With numerous accolades under her belt, including three Grammies and several armfuls of American Music and People’s Choice awards, it is no wonder evergreen singer-actress Olivia Newton-John is firmly established as one of the more prominent luminaries within the 20th century contemporary-pop community.
Her repertoire, which an official press release has described as having “timeless appeal”, comprises safe, user-friendly material like Physical, Have You Never Been Mellow, I Honestly Love You, You’re the One That I Want and Hopelessly Devoted to You (the latter two from the 1978 cinematic adaptation of the popular Broadway show Grease, which established Newton-John’s reputation as a relatively likeable thespian) - all hugely accessible tracks primed for heavy rotation on any given easy-listening radio station, anywhere in the world.
Newton-John’s songs have found particular favour in Malaysia, especially amongst devoted listeners of Lite FM, the primary easy-listening channel in this country. And it is exactly this sort of crowd who eagerly snapped up the admittedly overpriced tickets (with seats costing up to RM480) to her recent concert (Newton-John’s first one here, and part of her ongoing Body, Heart and Soul tour) at the Arena of Stars in Genting City of Entertainment.
Her latest project, the just-released Grace and Gratitude album is a rather different kettle of fish from all her previous works. Instead of sticking to the tried and tested soft-pop formula that has given her no small measure of success over the years, she has decided to dabble in a blissful-sounding, spiritually-inclined, new-agey approach. This new, laidback style is enriched with Newton-John’s effortless, natural charisma, and draws inspiration from the same sonic and production template that veteran new age purveyors like David Lanz and Kevin Kern have perfected.
Thankfully, it’s not too much of a snooze fest, and unlike most new age records out there, much of the affected, phoney mystical gobbledygook is kept to a minimum here.
“My main intention for this new CD is to help listeners to achieve a state of total relaxation,” Newton-John said at a recent press conference to promote the concert and her new album. “The album incorporates several different musical styles from different cultures. With the help of my producer, Amy Sky, we have been able to do some research and get these different cultural tones into the music.”
As to be expected from an album of this ilk, the general mood of Grace and Gratitude is informed by the spirits of a host of distinct religious belief systems, including Judaism and Hinduism, with even some curiosities like a traditional Arabic Islamic chant and a Latin Catholic benediction thrown into the mix. With self-explanatory titles like Learn to Love Yourself, Love is Letting Go of Fear and The Power of Now, Grace and Gratitude is clearly Newton-John’s attempt to appeal to a different sort of audience, namely like-minded folks such as pseudo-Wiccans, astrology-chart enthusiasts and Paulo Coelho devotees.
“The last few years have been emotionally difficult for me, and making this album has been an emotional experience and a cleansing process for me,” Newton-John explained. “I have written most of the songs here, and I’ve been able to express many of my personal feelings through the music.”
She also spoke briefly of her recent experiences as a guest judge on the over-hyped and overwhelmingly popular American Idol talent show. “It was an interesting experience judging the contestants, but it was also difficult,” she said. “It’s really hard to give impartial comments, since most of them consider their appearance on the show as one of the biggest moments in their lives.”
However, it is clear that Newton-John is focusing most of her current energies on Grace and Gratitude. “With this album, I hope to make music that helps us to connect with each other, and to promote spiritual balance and a sense of physical and emotional healing,” she said.
With her recent well-received concerts and the warm reception to Grace and Gratitude by longtime fans, it is apparent that Olivia Newton-John’s timeless appeal has not diminished, a rare feat indeed in today’s fickle-minded and transient-tempered industry.
Grace and Gratitude is currently out on Universal Music Malaysia.