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“What Kind of World Do You Want?” Spotlight on Five for Fighting's John Ondrasik

By Spotlight Central

originally published: 06/06/2020

“What Kind of World Do You Want?” Spotlight on Five for Fighting

Five for Fighting is the stage name of singer, songwriter, and pianist John Ondrasik. Ondrasik was born in Los Angeles into a musical family. As a child, he learned to play the piano. In his teens, he learned to play guitar and started to write music.

After college, Ondrasik spent the early 1990s playing singer/songwriter gigs around Los Angeles where he was discovered by a music publisher, Carla Berkowitz, whom he later married.

In 1995, John signed with EMI Records. At the request of EMI executives who found his surname difficult to pronounce, Ondrasik, a hockey fan, came up with the stage name, “Five for Fighting,” an ice hockey term that means a five-minute penalty for participating in a fight.

Following the release of his debut EMI recording, Ondrasik partnered with Columbia Records for his second album, America Town, which featured the single “Superman (It’s Not Easy”).” The song became an anthem after the September 11, 2001 attacks and earned Ondrasik his first Grammy nomination in 2002.

He followed that up with his 2003 hit “100 Years” which rocketed to #1 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary Chart and earned a Platinum certification from the Recording Industry Association of America for selling over a million copies.



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Ondrasik’s song “World” was selected by NASA to accompany an inspirational video featuring the International Space Station.

Spotlight Central recently talked to Ondrasik about his musical upbringing, his rise to fame with Five for Fighting, his songwriting experiences, in addition to his thoughts on the world today.

 

Spotlight Central: We understand your dad was an astrophysicist. Was he musical?

John Ondrasik: My dad was a cello player, and he did meet my mom in a choir — although I think he was there more because he was attracted to my mom, who was the piano player, and not because he was a good singer — but, yeah, when we’d go on trips as kids, he would sing songs from Oklahoma or old standards. So he was musical, even though he never really pursued music as a profession.

Because he was an astrophysicist — someone who worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the ’70s during the glory age of the exploration of our solar system — I had quite the childhood! On Sundays, I would go down and sit on the mainframe at JPL and play “Star Trek on a computer that took up four buildings that now would probably fit on your ring — so it was quite the experience.

My dad would always bring home the latest pictures from the moons of Saturn. His job was navigating the unmanned spacecraft and figuring out where things are. He’s much smarter than I am, and a neat guy — I’ve always had that analytical side, too, and he’s rubbed off a little bit on me — so I guess I got my engineering/math stuff from my dad, and the music, certainly, from my mom, as that was her profession working as a piano teacher and a music teacher.

 

Spotlight Central: Is it true that your musical training started at the age of two with your mom teaching you the piano?

John Ondrasik: Yeah, I’m not sure what “teaching” means, but she sat me down early and for whatever reason — it’s not even about aptitude, it’s more about patience for a two or three-year-old — and she taught me as a very young child. And she was wise, too. When I got a little older, she sent me to a friend of hers who was a piano teacher to take lessons, because it’s hard to learn from your parents — you don’t have the fear factor that you do from some outside teacher who gives you the evil eye if you don’t practice.

And then my mom, again in her wisdom, when I was 13 or 14 years old — when I really wasn’t devoted to piano and wanted to do other things that 14-year-olds want to do — let me quit taking piano lessons, and that’s when I started writing songs. It was something I wanted to do — not something I had to do — but I’d had the structure and learned enough skills during those ten years of lessons to be able to play a little bit and be able to write, so I’ll always be grateful to her for that.

“What Kind of World Do You Want?” Spotlight on Five for Fighting

Spotlight Central: Which brings us to two questions: 1) Isn’t that about the time you started to teach yourself guitar? and 2) Can you remember any of the songs you wrote when you were 13 or 14?

