Interview: John Ondrasik of Five for Fighting

August 23, 2006 01:27 PM
by Christina Fuoco
LiveDaily Contributor

Again and again, the Five for Fighting hits "100 Years" and "Superman (It's Not Easy)" have been used in association with video images chronicling tragedies like the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the hurricanes that swept through the southeast.

Five for Fighting lead singer and brainchild John Ondrasik said the association is bittersweet.

"Being in New York almost on the five-year [anniversary] of Sept. 11, it is still emotional playing 'Superman' in New York City. [Before the Sept. 11 attacks], I had just gotten used to hearing that song on the radio when that song kind of took as the theme song for the family and emergency workers who lost loved ones in New York and [Washington] DC," Ondrasik said.

"I really didn't have a sense of what was happening until I got back. Ever since then, this song has provided solace or allowed people to place their experience in a certain context. As a songwriter, it's nice to see songs make a difference and provide solace for people. There were other songs beyond 'Superman' that did that. Obviously, no one with a brain cell would ever want to see anything like that happen. At the same time, I'm glad the songs were around. I think music can provide a certain healing in a medium that other things can't. Not only with Sept. 11. I've seen it with the response to other songs. Again, it's mixed emotions."

Both songs will be a part of Ondrasik's set list when he sets out to tour in support of his freshly released Five for Fighting album, "Two Lights," the first single for which is a blatantly anthemic ode to father-son relationships called "The Riddle."

The day after the album's Aug. 1 release, Ondrasik talked to LiveDaily about "The Riddle," his amazement at his career's staying-power, and his love of sports.

LiveDaily: How was debuting your new song "The Riddle" on "The Today Show" last month?

John Ondrasik: It's always a bit weird coming from LA and singing at 2 a.m. my time. Actually, it was good yesterday being outside. It was so hot and humid, it was a gift for my voice. It was pretty smooth. They're good people over there. They're nice folks.

At least there's something positive about 90 degrees and 90-percent humidity.

For my voice, it's the only nice thing about being on the face of the sun.

I hear making "Two Lights" was an arduous process.

It's such a process and a grind to make a record and promote a record. When a record comes out, it's almost an afterthought, because you've done 99 percent of the work already. It's kind of like you're almost too exhausted to drag yourself down to the record store. But, when I make a record, my goal is to make another one. I'm still kind of in disbelief that I made four records. It's always the day that you look around and say, "Is this real? Actually, I can go buy my record in the store." For 15 years, that was my dream. So I definitely do not take it for granted. That's for sure

Why are you in disbelief that you were able to record four records?

Well, it's the modern age of the music business. It's not like that happens a lot anymore. The days of the career band are few and far between; the days of the songwriter, you could make a case similar to that. Just to be able to make a living writing songs, to me, is a minor miracle. There are songwriters much better than me who will never get their chance to play on the "Today Show" or go buy their record in the stores. The stars aligned for me, and I'm one of the lucky ones. This could be our last conversation. It's the music business. You're one record away from getting a real job. [Laughs]

Have you heard from a lot of fans who have said your music moved them?

You know, it's nice to read the e-mails. I kind of check every e-mail that comes in, and try to respond to them all. To me, when you're getting a little older, you're always looking for energy and inspiration to do this. From some of the stories and from some of the conversations I have, a lot of these are people who have had tragic things happen to them. Or sometimes they're moments of celebration--weddings, bar mitzvahs--life moments that they apply some of my songs to. It's inspiring. It kind of keeps me going. When you hear 100 kindergartners singing "100 Years" at their graduation, it will definitely bring a smile to your face.

Did that really happen?

Yeah, [laughs] it's amazing. It's weird to see how these songs find their way into culture and where they pop up. For me, I get excited when I hear one of my songs for the opening of the World Series or "Monday Night Football." I'm a sports goofball. I love all that. But then you also see how "100 Years" and songs like "The Riddle" kind of affect people who are struggling at certain points of their lives. If a song is a conduit for them to find some strength within themselves and maybe make their life a little bit better, that's kind of why I got into music in the first place. That's what music does for me.

Tell me about the song "Freedom Never Cries," from the new album.

Yeah. It was definitely a statement song that has a point of view. I think it kind of speaks to the fact that, I know at least for myself, we tend to only appreciate things when we need them. The chorus of that song says "I never loved the soldier until there was a war / Or thought about tomorrow 'til my baby hit the floor." I know I never started thinking about my future until I had my children. I never talked to God until somebody was about to die. My grandmother passed away last year--she was 93. She had a great life. It's funny that I tend to find religion when I need it. Or when somebody's sick. My dad had heart surgery this year, and it's amazing how religious I was that week. Freedom's similar. Growing up here in the bubble of the United States, we are statistically lucky to be born into this country where freedom, to us, seems natural. We couldn't imagine anything else. I think sometimes we don't recognize that. Freedom never cries. Freedom doesn't sit in the corner and whine and make us recognize it, per se. I think if you look at the world in general today, many countries don't experience the same freedom of expression, freedom of religion, women's rights, freedom of the press that we have. Obviously, that leads to a majority of the world's conflicts today. I wanted to recognize that, "Hey, freedom has a price, it's not a gift." It's a little reminder to ourselves, we're some of the lucky ones here.

