By Ian Krietzberg
Everyone may not be familiar with the name Five For Fighting, but the song “100 Years,” one of the band’s biggest hits, has been a familiar staple since its release in 2004.
John Ondrasik, also known as Five For Fighting, released his first album “Message For Albert” in 1997, followed by 2000’s “America Town,” which skyrocketed Ondrasik’s career with the groundbreaking single “Superman (It’s Not Easy).”
Today, Ondrasik has released a total of six studio albums, earning a Grammy nomination for “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” and appearing on the soundtracks of films like “The Blind Side” and shows such as “The Sopranos.”
The Signal spoke with John Ondrasik in an in-depth conversation about his career, music and his songwriting process.
Why music? What was it about music that inspired you to fight and struggle to get into the industry?
Ondrasik: Music was always my passion. As a kid, I started to play the piano — my mom was a piano teacher. And then when I started writing songs I loved it; it’s something I wanted to do. All my spare time, even in college when I was doing something else, I was writing and recording. And it was always a dream and I was kind of just going to push it as far as I could. I was rejected by pretty much every record company like so many people. You know you have to have a spine to survive this business. And I just got lucky. The stars aligned for me at a very late age, my late 20s, and I was blessed to have a career.
So much of success in whatever you do is really not necessarily your talent. It’s your work ethic and your perseverance and your relationships, and for me that was the story. I just kept going and going and going and right at the very end I got lucky. Many artists face rejection, but to have your first single in your late 20s as a pop singer/songwriter is kind of unheard of. But I think it also gave me a sense of appreciation for how hard it is and how lucky I was. It’s different now, too. Back then, the only way you could get heard was to have a record deal. Now, it’s not that way with Youtube and the internet — you don’t have to have a record deal to make a living at it. The new age allows more opportunity and you’re not stuck in that old model that, when I came up, kind of existed.
When you write songs, do you write for yourself or do you write with an audience in mind, and how has that shifted as you’ve gotten more popular?
Ondrasik: I think, reality is you need to have hits to keep going. You need to have hits to have another record. My thought was on every record, when records mattered, is I’ll have eight or nine songs for myself, and then I’ll have a couple songs that we have to craft so we can make another record. It wasn’t like I was chasing singles, and like ‘okay, what’s a hit on the radio, let me go write that song,’ it was kind of the opposite. That’s why “Superman” was so successful. It was different.
But at the same time, there’s an art to crafting a single that’s different than ‘let’s go just record this song for my album.’ It has to have a certain sensibility; you can’t get to the chorus in two minutes; it was supposed to be under three minutes and thirty seconds — ‘100 years’ broke that rule — but I would kind of write a record, and then when I had a song that I thought ‘this could be a song that could be a single,’ I would work with my producer and my wife and we get a sense ‘this could be one,’ so let’s approach this in a way that we’re really crafting it for the masses. “‘65 Mustang,'' we knew that wasn’t going to be a single. So I’m dribbling my basketball in it, turning the motor up, we’re jamming, it’s a little rougher, there’s a guitar solo in it, so you can have a little more fun with those songs. And I also try to make records the old style way where the record itself is a work.
So you don’t have 12 ballads, you don’t have 12 rock songs, you have this arc of tones like all the records I loved. You try to write a good song and maybe find something like ‘okay, this might be a popular song.’ But if you get too caught up in that, I think it's dangerous. That’s why when I start making a record, I just write songs. I just try to write a 100 songs. If you’re trying to chase singles, it usually doesn’t work out, because your songs tend to be like bad versions of hit songs on the radio. I think you just try to write your best songs. So, I think it’s important to stay true to what you do. It’s hard. There's really no science to it.
When you go to write songs, what comes first? Is it the lyrics, the piano, how do you come up with those melodies?
Ondrasik: When I talk to young songwriters, I try to say don’t have rules and try every permutation. Part of my process is I’ll just sit at the piano and just start playing and singing without any preconception, I’ll record it as I go so if an idea does pop into your head you don’t have to stop. So I’ll sit down for a couple of hours and later I’ll go listen to what I did and then I’ll pick out things.
