Grief, music and Tim Tams: The unstoppable Olivia Newton-John

Olivia Newton-John with John Travolta during the 1978 filming of the movie “Grease.”
Olivia Newton-John with John Travolta during the 1978 filming of the movie “Grease.” Courtesy

Ask a crowd of South Sounders on Facebook what they want to ask Olivia Newton-John, and most people will talk about “Grease” or “Xanadu.”

But for the iconic Australian singer, now 68, those movies that kick started her Hollywood career were a lifetime ago — a lifetime that’s been filled with more movies and songs, but also with grief and loss. Yet Newton-John, with her silvery, hopeful soprano, has found a way to move through that grief through music, bringing the experience to Tacoma’s Pantages Theater on Friday (Feb. 17) with fellow songstresses Amy Sky and Beth Nielsen Chapman.

Born in Britain and raised in Australia, Newton-John had a successful singing career going in Europe and the United States in the early 1970s, winning Grammys for pop and country. But it was with the 1978 movie musical “Grease” that her career took off, starring opposite John Travolta as the naïve Australian schoolgirl, Sandy. “Xanadu” followed in 1980 — a movie that flopped but sent Newton-John soaring on charts with “Magic” and “Suddenly” — not to mention co-starring with Gene Kelly. Soon after, her album “Physical” hit double platinum, and the single of the same name is still the biggest Australian pop song ever.

Since the ’80s, though, Newton-John has done more with her life than sing songs wearing spandex. She’s had two marriages and one daughter, singer Chloe Lattanzi. She’s survived breast cancer (diagnosed the same weekend as the death of her father) and supported cancer research and prevention. She’s advocated prominently for environmental issues like dolphin protection and rainforest conservation. She’s built a spa near Byron Bay in Australia, and continued to record, tour and film (“Sordid Lives,” “A Few Best Men”).

But lately, she sings to heal grief. Teaming up with Canadian singer Sky and Nashville singer-songwriter Nielsen Chapman, Newton-John has just launched a tour for their new album “Liv On,” which explores moving through loss in braided, country-flavored harmonies. On the phone, with a friendly, open voice that hasn’t lost its charm or its Aussie accent, Newton-John talked to The News Tribune about how music heals.

But yes, we also talked about “Grease.” And that famous skating scene in “Xanadu.”

Q: How’s the tour been going? You’ve been getting great reviews.

A: It’s been great, we’ve had three shows in Ireland, Scotland and England, and it was wonderful. It’s been our first three shows ever together. But we’re good friends so it’s really comfortable.

Q: Overall, what’s been the role of music for you in grief and loss?

A: It’s been my way of healing. After I finished treatment for breast cancer, I went back to my farm near Byron Bay. I would wake up in the morning with songs in my head, so I’d put them on a tape player, as you did back then. Those songs became the CD “Gaia” — it was a very healing CD for me. “Grace and Gratitude” was another one, and when I lost my sister three years ago it was an incredible shock, of course. But when I was trying to feel how I felt about it, a song came out.

I asked Amy Sky to help me write it, and she had already written songs after the loss of her mother. We agreed that there really isn’t music like that, about moving through grief, and wouldn’t it be interesting to write some? We invited Beth Chapman, who’d of course had the huge hit “Sand and Water” that she wrote after her husband died, and she’s survived breast cancer. So the three of us got together and wrote these songs. It was very cathartic, talking about our losses. We all had huge compassion and understanding about it.

Q: What’s your take on spirituality and resilience?

A: That’s a really broad question. Spirituality is an individual’s connection to the divine, and everybody has to find it in their own way.

Q: Has yours helped you move through grief?

A: Absolutely. I chant with my Buddhist friends, I pray with my Christian friends, I talk to nature, I feel connected with Gaia, or a higher power, or whatever you want to call it. But this believing in something higher than ourselves has caused so much trouble and violence in the world, hasn’t it? If we all just respect the way each other believes in that, well, there’d be peace on earth, wouldn’t there?

Q: So many fans still love you for “Grease” and “Xanadu.” How was it working with Travolta? And Kelly?

A: John’s lovely, he still is. He’s always been my friend. Now Gene Kelly was much more intimidating — I mean, he was Gene Kelly! I’d never tap danced before, and it was a bit intimidating and scary. But he was a lovely man, really helpful and positive.

But John Travolta — well, you have to understand that at the time he wasn’t “John Travolta.” He’d just finished “Saturday Night Fever” and he wasn’t a movie star. We were just a guy and a girl making a movie together. He was very helpful and a good friend.

Q: Now, the roller skating in “Xanadu.” Did you grow up skating in Australia or did you have to do special training?

A: I had to do training. In fact when I made “Suddenly” I actually fell and broke my tailbone — it was really painful. But I had to go on, so I would sit on a box in between takes.

I haven’t done (skating) since then.

Q: You’ve supported a lot of important causes in your career. What do you see as the most important thing you’ve done?

A: Having my daughter Chloe, that was the most important thing I’ve ever done. But right now, probably my hospital: the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research center in Melbourne. To end cancer in my lifetime is my dream, and to have alternative therapies that don’t put as much strain on the body.

Q: As a fellow Australian, I have to ask: do you like Tim Tams?

A: Of course I do! How could I be an Australian and not like Tim Tams?! But unless I’m over there I don’t eat them … it’s just too tempting.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

‘Liv On’

Who: Olivia Newton-John, Amy Sky and Beth Nielsen Chapman.

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday (Feb. 17).

Where: Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma.

Tickets: $39-$110.

Information: 253-591-5894, broadwaycenter.org.