Q&A: John Ondrasik (Five for Fighting)

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John Ondrasik, the Grammy® nominated singer/songwriter of Five for Fighting, is embarking on a national U.S. tour, including a performance at The Carriage House Theater at Montalvo Arts Center on April 24. Fans can expect an unforgettable evening filled with his chart-topping hits like “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” and “100 Years,” backed by a string quartet.

Recently, Ondrasik released the poignant single “OK,” addressing the cultural aftermath of the Hamas attacks in Israel. The accompanying music video, drawn by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Ramirez, underscores its moral message. We reach out to John to delve into his musical journey and its impact on the world stage, from his post-9/11 anthem to his latest artistic endeavors.

Embarking on a national tour is always an exciting endeavor. What can fans expect from your latest tour in terms of setlist surprises, production elements, or special guest appearances?

So excited to be performing nightly with the amazing Five For Fighting String Quartet! It will include some of the best string players in the world including Tony Winning violinist Katie Kresek. They give a new dimension to my songs, provide an intimate storytelling environment, and are always full of surprises. We always play a song that recognizes our troops and are proud to present a family show for everyone. Certainly, you will hear “Superman,” “100 Years,” and other songs you might know. We will also play my new song, “OK,” and “Can One Man Save the World?,” which I recorded and filmed with a Ukrainian orchestra outside of Kyiv. You can count on a few surprises along the way!

The live concert experience is a cornerstone of the music industry. How do you adapt your studio recordings for the stage, and what do you hope audiences take away from your live performances?

Since the pandemic, we all, both artists and audiences, have a greater appreciation for the live music experience. There is nothing better for our hearts and wellness than singing, laughing, and perhaps sharing a tear together with the universal language that only music speaks. For this tour, we have reduced my symphony show arrangements to a string quartet which allows me to pull songs from my catalog that feature stunning compositions from world-class composers I have worked with throughout my career. My hope is that audiences leave each concert breathing a little deeper, with a smile, more than when they walked in.

“Superman (It’s Not Easy)” became a cultural phenomenon, capturing the essence of everyday struggles and resilience. What inspired the creation of this iconic track, and how has its impact shaped your career?

John Ondrasik

Honestly, “Superman” is not a song I could write now, as I have found it pretty easy to be me since 2000 when the song debuted. But to a young songwriter hitting the walls that are the music industry the song made sense for me at the time. It is still surreal to see the impact “Superman” continues to have on kids who were not born when I wrote it. I think the reason it still resonates is at its base, “Superman” is about our common humanity. As much as we’d like to be Superheroes for those around us, we can’t be everything for everyone unless we take care of ourselves first. Of course, as far as impacting my career, we wouldn’t be chatting without that silly red sheet. 

The name “Five for Fighting” evokes a sense of resilience and perseverance. What significance does this name hold for the band, and how does it resonate with your musical journey?

Good question. Though the name “Five for Fighting” comes from hockey where you get five minutes for fighting as a penalty, in some respects the band name is more resonant now than it was when I started. The last few songs I have written take on moral messages related to the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the war in Ukraine, and the aftermath of the Oct 7th Hamas terrorist attacks. When you delve into such issues there will always be skirmishes in the culture war.

The piano plays a central role in your sound, lending a sense of intimacy and vulnerability to your music. What draws you to this instrument, and how does it shape your approach to songwriting and performance?

My mom started me at the piano at two years old and let me quit practicing at 13. She was very wise as I had the fundamentals, but now could pursue music on my own terms. The beauty of the piano is that you have an orchestra under your hands. Unlike the guitar, which I also enjoy writing on, the piano is a melodic instrument that fits my song sense well. Of course, seeing Billy Joel at 15 years old didn’t hurt!

Collaboration can lead to exciting artistic intersections. Are there any artists or bands you dream of collaborating with in the future, and what do you think they could bring to your music?

I have enjoyed collaborating with some amazing songwriters and artists. Writing the song, “Slice,” with Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippen, Godspell) was an incredible experience as well as working with Josh Groban and Kix Brooks. I would love to write a song with Paul McCartney. He is so prolific and an influence for so many songwriters of my generation, it would be an honor. He also seems to be a wonderful human.

As musicians, you’ve navigated the changing landscape of the music industry. How do you maintain artistic integrity while adapting to technological advancements and shifting audience preferences?

Good question. To me, even in the age of A.I., it all comes down to the song. Combining melody with lyric in a way that can move people emotionally is a craft that no technology can emulate. One nice thing about tech is that producing music is much cheaper and that anyone can find and build an audience online without the need of a record company. Still, I miss the old days of records, album sleeves, and Tower Records.

Many of your songs offer solace and hope, especially during challenging times. How do you view the role of music in providing comfort and inspiration to listeners, particularly in today’s world?

The blessing of having a few songs that people know is using them to shine a light on true heroes and causes close to my heart. It is humbling that the songs still resonate with so many. In these divided and in many ways dark times, music is a way we can escape, inspire, and find ways to join together as a force for good. What Kind of World Do You Want? History Starts Now!

Five for Fighting plays the Carriage House Theater at Montalvo Arts Center on April 24.

John Ondrasik has announced the launch of the “Music Matters Challenge” until April 30, aiming to raise awareness and resources for music programs in underserved schools, offering grand prizes including a $10,000 cash award for individuals and a $25,000 school grant. Inspired by the collaborative composition “Let Music Fill My World,” created by Tullman Family Office and students from Farragut Career Academy, the challenge invites participation through original music submissions at www.letmusicfillmyworld.com.

Having released albums under Digital Nations, a label founded by Steve Vai, music critic Louis Raphael has remained deeply connected to the pulse of the San Francisco music scene. Following his tenure as the San Francisco Music Examiner for Examiner.com and AXS.com, he embarked on creating Music in SF® to authentically highlight the vibrant offerings of the city's music scene.