“Four or five years ago, I started doing symphony shows, and [they were] going so well, we wanted to try to take that format to smaller markets,” explained John Ondrasik, the singer/songwriter who records under the moniker Five for Fighting, who will perform March 19 at the Lobero Theatre.
Ondrasik (aka Five for Fighting) burst on the scene in the early 2000s with his mega hit songs “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” and “100 Years.” In the 15 years since, he has not only maintained a thriving career in music but has also branched out to public speaking gigs (check out his TEDx talk), charity work, and is even dabbling in television.
In a recent phone interview from his home in Los Angeles, Ondrasik and I spoke about writing hit songs, touring with an orchestra, adapting to the ever-changing music business, and playing for the NHL’s 100th-anniversary gala, among other topics. The following are some snippets of our conversation.
Why did you decide to tour with a string quartet? Four or five years ago, I started doing symphony shows. And I had such a good time doing that, and my audience is at an age now where instead of going to a House of Blues they’d rather sit in the theater — as would I [Laughs.] — and the symphony shows were going so well we wanted to try to take that format to smaller markets. [Because] some cities don’t have symphonies, it’s harder to get in there, so … We kind of broke it down with a quartet. I’ve been very fortunate to work with world-class string players on my last two records, so I had a friend, Dave Eggar, who is Yo-Yo Ma’s number two [guy], put together the quartet. We’ve been doing this combination of symphony shows and quartet shows, and it’s just been a blast for me; it allows me to pull songs out of my catalog that I wouldn’t do with a band. It’s a different kind of experience for the audience, and so far people seem to really be enjoying it.
I saw you play “Superman” with the string quartet on YouTube, and it really changed the dynamic of the song. If you’re blessed enough to be able to have a popular song, the reality is you’re going to play that song maybe 10,000 times in your career, and so you look for ways to change it up and make it fresh for you. Because the reality is, you may play it 10,000 times, but there’s always someone in the audience who’s hearing it for the only time in their life, right? So you have to realize that. So playing [with the quartet], not just “Superman but “100 Years” and all the radio songs, has added kind of a freshness and a new dimension. And for folks who have seen me a lot [Laughs.], it gives them something new and something different as a third dimension. It’s fun to play the hits that way, but for me the real joy is to play songs like “Two Lights” and “Devil in the Wishing Well,” where, frankly, the string arrangements are so crucial to the song. There’s a reason I don’t play them with the band shows; it’s like probably hearing “Tiny Dancer” without an orchestra. So there are certain songs where the arrangement is so crucial to the experience of hearing the song that it allows me to play songs that I never play live before and literally songs on records that go back 15-20 years.
Do you write the arrangements for the strings? There are some we reduce from the orchestra. One reason I’m [playing with a quartet] too is to kind of introduce and brag about some of the amazing composers I’ve worked with throughout my career. Though, there are some [songs] that I’ve arranged myself. The latest song, a song called “Born to Win,” which is kind of the current single, I arranged that, too. So it allows me to do a little string arranging and wear that hat, too, but for the most part I like to share some of these world-class composers’ arrangements with the audience.
I like “Born to Win.” It sounds like you but different, too, as you stayed in the lower registers on it. It was actually a really hard vocal because it was so low. Usually I pop up into the head voice, and that’s kind of my sound. In a weird way, the chorus actually comes down so you have to be more intimate, and when you’re singing lower, it’s kind of hard to be intimate and have character. So it was one of the harder vocals that I’ve ever done, but I wanted to do a song that was different than just singing up there in that range that everybody’s used to. Another reason it’s different is that it’s a co-write. I didn’t write that song myself; I wrote it with a guy name Tim Myers. So some of these collaborations add a different twist there, and you don’t [get] my usual thing, which I think is good.
It’s just the single; there’s no album attached to it, yeah? I’m so busy with projects, you know, I figured we should probably put something out — some film and TV shows wanted to use it, and Sirius wanted to play it, and it had been a while since I’d had a new song out. You know how it is these days; the album is kind of passé. I’m still going to put out albums; it just may be longer in between just because I have other projects I’m working on.