Then there’s the completely other side, where I’ll write a whole lyric before I touch the music. It’s a little more rare but I do do it. There are songs where I have an idea for a lyric, and then I’ll sit down at the piano and try to put music to it, kind of like Elton and Bernie Taupin used to do. And then there’s the hybrid of it, too. “100 Years” was this concept: what if I write this song about living in the moment and the verses are the years of our lives, and I sit down and try to figure out what that is.
And some songs are personal, some songs are observations, so I think there’s no rule. I think you have to try it all. A lot of it, too, is just mass work ethic. A lot of it is just write a ton of songs. I know too many people who will write three or four songs and they’re like ‘alright, I’m done,’ when they should be writing a song a day. That’s how you get good. There’s a lot to it, but sometimes it just comes naturally.
“Superman” basically just came in an hour, the whole thing with the exception of two lines — I doubled up the pre-hook. Sometimes you just get a gift and all the work you’ve done up to that point kind of gives it back to you in a short amount of time. There’s not a bad song, ‘cause it may lead to another one.’
How do lyrics come to you?
Ondrasik: A lot of songs kind of come from where you are. (For “Freedom Never Cries”) I wanted to write a song that spoke to freedom’s not free. I had an intent; I sat down and I wrote that song. “Two Lights,” my kids were four and five, so the songs kind of reflect their world to come. The record’s less personal; it’s not so much about me it’s about ‘what kind of world do you want?’ Global, “The Riddle,” the kid is educating me on what matters. I think you kind of write what’s happening in your life and what’s happening to you, and if there’s some integrity to that, people will hear it. Music to me is a little different now, because songs are written by eight people and all produced by the same person, so there’s not quite as much personalization, I would say. But there are still some. And I think the people that do that, those songs tend to stick around longer.
Is there a song that you recall being the most difficult to write and get the finished product for an album?
Ondrasik: Yes, “The Riddle” was the hardest one, and I still feel I didn’t get it quite right. I spent a year on it, and I kept going back and tweaking the lyrics and tweaking the arrangement and to this day I don’t think I nailed it. That one just took a long time for whatever reason, and it was frustrating. Usually, I give up by that point. But we knew “Riddle” was going to be the first single, so I just kept going and kept going. Some songs, you know, they’re beasts. You struggle with them.
Does the longer a song takes to percolate and work through different versions create a different sense of appreciation for the finished product, versus a song that comes quickly?
Ondrasik: I think both. When a song comes quickly - that’s a good song - you’re just grateful. It doesn’t happen very often. And then the other ones, like “100 Years,” we spent three or four months crafting that song. I have probably 30 different versions of demos of that song. Where does the bridge go; tempo, we actually tempo-mapped the whole song; what key do we put it in, lyrics… So you also appreciate all the work that went into it, the process. Usually the singles have more of that crafting because it’s really important to get it right. Whereas the other songs like, for example, “Two Lights,” or “California Justice,” the songs that are a little more vibey, you almost want them to be a little looser. More kind of rock ‘n’ roll. Sometimes we cut them live. They don’t need to have that kind of perfection.
But for whatever reason, when you’re competing with all the top pop songs, you really need to craft them to compete with those songs. “100 Years,” we worked a lot on that; “The Riddle,” we worked a lot on that; “God Made You,” we really worked to get the right arrangement and then we recorded it live.
I listen to certain songs, and I still feel we missed them. And I listen to certain songs and I can’t believe we got that. I think you’re never completely satisfied, but there are certain songs that have memories of how they came and where you were when you recorded them that years go by that you’re kind of nostalgic about.
Do you have a favorite song?
Ondrasik: That’s a hard question. I have a lot of songs that have (a) different meaning to me. “Love Song” was the first song I wrote that I think was really a good song, and it got me a record deal and without that song I’d never get to “100 Years” and “Superman.” And then I have songs that weren’t hits like “Freedom Never Cries,” (which) has a place with the military that means a lot to me. “Easy Tonight” was my first single, only guitar song ever on the radio. I think “100 Years” was probably my best song, as far as a song that’s one of those songs that can last a long time. And songs like “I Don’t Want Your Love,” to me, if you’re just talking songwriter, I think that could be one of my best songs. But it kind of changes. But I think “100 Years” to me, as far as a pop songwriter, that’s probably the best song I’ve written. Because I can live through it. “Superman,” I couldn’t write today, but “100 Years,” everytime I sing it, I’m somewhere in the song. So that’s kind of special to me.
