disappearance of her long-term partner Patrick McDermott last year, her edginess is understandable.
After an incredible international career spanning more than four decades, Newton-John admitted she considered giving up singing after McDermott mysteriously failed to return from a fishing trip last June.
And while the 10 new songs on the album were recorded before the tragedy, their firm message of encouragement and hope is something Newton-John has once again had to draw on in her personal life.
“Look at the title - it’s kind of ironic,” she says, adding that Stronger Than Before is dedicated to “people going through cancer or any other kind of trial”. As a 13-year survivor of breast cancer, Newton-John has been a tireless campaigner for self-examination and breast cancer research and part of the proceeds from album sales will go towards a cancer centre being developed in her name at Melbourne’s Austin Hospital.
The singer, one of Australia’s most successful female vocalists, was diagnosed at 44, on the same day her father Brin, a retired professor, died. She says she went through the same fear and anxiety as all other cancer victims.
“[But] I never thought ‘why me?’. I thought, ‘why not me - maybe there’s a reason for this’ - and there was,” she says.
“So if I can pass this hope on to other women, that will be great.”
Newton-John collaborated with close friends including Delta Goodrem, Patti Labelle and Diahann Carroll to record the track Phenomenal Woman, a tribute to womanhood adapted from the Maya Angelou poem of the same name. The singers were chosen for their own conquering of the disease.
“When I was looking for different women who had survived cancer to sing Phenomenal Woman, I approached the women I knew had gone through it, and Delta was one of the first people I tried to reach,” Newton-John says.
She also rang Kylie Minogue, who idolised Newton-John as a child, when the pop star received her own diagnosis of the disease that affects one in 11 Australian women.
“I was very shocked and called her and talked to her. I felt for her but I believe she will be OK,” she says. “She’s a strong girl.”
The album is filled with the type of soft-rock tunes that have won her millions of adoring fans worldwide. The words to Can I Trust Your Arms were contributed by her daughter Chloe Lattanzi (from her 11-year marriage to American Matt Lattanzi).
“I asked her would she write a song for me for my album and she didn’t really respond, so I thought it probably just didn’t interest her, I was just being a boring mum,” she says. “Then on Christmas morning she handed me a CD box with lyrics she had penned for me on a piece of paper inside. And I sat down at the piano and wrote a melody. It came to me straightaway, in 10 minutes.”
Lattanzi plans to release her own album, Lonely Nights In Paradise, later this year. It has been in the making since 2003. Whether the 20-year old, who has recently emulated her mother’s blonde locks, can reproduce her success remains to be seen. Considering Newton-John’s four Grammy Awards, 15 top-10 singles, the most successful musical soundtrack ever (Grease) and five US No. 1 hits, including Physical, it seems near impossible.
In her concerts with the Sydney Symphony next month, Newton-John will fit in many of her past hits, including I Honestly Love You, Xanadu and Grease favourites Summer Nights, You’re The One That I Want and the mega-selling Hopelessly Devoted To You, with the new material.
“Every time I have new songs I have to drop some of the old ones,” she laughs.
Stronger Than Before will be released on March 4. Olivia Newton-John plays with the Sydney Symphony at the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, on March 14, 15, 17 and 18.