John Ondrasik: [Laughs] Well, my sister got a guitar for her fourteenth birthday, which I somehow commandeered, and I taught myself a few chords. I don’t remember the song, but I remember the girl I wrote the song about — my first real song. Her name was Tracy. I was 15, she broke my heart, and I wrote a sad love song on guitar. Actually, it’s kind of interesting. My first song I wrote was on the guitar — which is odd considering 95% of my songs I write are on the piano — but I do remember writing that song for her.

After that, I got into recording and writing. At the time, there were these beautiful eight-track Tascam reel-to-reels with their own little mixers. I was able to talk my dad into a deal: if I worked through the summer in the family business, he would help me buy one of those Tascam reel-to-reels. Once I started recording and writing my own songs, that was it — I was basically all in. Ever since, I’ve tried to spend as much time as I can in the studio writing, recording, and pursuing that passion.

 

Spotlight Central: As a young man, you studied opera. Were there any specific classical composers or genres you admired?

John Ondrasik: I wish I could sound all sophisticated like Mozart in the Jungle, but the reality is I loved Steve Perry. Steve Perry from Journey was my favorite singer. I loved Freddie Mercury — I loved them all — but Steve Perry was my favorite, so I set out to find his voice teacher. I found him out here — his name is Ron Anderson — and he was the voice teacher to many rock stars including Steve Perry. So I started with him, and his process was to classically train his pop singers. Basically, his theory was if you could play Rachmaninoff on the piano, you could play anything —likewise, if you could sing Don Giovanni, you could sing pop music — and it really was a way to teach the technique of proper singing. I worked with him for ten years — and he taught everyone: Axl Rose, Jack Russell, Don Dokken — you’d just walk in and all the rock guys would be there.

I got to the point where I had some aptitude for opera and had some opportunities where I could pursue that, but I was at home listening to Prince and The Beatles and Peter Frampton, and even though I was intrigued by the science of opera and the science of singing, my passion was more in rock and roll. Still, that training has saved me to this day — that training in how to sing classically has been crucial to my career because I sing so much in the falsetto, and you have to know what you’re doing or you’re not going to be singing for very long.

“What Kind of World Do You Want?” Spotlight on Five for Fighting

Spotlight Central: You’ve probably been asked a zillion times about how, as a hockey fan, you got the stage name, Five for Fighting, but what we’re wondering is did it concern you at the time that the public might perceive Five for Fighting more as a “band name” rather than that of an individual person?

John Ondrasik: [Laughs] It’s not only a band name, but a heavy metal band name! The story goes something like this: In the late ’90s after 15 years of struggling, I was able to make my first record on EMI Records. I was very excited; it was kind of a dream come true for me. At the time, it was the age of boy bands, Lilith Fair, and grunge, and the male singer-songwriter was, as they told me, “dead.” The company’s marketing strategy was, “Let’s come up with a band name for John, instead of calling him John Ondrasik, which is a name you can’t pronounce anyway.” Now I wasn’t one of those guys who was gonna change my name to John Epic or John Hero or some legendary title, so when they said, “We want a band name,” I was a little insulted — I was like, “Isn’t this supposed to be about the music? Who cares what you call it?” But I had just come from a hockey game — an L.A. Kings game; I’m a big hockey fan — and back in the day, there was a lot of fighting in hockey, so when they said, “John, we need a band name,” I sarcastically said, “OK, how about Five for Fighting?” really expecting them to hate it and hoping they would see how idiotic it was for a name.

But their reaction was, “We love it!” and I laughed, because you’re exactly right — it has no reflection on the music, there’s never been five guys, and to be honest with you, I think it’s probably cost them in record sales. I do keynotes, and one of the things I do when I talk about marketing strategy failures is I ask everybody, “Who in this audience has heard either ‘Superman’ or ‘100 Years’?” and pretty much everybody raises their hand. Then I say, “All right, how many of you know those songs are by this band, Five for Fighting?” and maybe 20 or 25% of the people raise their hands. And then I say, “How many of you know there’s really no band, Five For Fighting? It’s just this guy, John,” and it’s usually just five or ten people, which illustrates the marketing failure of that decision.