You seem incredibly busy. I can’t believe how much stuff you do. My gosh — Ted talks and charity work and writing albums and having a family. Do you ever have any down time? Part of the challenge is that if you do everything, then you don’t do anything well. So you have to be careful. I’m one of those people that like to say yes to everything, but when you say yes to everything, then something is sacrificed, and so I have to be careful. Sometimes I think I take on too much, but at the same time there have been a few projects that I’ve wanted to do my whole career but I’ve been so busy doing the record game, you know; it’s not just making the record, it’s six months of promotion, and then it’s touring, and then a year goes by and you’re trying to be a parent and a husband, and so there are some projects that I’ve wanted to do that I’ve taken on because I’m not touring as much and I’m not out promoting singles. But I think we all have those challenges of how do we balance our passion our business, our family, our personal lives? My kids, as I said, they are 16 and 17, so I only have a couple more years with them, so I’m trying to take more time with them, as well, and enjoy my last few years before we become empty nesters. I’m doing the best I can.
How did “Born to Win” come about? Did you write it for a specific reason? We actually wrote it for the Olympics. But we did write it in a day. Typically, songs — at least the way I write songs — take months, if not longer, but it came very quickly. We wrote it for the Olympics, and the Olympics never used it, which we were a little surprised by. But I do think it will find its way in a lot of sporting uses. And you never know. It’s strange; sometimes you’ll write a song for a certain purpose and it won’t work there, but it will end up even better somewhere [else]. That’s the thing with songs; you just kind of write them, you put the out into the world, they find their niche or they don’t, and you move on to the next one.
It’s funny that you say it’s for the Olympics. I didn’t get that listening to the song; although, now that you mention it, I can see how it would work. But the lyrics seem like such a personal journey. It is. It’s the sports metaphor, but to me, it’s really a father to a child saying, “You’re going to face challenges, but I have confidence in you, and I’m going to love you all the way.” That was my interpretation, but any time you have a song called “Born to Win,” it’s going to fit at the L.A. Kings playoff. [Laughs.] Which is fine with me.
You are an avid hockey fan and recently played for the NHL’s 100th-anniversary event. How did you become part of that world? It’s a long story, but here’s the short version. In the late 1990s, when I made my first record, the label came to me and said, “You need a band name. Nobody can pronounce Ondrasik, it’s the age of Lilith fair, the male singer/songwriter is dead, it’s about grunge boy bands, and you need a band name.” I’d just come from a hockey game, and in hockey, if you get in a fight there’s a penalty called ‘five for fighting’ — you get five minutes for fighting. So when they said you need a band name, I sarcastically said, “How about Five for Fighting?” expecting them to hate it. And they were like, “We love it.” And I’m like, “You’re crazy — there are not five guys. It sounds like a band that’s going to open for Metallica, and it will never work.” And I think the marketing disconnect … One thing I talk about in my keynotes is the marketing failure of Five for Fighting and the fact that a lot of people know “100 Years” and “Superman”; much fewer know that those songs are by a band named Five for Fighting, and virtually nobody knows there’s really no band Five for Fighting. It’s really this guy John. So personally it’s been fine, but from a marketing aspect for a label, it’s probably cost the label a million records.
But anyway, we are stuck with Five for Fighting, “Superman” comes out, it’s a hit. Five For Fighting, we can’t change the band name, so we started pitching sporting events, and of course the first one we pitched, because I’m into hockey, was the 2001 All Star game. So I played the 2001 All Star game, and then I played Daytona 500, and then I played Monday Night Football, and it goes on and on, to the highlight being me playing in Dodger stadium, where I grew up watching Dodgers and Kings outdoors games, and then playing the 100th-anniversary of the NHL. So it’s no coincidence, because I’ve done five events for the NHL, that when it’s the 100th anniversary and they are announcing the 100 greatest players, that here comes John to play “100 Years.”
So you can connect those dots, but I have great friends in the league, and I’ve always been happy to support them and to have Wayne Gretzsky introduce me, and play for the memoriam for 100 of the greatest players. Again, as a sports fan, you could just pinch me; it’s a dream come true. So it’s been one of the highlights of my career to do all of these sporting events, and although [the name Five for Fighting] is strange, we are stuck with it, and sometimes you’ve got to find a silver lining in the clouds.
