Having written some of the most recognizable songs that first rose to popularity in the 2000s, John Ondrasik has heard his music performed in remote places, including a Malaysian temple souvenir shop.
Ondrasik, 56, from California, is the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter known as Five for Fighting, according to his biography. Among other things, he wrote and performed the songs “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” and “100 Years”, and Five For Fighting’s work includes LPs such as “America Town” and “The Battle for Everything”, certified platinum.
He will perform at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall, and he spoke to The Record this week before launching his latest tour. For more information and tickets, visit pvconcerthall.com. A standard ticket costs $45.50 plus fees.
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Record: Do you have an example of an unexpected place where you heard one of your songs being played?
Ondrasik: Oh yeah. I remember I was in Malaysia…working off music, walking to this old temple. And I was surrounded by these wild monkeys. And the monkeys were quite aggressive. They were sort of trying to steal your wallet and they were kind of intimidating you. You have to climb 1000 steps and you climb to the top of this temple. …they had a little gift shop, and so we went to the gift shop to buy trinkets, whatever. And believe it or not, playing on the radio was “Chances”. …4,000 miles from home. And I remember I was looking at my friend, and we both looked at each other and said, “This is crazy.” So I think we got an idea of how songs can travel around the world. I hope the monkeys liked it. Maybe that’s why they were mad at me.
Record: When it comes to two of your most famous songs, “100 Years” and “Superman,” is there anything people often get wrong about why you wrote them or about them? ?
Ondrasik: Some people think I wrote “Superman” after 9/11… I had actually written “Superman” years before, and it had actually been out for eight or nine months, and it was becoming a popular song around the world entire. But, of course, after 9/11, it took some context to recognize the heroes of 9/11, which will always humble me.
… It’s hard to follow a song like “Superman”. … It took three years to try to find a song that could stand on its own. And “100 Years” took a lot of pain, a lot of pain from the songwriters, a lot of notes, you know, songs thrown in the trash. … “Superman” came very quickly. I wrote the song in about an hour. It was a gift. … The great thing about music is that people take songs and apply them to their lives in ways you never intended. So, you know, “Superman” was really about my desire to be heard. It’s a song that I couldn’t write now. I learned very quickly that it’s very easy to be me, you know, working with Gold Star families, people with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Afghanistan, all those things on which I work. … All the songs that people take and make their own, and that’s the beauty of music. And if it matters to people and finds a place in their lives in a way that I didn’t intend, that’s great as long as people find solace or something through music. That’s all an artist can ask for.
Record: Have you been to Saint-Augustin?
Ondrasik: I do not have. You know, we’ve been planning for years to come to Florida and do a few shows. One thing about this pandemic, you know, all the things that we talked about, we do. … We’re bringing in the string quartet, some of the best players in the world ― my violinist Katie just won a Tony. And so we’re going to have a very intimate experience with these incredible players. I can’t wait to share them with you guys.
Record: What was the peak of the pandemic like for you and how did it affect you creatively?
Ondrasik: It was very difficult. Frankly, I didn’t do much music. We have a family business, a manufacturing business, here in California that has been in our family since the 1940s. And my 83-year-old father had to be quarantined, so I was forced to try to keep the company afloat economically, but above all to try to protect the health of our 300 employees, many of whom I grew up working with. … I did virtual concerts, virtual keynotes. I would bang on my piano just for a cathartic outing more than to write a song.
File: Do you have two children?
Ondrasik: Yeah, my son is 22. It’s here. He works for the family business. He goes to community college. My daughter is in New York at NYU studying musical theater, so she’s got the arts bug, and they’re awesome. And, you know, I’ve been writing about them in my songs…ever since they were born. You know, “100 Years” doesn’t exist without two little children sitting on your lap, then.
I have been very blessed with my family and my parents. And they’ve certainly found their way into many of my songs over the years, and my daughter comes to play with me. … It’s really wonderful. My wife was a music publisher, so she got me my first record deal. So we went on a roller coaster together, and she was my biggest fan and supporter. And certainly without her, we would not speak.
Record: Have you ever played in the street (played in a public place for money)?
Ondrasik: When “Superman” was like a #1 song… We would sit there on the subway and play and people would come and say, “Man, you really look like that guy.” And I would say, “Thank you.” And we would raise a few dollars for any local charity. … You know it’s actually a way of grounding yourself and kind of remembering where you came from. I was doing that, you know, playing for four people for many years in Los Angeles.
Record: You have worked a lot with the armed forces. How did you get involved and what prompted you to do so?
Ondrasik: Early in my career, I started getting emails from a lot of soldiers overseas, and they were kind of telling me how much music meant to their well-being and in different ways. Some would use it to escape. Some would use it to pump themselves up for a mission. And I started getting involved with our troops, and I was doing USO tours and meeting veterans and I started working with Gary Sinise and his foundation on a lot of projects.
And just in the last, you know, year, certainly after the pullout from Afghanistan, working with our Afghan veterans who have been so torn and broken by our abandonment of their allies and being integrated into many of these groups, mostly veterans rescuing those left behind in Afghanistan, and now in Ukraine working with many (non-governmental organizations) providing assistance, humanitarian work in Ukraine ― our troops, mine, and their families allow us all the freedoms That we have. I was in DC last week performing at an organization called TAPS, which works with military families who have lost loved ones. They are our heart and our spine, and they inspire me. Being able to shine a light on them, tell their stories, support them has truly been the honor of my career, and there’s definitely more to come on that front.
Record: Is there anything else you would like the people of Saint-Augustin to know?
Ondrasik: It’s a family concert. Bring your children. Bring the grandparents. The new song “Can One Man Save The World”, we give it away for free on fiveforfighting.com, and all proceeds will go to some of these charities in Ukraine. So if people want to support that, I would appreciate that. And yes, I hope people come out. The quartet is amazing, and I think we’re going to have a great time.