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"WILD YEARS-THE MUSIC & MYTH OF TOM WAITS" BY JAY S. JACOBS

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PopEntertainment.com > Feature Interviews - Music > Features Interviews F to J > Five For Fighting

Five for FIGHTING

It's not EASY

by Jay S. JACOBS

Remember when popular music could actually say something?  A tune was a mirror that we held up to our world.  The lyrics were humorous or tragic or whimsical or heartbreakingly sincere.  Songs spoke of love and war and relationships and politics and lust and death.  They would climb the heights or plunge the depths.

John Ondrasik, the lead singer and songwriter of Five for Fighting, remembers.  In his own small way, he’s trying to continue the tradition.

Ondrasik grew up in the San Fernando Valley outside of Los Angeles Ondrasik recalls, “Music has always been in my family.  My mother was a piano teacher and would put on musicals at the local elementary school.”  She started teaching him the piano when he was only two.  At thirteen, he stole his sister's birthday gift, a guitar that he taught himself to play.  He also took vocal lessons -- in opera. 

However, opera wasn’t his passion.  As years went on, he grew fascinated with popular music.  As a piano player both Billy [Joel] and Elton [John] were a force for me," he says"The Beatles were number one.  Also the Who, Tom Waits, Stevie Wonder, Prince, and later Jeff Buckley and Nirvana got me going.”

Ondrasik decided he wanted to become a professional singer/songwriter.  Maybe, hopefully, someday he would inspire some young musicians in the same way he had been by the music he loved.  Of course, the catch to that idea was to get himself heard. 

“I was always writing and recording demos through college and playing little gigs in LA,” Ondrasik recalls.  “One day a woman came to this piano bar and ended up signing me to a publishing deal... so I married her.”

Ondrasik named his band Five for Fighting because of a great love for hockey: the term refers to the penalty minutes players receive for scuffling on the ice.  Many people consider Five for Fighting to be a one-man band, but Ondrasik thinks that is selling short the others in the group.  Though I write and sing the songs, the band and a couple of producers are a big part of Five for Fighting,” Ondrasik insists.  “In the end it's about the music, and who would want a John Ondrasik t-shirt anyways?”

And, no, he says, he will not change the band’s name if the National Hockey League owners make good on their threat to lock out the players.  This labor stoppage would indefinitely delay the start of the next hockey season because of money issues.  We will just not be able to tour or record until common sense prevails,” Ondrasik states.

The first Five For Fighting album Message for Albert was released in 1997 on Capitol Records, but it barely caused a ripple.  Three years later his follow-up was released on Columbia Records.  America Town received some nice reviews, but the sales were sluggish and the album looked like it was headed for the same type of anonymity as the first record. 

Finally, a year after the release of America Town, the single “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” entered the lower reaches of the pop charts and started a slow but sure ascension towards the top of the charts.  The song was a melancholy ode told from the point of view of the Caped Crusader, but this wasn’t your father's Man of Steel.  Instead, Clark Kent quietly, mournfully regretted his powers and acknowledged that he was overwhelmed by the great responsibility of having to fight evil and keep the world safe for democracy. 

“[I’m] still in shock,” Ondrasik admits.  “Songs like that rarely find their way onto the radio.  I always felt it was the song on the record that if heard could find an audience, but getting heard is always a long shot for any songwriter.”

“Superman (It’s Not Easy)” was already starting build an audience when tragedy struck.  After September 11, 2001, the song really seemed to resonate with a distraught world in the aftermath of disaster.  Ondrasik is still honored that so many people embraced his song in a time of national mourning.

“[I have] mixed emotions,” Ondrasik says. “It was humbling that the song seemed to matter on a level no one could have imagined.  Though like everyone, I was horrified and angered by the event that caused a circumstance where songs like ‘Superman’ were needed.  Still, in playing the Concert for New York City, I saw how music can transcend and make a difference in people's lives.  It was an honor to be a small part of that.”

As a result, “Superman” became one of the biggest hits of 2001 and the album’s other single, “Easy Tonight,” got a reasonable amount of airplayOndrasik started work on the follow-up album, but he was determined not to rush himself.  He was going to take as long as it took to come up with songs that spoke to him, and hopefully would speak to others, too.  He was not going to treat it like it was homework. 

If that was my attitude I'd have a real job,” Ondrasik admits.  “Work ethic is a huge part of songwriting but the inspiration is always the key.  It's the ten seconds that gives you the idea, and the three months of work that fill in the details.  Songwriting is driven by fear, anger, frustration, joy… among other things.  Who knows where the inspiration comes from, but without it, you might as well go back to bed.”

Ondrasik spent much of the studio time exploring and trying to work out all the complicated emotions that had come into his life in the years since America Town had been recorded.  I wanted to make sure I took the time to make the best album I could,” he says.  “I was not so much worried about singles or commercial success.  I figured ‘Superman’ gave me a shot to record in the tradition of my favorite artists.  This entailed going far away from L.A. and locking myself in a studio for a year or so.  It caused a bit of drama but the experience was a powerful one in my life.