In retrospect, however, it’s been kind of cool having that name, because it’s really been all about the music. And I’ve probably played some of the biggest sporting events in the world because of the name, Five For Fighting — if my stage name was John Ondrasik, I wouldn’t have played the Daytona 500, or Dodger Stadium, or Monday Night Football. So I’m good with it and it is what it is — I’ll always have a free ticket at any NHL game around the country — so there’s certainly a silver lining to it.

 

Spotlight Central: Not to mention a great story!

John Ondrasik: Yeah, an important point; great stories are hard to come by!

“What Kind of World Do You Want?” Spotlight on Five for Fighting

Spotlight Central: You just mentioned your song, “Superman (It’s Not Easy).” It’s been said you sat down at the piano and wrote that song in about 45 minutes. How did you do that?

John Ondrasik: I don’t know. I think it sounds very romantic and impressive, but what I tell young songwriters is: you have to write lots of songs; you have write hundreds, even thousands, of songs, and maybe you get lucky one day and not only write “Superman,” but have the stars aligned so it can be heard. The great thing about “Superman” is not that I wrote it so fast — usually songs that I write that fast are terrible — and it’s one of the few that actually came in the moment and it was a gift; most of my songs take months, if not longer, especially to write hit songs, because you have to craft them to the nth degree.

But when “Superman” came out, nobody wanted to play it. This is way past Billy Joel and Elton John, so at the time, there was really no piano being heard on the radio. And the song was slow. It was a ballad. And I think it was just one of those things where, because it was different and because it caught on, it became the standard it was. And, of course, after it was a hit, 9/11 came along and it took on a whole other stature.

But there are a lot of miracles that you have to have happen to succeed in this business. A lot of it is luck and fate and timing, and that day I wrote “Superman” was a gift. And I didn’t even think it was for me; I mean, I almost killed my own song! It was my producer, Greg Wattenberg, who insisted that we put “Superman” on the America Town record. I was a rocker! At the time, I was listening to Van Halen, AC/DC, The Who, Zeppelin. I was making rock records — I didn’t want to put out some ballad! But Greg was like, “Hey, it’s a great song,” and once we recorded it I really kind of understood his passion for it. But, yeah, I almost killed my own career. So much of it is luck and fluke and timing, but that 45 minutes was certainly a gift and I’m very grateful for it.

Spotlight Central: And contrast that with another hit — which, also, is not a huge rocker — “100 Years,” a song which you said took three months to write.

John Ondrasik: Which is typical, because the process of songwriting for me is: you go through so many permutations of arrangements — and hundreds of lines to get the 30 or 40 you might use in a lyric — so “100 Years” was much more typical for a song for me. If you think you have a big fish on the hook, you take your time reeling it in, because if you reel it in too fast, you’re gonna pull the hook out of the fish’s mouth.

And we thought we had something with “100 Years.” So you tempo map it. You write five different bridges. I sat in Columbia Records’ office with Donny Iner dissecting every word of “100 Years” because they realized what it could be if it was successful. But you do that with all the other songs, too, that people say are gonna be hits and they’re flops.

But, yeah, “100 Years”? That was more typical of the process, and kind of the same as what I do today for songs you think might be kind of commercial, popular songs.

Spotlight Central: The song of yours that’s really been resonating with us lately — and especially this past week with everything that’s been going on in our country — is “World,” where you ask, “What kind of world do you want?” What was the inspiration for that?