It actually seems fortuitous because the name you thought was silly got you into all the sports, where maybe that would have been harder with your own name. Well, you are right, and I actually say this in my keynotes — you need to come to one — and you’re right; the reality is, John Ondrasik singer/songwriter guy does not play Daytona 500, he does not play Monday Night Football, but Five for Fighting — it’s all about branding, you know, for better or worse. It’s part of this business. Yeah, you have to write a good song, but that’s like 10 percent of it. The rest is relationships, work ethic, fate, fortune — all the things that go into doing anything successfully.
After the success of “Superman,” was there a lot of pressure to write that next hit? “100 Years” was on the album after “Superman,” but it took two years [to write]. I understand why, because what happens is you have a hit song and the record label wants to capitalize on that momentum, so they want another album very quickly. So what a lot of writers do is they tend to regurgitate the hit. They take whatever the hit is, and they kind of write that again. And a lot of times that doesn’t work. Then you have the other side of the coin, where you have artists — and I know many of them, and I kind of went this way myself — who are like, “Okay, I worked my whole life to have a hit now. I’m going to go make the record I’ve always wanted to make.” And they finally have a record budget, their ego is high, they’re like “Nobody can tell me what to do,” so they go make this kind of artsy record that they like that has no single, and all of a sudden they wonder why they have to get a job. [Laughs.]
It’s really hard to have that patience and that discipline to try to write a song that’s not just “Superman 2.” I wrote 150 songs, and it took me two years to write “100 Years.” Once I wrote it, I didn’t know if it was going to be a hit or not, but you have this kind of innate sense where this song can stand on its own. And if “Superman” never existed, this would be my calling card. But it took two years, and it was a lot of pressure, and I almost got dropped from the label; I had a huge fight with them, and I was basically by myself. And you always wonder, is it that pressure that gives you the edge to write a song like “100 Years”? You never know. I’ve had other popular songs [since], but never like “100 Years” and “Superman.” And I always ask myself, “Is that because I didn’t have to write that song?” I had to write “100 Years” or basically my career was over. Because if you have two hit songs and you are not foolish, you can have a career for 20 years. That second song makes you a songwriter, not a song.
So, I don’t know the answer to that, but, yeah, it was really a lot of pressure, and I really feel for artists who are trying to follow up that hit. On the other hand, to have one hit is a dream come true — it separates you from millions of other people who have zero. [Laughs.]
The music business sounds so stressful. Why do you do it? It’s passion. It’s something you have to do. If you don’t have that passion and that kind of a sense of narcissism, then as soon as you start getting rejected, you will quit. You have to be one against the world; you have to believe you’re the greatest thing ever. You have to be able to go through years of being told that you suck, and you have to just love doing it. It has to be a pure passion. My daughter’s kind of an actor, singer, musical theater person, and she has that bug, too, and part of me just feels so terrible for her knowing that world; on the other hand, I feel so excited for her because the arts are so cathartic, and the moments of joy in your life are going to be found in the arts. Whether you’re successful as a business or not, who knows? But the arts for me were cathartic and exciting, and, with the exception of the birth of my kids, the highest joy of my life has been artistic experiences.
I agree. Being a writer/journalist doesn’t buy you a home, but it is exciting. It is. Look, it’s always greener. My fantasy is to be a sports writer. [Laughs.]
But wait, you kind of are — you’ve written for Sports Illustrated, isn’t that so? Yeah, but it’s not my job, I don’t get paid. [Laughs.] I mean, I get graded on a curve. It’s not like you, where it’s your livelihood and you are competing with hundreds of thousands of people for a byline and getting paid much less than you’re worth. I think journalism is similar to music. You know, it’s like, you don’t go into it to get rich; you go into it because you have a passion for it. That’s why I have a certain love for writers. I’ve become kind of friends with a lot of the local sports writers in town here. I don’t have any rock star friends. I have friends who are, you know, writers or journalists or cops or teachers. It’s kind of weird.
That sounds well-rounded. I guess. [Laughs.]
I just want to backtrack a little bit to Broadway. So you say your daughter is doing musical theater. What about you? Well, I’m dabbling. And what that means is I’m working on various projects. I just had one that I spent a year and a half on that went under, which sucks, but that’s the nature [of it]. I was telling my wife when this one Broadway musical went under — and when I say went under, we worked a year and a half on it, and then the rights holders pulled the rights — so it wasn’t like it was onstage and it went under. But you spend a year and a half on something, and it’s incredibly disappointing, but I told her, it’s like my early days in the music business. I spent 10 years before I had a hit, and part of any journey and any kind of quest for something being subjective is there’s going to be pitfalls. I don’t know if the Broadway thing will ever work out, but I think it’s something I can do, and I’m going to continue to do it. I sold a TV show, so I’m kind of dabbling in TV, as well.
