Five for Fighting
Five for Fighting
Although various musicians contribute to its sound, Five for Fighting is the stage name of John Ondrasik, a musician who writes and sings his own songs as well as plays guitar and piano. Appropriately enough, he spent years fighting to get into the spotlight. His second album, America Town, gained momentum throughout 2001 and then rocketed to certified gold status after its single, “Superman (It’s Not Easy),” became an unofficial anthem for those who risked and/or lost their lives during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.
Ondrasik was born in California’s San Fernando Valley in 1968 and spent his childhood there. His mother taught piano, and his father was an astrophysicist who worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Jet Propulsion Lab. Ondrasik began studying piano with his mother at age two, and continued his lessons until he chose to stop in his early teens. About that time, he took his sister’s guitar, taught himself to play, and began writing songs. Along the way he also took voice lessons for opera, but realized that he was not as drawn to opera as he was to pop music. Growing up, he told Steve Morse of the Boston Globe, “I listened to Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen and the Beatles, and Nirvana, Billy Joel, and Don Henley—all the guys who write nontrivial lyrics.”
Ondrasik chose not to study music when he went to college, opting instead for computer science at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA). When he discovered that this required him to spend far more time studying than focusing on his music, he changed to mathematics to reverse the ratio, explaining, in an interview included on Sony Music’s website: “I started out majoring in computer science, but I found I spent ten hours a day in front of a computer and two hours a day in front of a piano. So I changed my major to math, which allowed me to spend two hours a day in front of a book and 10 hours a day in front of a tape machine, a piano, and a guitar.” He graduated with a degree in applied mathematics.
Ondrasik wrote songs continually throughout the 1980s and 1990s and also spent time playing in various bands around Los Angeles. His hours in front of the tape machine eventually paid off when a woman who worked at EMI Music Publishing passed his tape on to someone in the recruitment division. His demo tape landed him an audition, which led to his first album, Message for Albert, which was released in 1996. The record was coproduced by Davitt Sigerson, who had worked with such artists as Tori Amos and the Bangles.
In 1997, EMI closed its doors. Ondrasik took his act to Island Records where he began work on a second album. Unfortunately for him, PolyGram, Island’s parent company, merged with Universal and he was lost in the shuffle. With his confidence severely shaken and under pressure to support his family, Ondrasik took a regular job, although he continued to write songs. In addition, he started seeing a therapist. The songs he wrote during this time explored the complexities of disappointment, expectation, and everyday joys. His faith was occasionally renewed when he would receive e-mails from fans of his first album.
In 1999 an independent affiliate of Columbia Records based in Chicago named Aware Records approached him. Although the label had little money to offer, they promised to grant him artistic freedom in producing his second album. Ondrasik went into the studio to record, but didn’t have much hope for the project, as he told Sandra Barrera of the Daily News, “I thought it could be my swan song. I could give it to the two or three fans that I had and walk off into the sunset and be very depressed.”
Five for Fighting’s “swan song” turned into a phoenix rising. America Town was released in late 2000. The first single from the album, “Easy Tonight,” gained some attention, but it was the second single that began building momentum for Ondrasik. “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” struck a chord of vulnerability. The song, which focused on Superman’s wish to escape his destiny, his desire to be weak, to be normal, was featured on the television show Dawson’s Creek. Ramaa Mosly, whose credits include videos for Creed, the B-52’s, and David Bowie, directed the video, which VH-1, MTV, and MTV2 put into heavy rotation. By August of 2001, America Town was listed in Billboard’s Top 200 albums.
The events of September 11, 2001, played a major role in Five for Fighting’s success. Having written with
Born John Ondrasik in 1968 in the San Fernando Valley, CA; married Carla; children: Johnny, Olivia. Education : Bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics from the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA).
Took piano lessons from his mother, age two; taught himself to play guitar, age 13; studied voice for opera; signed record deal with EMI, released first album, Message for Albert, 1996; signed by Aware Records, 1999; released America Town, 2000; performed in the Concert for New York, October 20, 2001.
Addresses: Record company —Aware Records, 2336 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, IL 60618, phone: (773) 248-4210, e-mail: [email protected], website:http://www.awaremusic.com. Management —Jim Grant, JGM, 155 Avenue of the Americas, 7th Floor, New York, NY 10013, phone: (646) 336-8520, fax: (646) 336-8522. Website —Five for Fighting Official Website: http://www.sonymusic.com/artists/FiveForFighting.
honesty and intensity about life in America, Ondrasik’s “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” was reinterpreted to honor the “normal” people who suffered or risked their lives in the terrorist attacks. Ondrasik himself, in fact, received a personal e-mail from a paramedic about the events. When news of this reached an executive at VH-1, Five for Fighting was guaranteed a spot at Madison Square Garden on October 20, 2001—the Concert for New York. Ondrasik found himself performing alongside his musical heroes in a concert to benefit victims of the terrorist attacks. As he told Steve Hochman of the Los Angeles Times in amazement, “I was holding my arm around Pete Townsend for ‘Let It Be.’”
Ondrasik lives in Encino, California, with his wife, Carla (the EMI executive who helped him get his start in the music industry), and two children, John and Olivia. He is an avid sports fan, ranking basketball and hockey as his favorites. In fact, Five for Fighting, his unusual alias, is a hockey term that refers to the amount of penaltybox time players are given for fisticuffs during a game. He originally used the name for his publishing company, Five for Fighting Music, but took the moniker for himself, he told VH1, when he was advised by EMI executives that “male singer/songwriters were the kiss of death.”
Known for his personable performance style and good will towards fans, Ondrasik continues to gain fame on his own terms. With it, he told Michael Okwu of CNN.com, comes the hope that his music will help change the industry that once frustrated him: “[H]opefully it’ll open the door for more songwriters because we’re missing songwriters within pop music. We really are.”
Message for Albert, EMI, 1996.
America Town, Aware/Columbia, 2000.
(Contributor) Songs from Dawson’s Creek Vol. II (soundtrack), Columbia, 2000.
(Contributor) God Bless America (various artists), Columbia, 2001.
Billboard, September 29, 2001.
Boston Globe, November 4, 2001.
Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), August 23, 2001, p. L5.
Los Angeles Times, December 2, 2001.
Five for Fighting Official Website, Sony Music Entertainment, http://www.sonymusic.com/artists/FiveForFighting (March 17, 2002).
“Five for Fighting performs ‘Superman,’” CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/ChslN/Programs/showbiz.today/sessions.archive/0108/23.html (December 10, 2001).
“Interview,” http://www.vh1.com/artists/emerging/fiveforfighting/interview.jhtml (December 10, 2001).
“Interviews: Five for Fighting,” Envy Online, http://www.envyonline.com/features/interviews/fff.html (December 8, 2001).
“One Fine Week for John Ondrasik & Five for Fighting,” Columbia Records, http://www.columbiarecords.com/news/pressreleases/08032001.html (December 10, 2001).
—Eve M. B. Hermann
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