For decades, music was the vehicle Olivia Newton-John used to conquer the world. It allowed her to scale the pop charts, adorn movie screens and sell out arenas around the world. But in recent years, the multi-Grammy-winning vocalist searched for something different and deeper within the songs she sang. So, she enlisted a pair of established pals and sought a way to use music as a means of healing.
But to understand healing, you first had to understand loss. To that end, Newton-John was fully prepared.
“I lost my sister four years ago to a brain tumor,” she said. “It was very sudden and very shocking. Music has always been a way of healing. It was there for me when I went through breast cancer, which was another emotional time, and it was there when I wrote a song for my sister with my friend Amy Sky. I got such a strong response from friends and family. They asked if I had any more songs like that. That sparked an idea. ‘Why don’t we do an album, an uplifting album, but one dealing with those feelings we don’t always talk about.”
With that, Newton-John recruited Canadian musician Sky, a musical partner of more than 30 years, and the celebrated Nashville musician Beth Nielsen Chapman to form the trio Liv On. Its self-titled debut album, released a year ago, centers around loss, but also the means to cope with it and move on.
“Some of the greatest experts in the world say that healing happens in conversation,” Sky said. “You can think it in your head, but when you’re actually talking to someone else, when you have a sympathetic/empathic listener, maybe someone who has been through something similar, it actually helps the healing process.”
The conversation literally pans out in Liv On’s performances. These aren’t large-scale shows like Newton-John staged on tours as a headliner in her “Grease” and “Physical” heyday. Instead, the trio favors more intimate, theater-size shows with minimal band accompaniment and sections where the three artists converse directly with people in the audience about their stories of coping with loss.
“I like intimate settings,” Newton-John said. “I like the whole feel of them. About nine months ago, I had a voice problem and couldn’t sing at one of my shows. I told my audience, ‘You can have your money back or we can stay here and have a conversation.’ And they stayed and talked to me. I found it really wonderful. That concept is really a lot of what people come to see you for. They want to get to know you. From there, the talking with the audience kind of evolved. We thought we would try it one night with the three of us, and it got such a strong response that we decided to keep doing it. People don’t always have an outlet of somebody to talk to about these things. This kind of allows them to do that.”
Sky and Nielsen have their own losses to draw from (a mother and a husband, respectively), but Newton-John found herself coping with a more personal crisis earlier this year. In May, the singer announced she was dealing with a relapse of the breast cancer she was diagnosed with in 1992. Her initial recovery transformed the singer into an active crusader in combating the disease and led to the opening of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre in Melbourne. But this time, the cancer had metastasized to her sacrum. A summer’s worth of touring was scrapped before Newton-John resumed performing in late August.
“Olivia has been doing really well with her recovery,” Sky said. “All of us are delighted she is well enough to be back on the road.”
Newton-John referred to her latest cancer battle as “my little issue.” But that doesn’t deter from the fact that the music she designed to comfort others is now comforting her.
“The title song to the album is one Amy and I wrote with my Cancer and Wellness Center in mind. Little did I know a year later, it was really going to be for me.”
“One of the great keys to getting back on track are the conversations you have with people who have been there,” Sky added. “That was our intention, to create these songs to let people know that they’re not alone, that there are other people who have gone through this transition and came out whole on the other side in a life that will have meaning and joy again.”