Wait, wait, wait. You sold a TV show? That you’re going to be starring in? Hell no. [Laughs.] It’s a concept that I’m executive producing with a couple friends. It’s a music-driven TV show. Part of my thing is — I talk about this in my keynotes, too — is as a songwriter, I’m kind of subjected to the whim of the producers or the executives in film and TV, and that can be frustrating. So why not create my own content? And then I’ll kind of be the boss, and I’ll be able to write songs for my show, and I won’t be frustrated with crazy notes from executives or 100 people writing for one slot. Again, it’s a long shot, but I sold a music-driven drama to CBS, and we are in the midst of getting ready to pitch it to the streamers. It would be a show where I would write a song a week. Stuff like [this show], the musicals, those kind of give me reasons to write songs that people can hear that aren’t subject to radio. It’s hard, because these days, if you’re a recording artist, radio is still so important, and the reality is I’ve kind of aged out of radio. As much as people don’t like to admit that, we songwriters, we kind of age out, and we are looking for other ways that we can write songs and have people hear them.
That’s interesting about radio, because I had not heard “Born to Win” until I knew you were coming to Santa Barbara and I did some investigating. I mean, radio won’t play it.
Why? It’s a very good song, it seems totally radio-friendly to me. Unfortunately, it’s not all about the song. If this were 10 years ago, that song, I imagine, would be a very popular song. But the reality is that when you take a song to radio, you need a major label, you need a budget of probably $100,000 to promote it, and you need people in radio who will embrace your song, and the problem is, radio has become so consolidated. When I started, there were dozens of radio chains, there were many independent stations, and now there’s like three — Cumulus and Clear Channel basically own the charts, and if you’re not one of those 20 artists, then it’s very unlikely they’ll play you. And the format of Hot AC, which used to be where me and John Mayer would make our living, doesn’t exist anymore. It’s really all Top 40. So for me to go on the radio, I’m not competing with John Mayer or Train; I’m competing with Justin Bieber, and I’m competing with Kesha, and we are not going to win that game.
So the nature of radio has changed so much that it’s very hard to do it, and the reality, too, is. Like I took “What If” — “What If” is the last single we put out a couple of years ago, and it was a top 15 Hot AC song, but it took me six months playing probably 40 radio stations just to get it barely on the radio. And for me it’s just so exhausting and soul-killing that I just don’t want to take six months to have another top 15 song. Maybe that sounds arrogant, but I would rather write songs, write musicals, do the TV show, do these symphony shows, and find some good licenses for “Born to Win” so people can hear it on TV or hear it on their favorite sports show. And, of course, Sirius is playing it because they’re not beholden to anybody. Sirius’ The Pulse is playing “Born to Win,” so that’s cool. Unfortunately, you just have to adapt to the new landscape instead of fighting the battle. I’m kind of just trying to change the field of play a little bit.
I would think it would be hard not to chase that fame, that exhilaration. I have a lot of colleagues that were successful in the 2000s, and I won’t name them, but you kind of know who they are — the bands that made a lot of headway in radio, and a lot of those artists are my age, you know, around 50, late forties, and they are still trying to do it the same way. And they are really struggling. Not just struggling with the business — kind of mentally, too, because, you’re right; you get spoiled, you get used to having these kind of accolades and having these ticket sales, and all that goes into your ego of having a hit song, and then that kind of goes away. If your self-esteem is all wrapped up in that, you’re going to have a problem. And as I told you, you have to be a narcissist to win at this business anyway. [Laughs.]
I’m just going to take your word for that. I shouldn’t say that, not all … but I mean you have to be willing to go onstage and sing for tens of thousands of people, and all that comes in with that. And just to do that, you have to have a certain confidence. The problem is many can’t turn it off when they walk offstage. The key is you have to be able to turn it off, but that’s hard to do sometimes — for me, as well.
411: Five for Fighting plays Sunday, March 19, 8 p.m., at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). Call (805) 966-4946 or see lobero.org.