How long did it take you to produce "Two Lights"?

Two years. [Laughs] Basically, for one year, I was spinning my wheels and throwing everything in the trash with the exception of "The Riddle," which took me a year and a half to write. That song was pain and suffering. For about a year, I wrote a bunch of songs, and I didn't feel inspired after coming back to them. [Then] I kind of got on a roll a little bit. I got in a little groove, and kind of said what I wanted to say. I wrote about the experiences that I had. I went in and really quickly did the record in about four months, which for me is really fast. I got put on the fast track. As you get older and you grow as a songwriter, your range of acceptability shrinks. You become more critical of yourself. And I think, for some people, it shrinks to nothing. That's why people just can't write anymore. They just critique their own music. I understand some of that. Hopefully, there's 10 songs there that people can find something in. I feel comfortable presenting [them].

You say "The Riddle" took a year and a half to write. Was that because it's a fairly emotional song?

It was more of the context of the song. There are only a couple people who have the pretension to write about the riddle of life [Laughs]--me being one of them. Obviously, I'm not going to solve the riddle of life in 3 minutes and 40 seconds when we've had 10,000 years to try and figure it out. In the beginning, I really wanted to write a riddle. I couldn't write the riddle. I couldn't write a good enough riddle to have the song work. Then it started morphing into this father-son kind of purpose song. A guy goes through his life looking for a purpose, and his son, with the clarity of a 5-year-old, reveals to him what makes life worth living at least for him. That really made sense for me because I have two little kids at home. For me, my answer lays with them. Lyrics to me are so hard. They really kind of separate the songwriter from the pop star. I'm not the greatest lyricist in the world, and it takes me a long time to get it right. It's funny. I wrote "Superman" in about 45 minutes. I wrote "100 Years" in about six weeks. And I wrote "The Riddle" in about a year and a half. So, something's occurring here. For me, it was a tough song to write. I can show you 100 permutations of that lyric. Some songs come that way. Some songs take forever. Some songs you have to craft to death. And some songs just pop out of thin air. "Road to Heaven," I basically wrote the lyric in an afternoon, wrote the music the next day, and it was done. It's just the nature of songwriting. You never know how they come. You take the gifts when they come. I know that much.

What was it like to work with producer Curt Schneider?

Curt's been my bass player for five years. We co-produced the record. Curt and Andrew [Williams, guitarist] both played on the last record that we did with Bill Bottrell. When it came time to produce this record, kind of by default, I found my self sitting there making the record. Producers we were interested in either weren't interested in us, or were busy. I had to make a record, so I bought a studio, I bought an E board [an interactive digital performance instrument], a bunch of mikes, some compressors, and we set up the space. We got Joey Waronker, one of the greatest drummers on the planet, to play drums. We just set up and started recording. Producing one's own record definitely brings a little pain and suffering. But it also brings the reward of, "Hey, good bad or ugly, this was my vision. This is our work. I can't blame anyone but myself."

On his third disc, the one-man musical marvel known as Five for Fighting proves yet again that all that's standing between him and peace of mind--not the fleeting kind, but full-on, to-the-bone, heart-and soul-cleansing peace of mind--is a song. Two Lights picks up where America Town left off, diving smack-dab into the national consciousness and hitting, predictably, a sorrowful spot. First track "Freedom Never Cries" is a self-skewering lament that calls out to complacent countrymen by way of confession and an artful, piano-enhanced weighing of consequence. It's followed by "World," which reminds unpreachily, and not unpleasantly, that "history starts now." Where Two Lights better resembles 2004's hugely successful The Battle for Everything is in its more inward-looking tracks, the tender first single "The Riddle" among them. There, and on the near criminally pretty "I Just Love You," the mush-hearted may find themselves fighting the urge to hug the closest stranger. But despite his now-dependable dips into mopiness, John Ondrasik--Five for Fighting to you and the rest of the world--doesn't deny himself the opportunity to rock when he wants to. If anything makes this guy happy, it's the state of California: on "California Justice," he kicks off his shoes and works on his tan like a latter-day Beach Boy from the dark side, and "'65 Mustang" rambles down the coast with the kind of carefree vibe that, outside of a song, only a convertible can deliver.

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