John Ondrasik: You know, in the last month — and especially in the last few days — a lot of people have been reaching out to me about that song, and it’s the theme of my keynotes: “What Kind of World do you Want?” That song — even though it wasn’t a big hit — had a very important place in my career. I kind of wrote it, frankly, as a little snipe at celebrity culture, where we have a lot of people — whatever their cause, whatever their politics, whatever their world view is — who like to talk. And talking’s fine — it’s America, and it’s about free speech — but there’s talking, and then there’s taking action. When you’re in this business, you see a lot of shallow folks who like to get on a soapbox, but as soon as the camera goes off, maybe their intent or actual actions don’t follow through. So it was really the idea of, “What kind of world do you want?’ Take action, whatever it is,” and you have to do it yourself; you can’t wait for somebody else to change things for you.

What’s very ironic — and it taught me a lesson about life and the music business, too — is my song was about seeing things you don’t like in the world and taking action to change them. And, at the same time, a friend of mine — another colleague on Columbia Records — had a song about the world, and his song was “Waiting on the World to Change,” and that’s my friend, John Mayer. And, of course, John was on top of the world. That is probably my favorite John Mayer song — as far as melody is concerned, I think it’s great — but I always laugh, because my song died on the vine while John’s song became kind of a standard, and his view point was, “Well, you know, I’m just sitting around waiting,” and my song was “Don’t wait! Get out and do it!,” so I guess I had the wrong message at the wrong time.

Spotlight Central: Well, we don’t know about that, based on the way your song resonates with people — especially the lyric, “History starts now,” which is so true. And speaking of “now,” now that concerts, for the most part, have been suspended, what are you up to?

John Ondrasik: I’m doing very little music. Talking about the world — the real world, not the music business — as we mentioned earlier, my dad was an astrophysicist, but when my grandfather passed away in the ’70s, my dad left NASA to run the family business. That’s the same family business I worked in as a teenager and made the deal with my dad to work over the summer if he’d help me get a reel-to-reel machine. That business still exists; it’s in Commerce, California, and it’s called Precision Wire. My dad is 82, and because of the pandemic, he is locked down in his house. For the last three months, I’ve been spending pretty much all of my awake time at the business helping guide our 300 employees and our business crews through the pandemic and the economic collapse and trying to keep everybody as safe as possible. It’s something I never thought I’d ever be doing at this point in my life, but something that’s probably much more important than writing a song.

“What Kind of World Do You Want?” Spotlight on Five for Fighting

That said, I’ve found a new appreciation for music and creativity, as I’ve been taking each Sunday night — which is probably the only night I’m conscious enough to have enough energy — and I go into my studio and I just play my piano. I’m not doing it for any other reason than it’s necessary for my soul. It’s cathartic, and it’s a health thing for me — where I have to find something to release my stress and my concern about all the things that are happening. And, frankly, it takes me back to my early 20s where, when I wrote “Superman,” I was not happy — I was frustrated about not being heard, and feeling a lot of angst. Looking back on it, it was trivial stuff, you know, compared to what we’re seeing now, but at the time it was real. And so now, for the first time in 30 years, music again for me is a necessity, and it’s really helping me get through these times that we’re still in the middle of. Obviously, in the last week we have a whole other crisis. It’s a very hard time for our country. And so it’s really reminded me why music matters for me. I’ve always understood why it matters for other people. I see it’s an escape. I see it’s a help, at times like this, to raise awareness with a song like “World,” or to escape the world. But I have a newfound appreciation for music. Who knows if anything I’m writing now will ever see the light of day, but really that’s not what matters. It’s keeping me going.

And, obviously, you guys in New Jersey and we in California are really in hot spots for the pandemic, and I understand that for everybody, it’s the first time — I mean, 9/11 was horrible — but we’re all being affected by this. We’re all affected by the pandemic, and we’re all affected by the current unrest, and I think if we all realize that if we’re a little sad, depressed, and stressed-out, we can respect that in others and understand that we’re all a little on edge. 99% of us are doing the best we can — and 99% of us are helping our neighbors and loving our neighbors — and I just don’t think we should forget that.

“What Kind of World Do You Want?” Spotlight on Five for Fighting

To learn more about John Ondrasik and Five For Fighting, please go to fiveforfighting.com.

Photos by Love Imagery

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