CHICAGO — Before there was a King of Pop, Helen Reddy was being called the Queen of '70s Pop thanks to her string of 15 Billboard top 40 songs and three chart toppers, starting with the anthemic "I Am Woman."
This rich-voiced, auburn-haired Australia native was ubiquitous that decade: on radio, on television (guest appearances on "The Carol Burnett Show," her own summer-replacement series "The Helen Reddy Show") and in the movies ("Airport '75," Disney's "Pete's Dragon"). But by the 1980s the hits had ended, and by the early 2000s she had grown tired of performing, noting recently in a phone conversation from the Washington, D.C., area: "I remember the Vegas days when it was two shows a night, seven nights a week, and it became so rote that I'd be thinking about wallpaper while I was singing."
She'd especially had enough of her 1973 hit "Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress)."
"'Leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me, oh, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me,' " she drone-quoted. "And that's only one chorus."
So Reddy retired from the stage and returned to Australia for 10 years, spending time with her older sister and living a quiet life. Now the 71-year-old is resuming her career on her own terms.
Reddy discussed her decision to come back, the songs she will and won't sing and hypnotherapy in our conversation, which has been edited.
Q. Your decision to come back came after you performed at your sister's birthday?
A. Yes, that's right, because it was her 80th birthday, and she asked me if I would sing a duet with her. I hadn't heard my voice in 10 years, and when I heard it coming over the speaker, it was like: Oh, that's not bad. Maybe I should do that again.
Q. You literally did not sing for —
A. For 10 years, no.
Q. Not at all?
A. Nope. What I did find myself doing was humming harmonies. When I heard music, I would start humming a harmony, but other than that, no. I think I was burned out.
Q. What do you get most out of performing now?
A. Just the joy of singing, the appreciation of the audience and the fact that I have more leeway in the songs that I choose to sing. I'm not locked into what the record company wants.
Q. What kind of songs are you able to sing now that you couldn't before?
A. I do more of the ballads, not so much of the top 40 stuff, which is from another era.
Q. Are you still doing "Delta Dawn"?
A. Yes. I do sort of a medley of some of those hits.
Q. "Angie Baby"?
A. "Angie Baby" I do in its entirety because it is a story song, and the man who wrote it, Alan O'Day, is a good friend of mine, and I think he's just a brilliant songwriter.
Q. Are there any songs that you think fans would want you to sing, but you decided, "You know what? I just don't have to do this one anymore"?
A. (Laughing) There are some, believe me, that I won't sing again. Like for instance, "Leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone ... ."
Q. I assume "I Am Woman" is still the big crowd-pleaser?
A. Well, yes, that's the one a lot of people come to hear, and it has become over the years an iconic song.
Q. When you recorded it, did you think it was a major statement song?
A. I had no idea the impact it would have. That was a big surprise.
Q. What is it about that song that made it iconic?
A. I think it came along at the right time. I'd gotten involved in the Women's Movement, and there were a lot of songs on the radio about being weak and being dainty and all those sort of things. All the women in my family, they were strong women. They worked. They lived through the Depression and a world war, and they were just strong women. I certainly didn't see myself as being dainty.
Q. You're living in Los Angeles now?
A. I've moved back, yes. I moved back in January.
Q. You've also been working as a hypnotherapist?
A. During that 10 years I took off, I went back to college and got a degree in clinical hypnotherapy and neuro-linguistic programming, and I haven't practiced it so much of late, but it was something that I got a great deal of satisfaction out of.
Q. What made you want to learn that at that point?
A. Well, I'd been hypnotizing people since I was 17, so there was nothing new in that. I wanted to get more involved into the healing aspects of it.
Q. How did you discover at 17 that you could hypnotize people?
A. I'd been in shows where they had hypnotists, but of course they were for the amusement for the audience. I would never have somebody come up on stage and be made a fool of. I'm much more interested in the healing aspect, as I said. We've come a long way from the days of the stage hypnotists.
Q. What does hypnotherapy do that regular therapy can't?
A. We go deeper. Our brain, there's only about 12 percent of it that we actively use, and the other 88 percent is sort of dormant. It's almost like if you think of a glass of beer: You can be fooling around in the froth, or you can take a straw and put it right down and go directly to where the problem is.
Q. Now that you're doing concerts again, is there anything you need to do with your voice now that you didn't before you'd retired?
A. No. No, it's the same voice. In fact, that's what everyone says: "Your voice sounds exactly the same." Q. Is there anything new you listen to now?
A. I don't really get a chance to listen to music too much. I don't even have a stereo system.
Q. Are you writing new songs?
A. Not presently, no.
Q. Have you watched "American Idol" or "The Voice"?
A. No, thank you very much, no. In fact, I'm bothered by all these talent shows because it keeps people who are professional out of work, and these poor souls that are going on there are not getting paid, and people like Rupert Murdoch are making lots of money that they shouldn't be.