 “I realized from day one that nothing could recreate the reality surrounding ‘Superman.’  I did hope to make a record that could stand on it's own merit.”

The Battle For Everything most certainly does that.  In fact, it is a better album overall than its celebrated predecessor.   The time and opportunities that America Town have afforded Ondrasik to explore his muse have led to an album full of diverse, catchy and heartfelt tunes.  While Ondrasik was not worried about singles success, he achieved a hit single with the new album as well.  The lovely piano ballad “100 Years” has made significant inroads on the pop charts.  It’s kind of interesting that in the youth-obsessed culture of pop music, he could strike a chord with a song that explored aging, lost opportunities and the fleet passing of time.

Well frankly, it did not catch on with the kids at Top 40 radio,” Ondrasik allows.  “‘100 Years’ is popular at the more adult formats.   When I grew up, The Police, U2 and REM were heard on Top 40 radio.  Whether it's the segmented nature of radio, or the pop culture, it would be nice to hear more songs to balance out pop music.”  This is true, the song was mostly embraced by the VH1 set.  However, quite a few local Top 40 stations do play the song regularly between the latest Hilary Duff, Usher and Britney Spears tunes.

Ondrasik is also proud of the second single from the album, “The Devil in the Wishing Well,” a musically charming story song.  If you take it literally, it is about a man and a woman meeting Satan in a big black hotel.  “Think 70's piano rock meets Dante,” Ondrasik cracks.  A little less literal explanation, but another one that may hold some merit, is that it is about a couple grappling with their feelings over a one-night stand. 

Ondrasik enjoys this style of songwriting, telling stories that mean one thing at first glance, but in reality have very different meanings.  In the song “Disneyland,” Ondrasik takes on another American icon, the world famous theme park often called “the happiest place on Earth.”  However, much like “Superman” before it, “Disneyland” is not used so much as a subject as it is as a symbol of an idealized and probably unattainable ideal. 

I'm glad you get that,” Ondrasik says.  “Some actually take those lyrics literally.  A song like ‘Disneyland,’ that discusses the dangers of appeasement in a post 9/11 world, allows you to take on the subject.  Nobody would want to listen to a song titled ‘You can't live in the world you want to live in, you must deal with the world that exists,’ but you can make that point in a song about a place everybody knows.  It's an easy trick for a songwriter and I keep going back to that well.”

Ondrasik’s musical adventurousness can be fully seen on the wonderful song “Angels & Girlfriends.”  The song is a mini-distillation of sixties pop culture.  It opens with a quiet Dylanesque acoustic guitar and harmonica, then it explodes into a kaleidoscope of sound.  The song combines easily swaying vocals, with electric guitar and piano taking over at different points, eventually leading into heavenly British Invasion ba-ba-ba’s and calliope keyboards.  None of it feels at all forced, it all feels natural, like a classic tune you’ve been listening to for years. 

“The Taste” has an interesting form of soft acoustic pop verses leading into hard driving rock choruses.  The breakup tune “Dying” is far more gently hopeful and uplifting than its title implies.  There are unabashed declarations of love like “If God Made You” and “Maybe I.”  Ondrasik also chronicles his love/hate affair with a city in the folkish “NYC Weather Report.”  “One More For Love” is a timeless piano ballad that could have as easily been a hit in 1964 as it could in 2004. 

[The musical diversity] came out naturally from all my influences,” Ondrasik explains.  “‘Infidel’ came from listening to musicals like Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar.  Some of the others when you get down to it are dressed up folk songs.  Most of what I do is Americana in my book.  I do like to have different colors and textures on my records.  I always admired the Beatles for doing that.  You never knew what was coming next.”

In the end, Ondrasik says the best he can hope for is for people the feel that his music is “honest and on the table.”  He admits there may be some misconceptions out there, Plenty... but [clearing them up is] a job for time and people other than me.”

Maybe it’s just enough that Five for Fighting is an exciting part of the renaissance of singer/ songwriters who not only have something to say, but also can write a good tune to tell it with.  In recent years, when songs like “In Da Club” and “Nookie” have dominated the music landscape and charts, it is nice to have intelligent people recording who are interested in touching the listener and aren’t afraid of a melody.  In this way, Five for Fighting is a reason for hope.

I think that having a popular song that has some meaning is a honorable pursuit,” Ondrasik says.  “It is what I grew up on.  Pop music should present a point of view and songs should present a unique picture of history.  Some of the best songwriters of the past thirty years have been the most popular.  I hope the comeback is in its infancy, there's a long way to go.”

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Photo Credits:
#1 © 2004 Courtesy of Aware/Columbia Records.
#2 © 2004 Jim Wright. Courtesy of Aware/Columbia Records.
#3 © 2004 Jim Wright. Courtesy of Aware/Columbia Records.

 

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Copyright ©2004 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: March 26, 2004.