Olivia Newton-John on how cancer and the loss of her sister inspired her

Before Grease, the actress was famed for her career as a country singer, now she revisits music with an album about loss and grief

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Olivia Newton-John is most famous for summery feel – good pop music that’s still loved decades after it was released. She will, for millions, always be Sandy in Grease who wore an off-the-shoulder black top and skin-tight trousers as she danced with John Travolta and sang You’re the One That I Want.

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But there was always much more to Newton-John than her public image suggested – years before Grease she had been a Grammy-winning country singer and it’s that spare sound that is evident in the 68-year-old’s latest album. Liv On is a collection of 11 songs about illness and death that was inspired by the sudden loss of Newton-John’s sister Rona from a brain tumour aged 70 in 2013. “It was a terrible shock – she was a very healthy fit person who exercised every day and ate well,” she says. “She died very quickly and it put me in a spin for about a year.”

To help process the pain, Newton-John wrote a song and recorded it with her friend, the Canadian singer and producer Amy Sky. “It was something I was going to send to family and friends,” she explains, “but after we finished we were discussing that there isn’t much music specifically made for people going through loss and grief. It was then I had the light-bulb moment – maybe there is a need for this music.”  

Newton-John brought country singer Beth Nielson Chapman on to the project. What made the writing process especially meaningful was that all three singers had personal experience of loss and illness; Sky has depression and Chapman has survived breast cancer and a brain tumour. “Olivia looks like a big pop icon singing Grease,” says Chapman “but she did a fantastic album called Grace and Gratitude – so she has stepped into these waters before.” 

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Grace and Gratitude was written in the aftermath of Newton-John being diagnosed in 1992 with breast cancer at the age of 44. “My father died on the same weekend I was diagnosed,” recalls Newton-John. “It all happened at the same time. I was frightened because I was worried about how I would get through it because I had my young daughter.” Newton-John went through a year of chemotherapy and was eventually given the all-clear. Since then she has become a champion of breast cancer awareness and established a hospital and wellness centre in her hometown of Melbourne.

The songs for Liv On began with Newton-John, Sky and Chapman gathering at sessions at Newton-John’s home and in Las Vegas where she was doing a residency. “We would sit down with our notepads and a cup of tea and exchange stories from our experience,” recalls Sky. “There were laughing sessions and deep crying sessions – they were like therapy in a way.”

Newton-John is a passionate advocate for positivity and she radiates optimism despite the many tragedies in her personal life. Her 31-year-old daughter Chloe was revealed to have spent most of her adolescence struggling with anorexia and substance abuse, and former boyfriend Patrick McDermott mysteriously disappeared from a boat off Los Angeles during an overnight fishing trip in 2005.  

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It was thought that McDermott drowned after falling from the boat, but there have been persistent rumours that he faked his own death and is now living with a new girlfriend in rural Mexico. Newton-John, who has been married to businessman John Easterling since 2008, has said in the past that she refuses to believe McDermott faked his disappearance, but was it harder to grieve for him than it was for her sister because of the absence of any closure? There is a long pause. “It was very painful,” she says finally. “There are no tricks to those things – they’re just things you have to learn to live with.” 

This “when life gives you lemons you make lemonade” attitude extends even to her feelings towards illness – she tells me she considers her breast cancer experience to have been a gift. “I am grateful for the experience because without it I would not have done many of the things I have done in my life,” she says. “It’s taught me compassion for those going through difficult times.” The ambition for Liv On is that it will help listeners who’ve gone through their own difficult times. “I know that music can be healing: it can make an actual difference.”  

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Olivia Newton-John is performing on Celtic Connections tonight at 7pm on Radio 2