How has “100 Years” shifted as you’ve been sitting with it for almost 20 years?
Ondrasik: It’s crazy. When I wrote it, I was in the second verse, now I’m in the bridge. And I think that’s why a lot of people like it, ‘cause they can find themselves in it. I feel very fortunate that, you know, almost 20 years later, I still hear my songs. I still hear ‘em in the grocery store, or in the doctor’s office, hear ‘em in the airport. And it’s not just “100 Years” and “Superman,” it’s other songs. I feel very grateful for that because I think, for a songwriter, it’s nice to have a hit. It’s beautiful, it’s a wonderful thing. I wish it on every songwriter. But there’s also something special to having songs that last and stand the test of time. So I’m very pleased that the songs are still out there, especially “100 Years.” You still hear it at graduations and weddings and funerals, and home videos, so that’s very cool.
With the Pandemic forcing lockdowns, have you missed performing?
Ondrasik: Yeah, more than I thought I would. This has been the longest I’ve gone without performing live. I’ve done some virtual stuff, which is fine, it’s cool, but there’s really nothing like being on stage with an audience. I missed it more than I thought it would. Performing is the great educator. It’ll let you know what’s working and what’s not. And it’s the hardest thing to do, because you’re very vulnerable. And you’re going to have to go through times when you’re playing and people aren’t listening, and how do you make them listen? It’s really kind of excruciating to do it, but I think for a songwriter, it’s crucial because you really learn what’s working and what’s not. And you learn more about your songs in thirty seconds playing for an audience than you will in thirty years playing for your friends and family.
And for me it’s the cherry on top. It’s why we do all this stuff. To go out there and sing and maybe if somebody sings your song back to you, and you have that relationship with that person for that moment, as a writer and a performer, there’s nothing like it.
As someone who started off as an aspiring singer/songwriter, what’s it like to look back on a career of studio albums, platinum records and Grammy nominations?
Ondrasik: It’s great, it’s a dream come true. I still kind of don’t believe it happened. But also, that was then, this is now. I’m grateful for that time, but I really don't live in the past. I’m trying to write songs, I’m trying to work on projects, I have a family business that I spend a lot of time with that’s so far away from the music business it’s like another galaxy, which keeps me busy and frankly keeps me grounded.
I love playing, but I still don’t think I’ve written my best song.
I’m still trying to find ways to have my songs heard in a changing environment, but I still don’t think I’ve written my best song. You don't want to be stuck in the past, because if you are, you’ll be really depressed because that level of success is not going to happen again. You have to understand ‘wow, you had a great time, it was great, but that was then, this is now.’ Things are different and you have the luxury of choosing what you want to do. But you’re not going to have those monster songs because the next generation’s doing it. It’s now their time. But that doesn’t mean you can’t keep writing, making records and having your fans love them.
Listening through your catalog, some of your songs stick out as maybe having religious undertones — is there a religious influence on your songwriting?
Ondrasik: It’s interesting. I do see the religious symbolism. I’m not a deeply religious person, at least on the surface. I’m also not an atheist. So maybe those references, I don’t intend to do them, they just naturally come out. And I do think “if God made you / he’s in love with me” is probably the best line I’ve ever written. So maybe it’s just my continuing exploration of religion, and just like anything in my life it reflects itself in my songs. So I don’t know, maybe.
Are there any plans to put together another studio album in the future?
Ondrasik: I’ve been working on so many different things besides records. I’m actually for the first time in a long time thinking about putting out some kind of record. I’m actually taking writing days; I’ve just started. And I did write some stuff during the early part of the pandemic that was kind of written out of necessity. So I have some songs that were written the same way that I was writing songs when I was in my early twenties, which I hadn’t done in a long time.
I think it’s likely that within a year or two, there’ll be some new music from me, in some fashion. I hope to have something, I’d like to have something next year. I do want to make a record. I know people put out Eps and singles, for me, if I’m going to do something it should be a record with 12 songs.
And there's certain things I’m writing about that nobody else is writing about that, I think, somebody needs to say. And, if no one else is going to say it, I guess I'll say it, but long answer to your question, and maybe.
You can check out Five For Fighting’s music here.