Olivia Newton-John Newton-John honestly loves her work
Pop singer Olivia Newton-John, whose hits have included "Let Me Be There," songs from Grease, Physical and a string of New Wave hits in the 1980s, is at peace with her present stature. As she prepares for Saturday's performance, Newton-John says she's at just the right moment of her career.
"I've recorded country music, easy listening, nice, pretty music, and more hard-core (rock) music," the Australian singer said during an interview at her home in Southern California. "I'm very lucky and fortunate to have had the career I've had."
It's been quite a career by any measure. Before Shania Twain, Newton-John was the first female country artist to cross over to pop: she won best female country vocal performance for "Let Me Be There" in 1973 and best female pop vocal performance in 1974 for "I Honestly Love You."
While she was dismissed by critics as a white-bread artist, '70s singles such as "Have You Never Been Mellow" and "If You Love Me (Let Me Know)" scored top 10 hits while her albums went gold and platinum.
Before Madonna's endless parade of persona changes began, Newton-John radically changed her wholesome image just as her popularity was fading. All it took was a starring role in one film: Grease. Newton-John's Doris Day-turned-vamp performance charmed audiences. Before MTV, she recorded 1981's Physical and became the first artist to make a video for an entire album. The album's title single shot to No. 1 for 10 consecutive weeks and transformed her into a pop superstar.
Today, the diminutive singer is fit and trim. She could pass for much younger than her 50 years, and it shows in her youthful demeanor.
Sitting comfortably on her living room sofa, she talks about her career with a bemused twinkle in her eye and an irrepressibly ticklish sense of humor.
She recorded songs by Bob Dylan, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Elton John and Bernie Taupin, and she cut tracks with Babyface, the Electric Light Orchestra, John Denver, the Tubes, the Beach Boys' Carl Wilson and David Foster. Even her spotty film career paired Newton-John with Oscar-winning actors Gene Kelly (Xanadu) and Beatrice Straight (Two of a Kind).
She will appear before the camera again this fall, playing a tough ex-con in a screen adaptation of the play, Sordid Lives, starring Beau Bridges. Asked if she feels denied her proper due, Newton-John doesn't mince words.
"That a lot of people don't know I was doing these things doesn't matter to me," she says.
What matters these days is her work—strictly in the proper context. Diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago, Newton-John underwent a modified radical mastectomy. Just as her album sales were declining, she had an epiphany.
"It sounds strange to someone who hasn't been through something like that, but it seems like a gift to me. I examined things I didn't want to look at before, and I matured. Other things don't seem so important when you're confronted with the possibility of dying.
"I love my career, and it often defines who I am for the outside world," she says, "but I've always put my relationships before my work. I still get worried and nervous about going on the road, but I have the greatest sense of peace about my life."
Newton-John was born in 1948 in Cambridge, England, the youngest child of a German professor and the granddaughter of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Born. The family moved to Melbourne, Australia, when she was 5.
Brother Hugh is a physician, and sister Rona is a screenwriter in Hollywood. After forming a girl group by the time she was 15, Newton-John dropped out of school, went to London and cut a single in 1966 of Jackie DeShannon's "Till You Say You'll Be Mine."
Since then, her self-assuredness has grown with her career ups and downs, the end of her 11-year marriage to actor Matt Lattanzi and her battle with breast cancer. She’s been smart about managing her career: she owns all of her master recordings.
Though savvy, Newton-John is undeniably wholesome. She's likely to snip a rose from her garden for a departing guest, and she teared up before a near-sellout crowd during a recent performance in Los Angeles when her fans gave her seven standing ovations.
Her taste in music runs from Sarah McLachlan and Andrea Bocelli to Alanis Morissette, the Eagles and guitarist Neal Schon—though 13-year-old daughter Chloe dominates the household stereo these days with Britney Spears and Ricky Martin.
Among her own work, Newton-John says her favorites include Gaia (which means the most to her because she wrote and produced the 1994 album), the Xanadu soundtrack, the ballad "Suspended in Time" and the sultry, sophisticated 1985 album, "Soul Kiss."
"'Soul Kiss' has the most interesting, challenging songs, such as 'Overnight Observation' and 'Moth to a Flame,' and I think it was a very underrated album," she says.
She also counts Back With a Heart, released last year, as one of her favorites, although it didn't do well on the charts.
Newton-John either wrote or co-wrote all 11 tracks on the pop-country album. But when asked what she'd place in a millennium time capsule, she names recordings of ballads such as "Hopelessly Devoted to You" by her longtime producer and songwriter, John Farrar (who is currently composing a musical for Francis Ford Coppola).
And while she still strives to leave an indelible impression on pop music, Newton-John says she has no intention of trying to please anyone but herself.
Lamenting a collection of half-finished songs, she adds, with a tone that suggests she knows her best work is yet to come: "I want to create and write more music."
This 1999 article was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Hartford Courant, Los Angeles Daily News, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and South Jersey Publications.