LIV ON: Good Grief & The Healing Power of Music

By David DeRocco

The concept of music as therapy is not new. Researchers have proven that music is a core function in the brain, which is primed early in our lives to respond to and process music. Research has shown that day-old infants are able to detect differences in rhythmic patterns, mothers across cultures use lullabies and rhythmic rocking to calm crying babies, concert goers experience physiologic responses to music including increased heart rate and shivers – and there isn’t a music fan alive who doesn’t have a go-to song when they’re feeling sad or want to feel happy.  

 Given that knowledge of music’s incredible power to move us, it seems strange that there aren't more projects like the album LIV ON, a labour of love written and recorded by international superstar Olivia Newton-John, Grammy nominee Beth Nielsen Chapman and Canadian Juno nominee and SOCAN Award winner, Amy Sky. The 11 tracks on LIV ON were specifically written and recorded as a way to bring aid and comfort to those experiencing grief and loss through the healing power of music. It’s a project that began over four years ago during a sad time in Newton-John’s life according to Sky.  

“Olivia had originally asked me to write a song for her sister’s memorial service,” said Sky, an accomplished performer and songwriter who has penned songs for the likes of Diana Ross, Anne Murray, Belinda Carlisle, Aaron Neville, Heart, Cyndi Lauper and Newton-John. “When we were writing we realized there wasn’t really a whole CD out there with songs that were intended to hold people’s hands through the process of grieving and finding hope again which is ultimately what the grieving process is. You want to give space to your emotions and honour them, to find a way to create a new normal.”

Given the shared sense of grief the three artists were experiencing – Sky over the loss of her mother, Chapman her husband and Newton-John her sister – creating an album like LIV ON seemed not only a great idea but also a necessity to help their individual healing.

“That was 100 percent the motivation behind this whole project,” said Sky. “It was almost like a music therapy project on one level. If music isn’t beautiful and touching and artistic on its own without having another goal that it’s probably not worth listening to. But if you can combine your artistry with truth and vulnerability than you’re onto something. I know I’ve turned to music always in my life both listening to it and creating it to help deal with what life dishes out. We wanted to create this CD specifically to help people deal with the experience of losing something they love, whether through someone passing on, a divorce, losing their job or health.”

With the different phases of grief and recovery delicately woven into the lyrics of songs like “Don’t Know What To Say,” “My Heart Goes Out to You,” “Immortality,” and “Stone In My Pocket,” LIV ON packs an enormous emotional punch that helps validate the shared experience we all feel when the heart suffers. Also included on the CD is a new take on Sky’s signature hit song “I Will Care For You,” a classic tearjerker that the singer says was one of the original motivations for wanting to do the album.

“When we started this project one of the reasons I knew how powerful this could be was the impact “I Will Take Care of You” has had on my fans for 20 years. For 20 years I’ve been singing this song and seeing an entire theatre of people begin to cry and I realized we have all lost someone. We’ve all gone through loss, whether it’s your parents, grandparents, someone you love. Life can bring you joy and sorrow at the same time. Even when I performed the song, some people would light up, others would cry. It’s amazing to share your common experience with people. When I first started performing that song and people started crying I thought people wouldn’t want to come to my show. But they started coming so they could have a good cry!”

Given the emotional inspiration for LIV ON there was a real potential for the results to be entirely depressing, and perhaps it would have been in the hands of less-talented songwriters. However, Sky said the comfort level and common experiences shared by the three female collaborators made the results much more uplifting.

“We stayed away from the maudlin and that was the intention. It was funny. We’d have these writing boot camps, just the three of us. We’d just set aside a precious few days to do our writing, then we’d gather together, wear some comfy clothes, we’d have tea and chocolate and enjoy fun things and we’d just sit and talk. Talk and talk and talk. And eventually an idea would bubble up out of our own shared experience.”

The three are now sharing the concert stage on a tour that brings them to the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre October 17th. As you would expect given the purpose of the album, the concerts pack an enormous emotional punch for anyone who can relate to the stories behind the songs -- so don't expect Newton-John to be strutting out in a leather pant suit singing songs from Grease. Instead, Sky says fans of all three artists should come prepared to enjoy a very intimate, meaningful and entirely unique concert experience.

“All of us sing songs from our repertoire. Beth sings “Sand and Water” which is her signature song. Olivia sings “Grace and Gratitude.” We have happy songs in between, but even though we do have happy, uptempo songs, the bulk of the songs are meant to take people to a reflective place. When that’s your normal at the show, everyone settles into it. There’s a lot of laughter and a lot of uplifting moments even though we’re singing these powerful songs. It’s really transformational, an evening unlike any I’ve experienced as a performer. I know people in the audience feel the same. When vulnerability is the place we’re all going to it’s very enjoyable and very cathartic.”

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