John Ondrasik of Five for Fighting is an acclaimed singer, songwriter and musician whose music has graced the ears of fans since the late 1990s. Guardian Liberty Voice had the opportunity to interview Ondrasik and he generously shared much of his heart, mind and his passion for America in addition to the philosophy of his music.
Alana Marie Burke (AMB): Writers of all genres, whether it be poetry, journalism or lyrics have a voice. You have both a lyrical voice and a vocal sound that has touched the hearts and minds of many in America. For example, your song Superman from the album America Town in 2000 became an anthem for rescue workers after the tragic events of September 11 and the song 100 Years from The Battle for Everything is often sung at graduation commencement ceremonies by young hopefuls looking to their futures. What is it about the combination of your “voices,” the lyrical and the vocal that resonates with people from every walk of life?
John Ondrasik (JO): It takes fate, luck and hard work to be successful and to be heard. Melody gets you on the radio – lyrics keep you on the radio for 20 years. I have always been a fan of the great lyricists. I think that for me it is always the hardest part and I spend days, weeks, months, trying to get one line for various songs. I think the reason that 100 Years has stuck around for 15-20 years is the words, the story and the sentiment that people can relate to whether they’re 15 years old or 75. As a singer, the most important thing is not to be able to sing perfectly in tune, but to be recognizable. I think I have one of those voices where you kind of know who that is. I have been fortunate that I have had a few songs that culture embraced, that I have a sound that is not so generic that it is easily replaceable – so again I think that a lot of that is luck. My voice is my voice – I took a lot of voice lessons but it is what it is. But the lyrics are just, you know, 15-20 years of just trying to get better and writing songs that can touch people.
AMB: Some of your songs are veritable “hits” but your fans know every one of your songs, often word for word.
JO: The casual fan knows the big hits but it’s great to get in deep and play the songs that are kind of rare in the catalog. You have the hits that everybody knows and then you have the songs that kind of make you who you are as a songwriter. Very few people know the latter, but if you don’t have the hits then you don’t have the career.
AMB: For Bookmarks, your most recent album, you returned to the studio with your producer Greg Wattenberg who worked with you on your very first album. What was the atmosphere like in the studio when you were putting down tracks?
JO: Well to be honest me and Greg are a couple of goofballs and most of the time we’re kind of making jokes and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. You have to do that because making a record is a lot of work. You’re in the studio 16 hours a day, you’re with each other 6-7 days a week and it can be an exhausting process and you can kind of burn out the creativity. So you try to keep it fun, you try to keep it right and kind of light and at the same time you are focusing on the creative process. I think the greatest thing about me and Greg is that we don’t have any egos. We’re very comfortable telling each other exactly how we feel. I have seen some studio situations where some people are so afraid to agonize the artist or the famous producer or the musician and those sessions are not very fun and usually the product doesn’t come out too good. But we have known each other for so long and we’ve had success together – we kind of started our careers together and we’re good friends. So number one, we enjoy being together which is the main thing, we trust each other and we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. I wouldn’t have done this record if I hadn’t had my friend Greg because the music industry has changed so much and there is very little upside besides the pleasure of making the record and knowing that the fans will have it.
AMB: The video for the song What If from the album Bookmarks, is conceptually unusual, there is a little bit of an E.T. flavor there, and it is compelling visually. What inspired the imagery of the young boy and robot? The lyrics are very powerful as well. Is there a deeper societal meaning here or was it more the concept of a child’s neat fantasy?
JO: The first thing I wanted to do was create a compelling and exciting video without me in it. I’ve seen enough videos of me sitting and playing the piano and singing a song. I had the luxury on this record, because Wind-up Records was amenable to wanting to make something special and going out of the box. The various treatments that I read I was intrigued by – there was this one of a boy building a robot, his fantasy, and I thought wouldn’t it be interesting if the robot built the boy.
The sentiment of What If is putting ourselves in each other’s shoes. That is why Star Trek was so great right? It broke so many boundaries and I’ve always been a Sci Fi guy. I just wanted to do a heart strings video that was interesting that people could watch from beginning to end and whether you were a Five for Fighting fan or not, you would be moved. I think we did that – they did an amazing job – I can’t take any credit for it. It is my favorite Five for Fighting video and always will be.
The song itself has a larger cultural message. It is one we have heard before of course, look through each other’s eyes, but I think in the country today we are so divided and there is so much animosity and politically I think there is very little good will. I think the message of the song is that it takes two to tango – two to solve problems and I don’t see much of that which is very frustrating. That is the message of What If. We are not always going to agree, we might have different ideology and viewpoints but if we did put ourselves in each other’s shoes, maybe we would understand that the person has a point of view and much the same goal as we do – they just have a different way of finding that goal.
Politically being the minority in the music business, I have kind of been on the other side of people making snap judgments and stereotypes and labeling and that is not healthy whatever side you are on. I think that is where What If came from, it’s like, come on, you know? Maybe if you lived my life and shared my experience maybe you would understand where I am coming from and vice versa. We all have certain stereotypes and I just think this really hurts the country. I think we are seeing this now more than ever and we are polarized and nothing is getting done – we are kind of on the wrong track. I think a lot of that is just because we are unwilling to kind of listen to and respect each other and it worries me.
AMB: That leads me into my next question. President Obama’s stated mission was to be the “great uniter” yet the country is more divided now than ever before. Music has a tremendous power to bring people of every political and social spectrum together regardless of race, gender, or party. Why is it that the leaders of this nation cannot come even close to uniting the country in a common cause of freedom, exceptionalism, benevolence and the right to individual opinions?
JO: I think that is the beauty of music and also sports. Music and sports bring people from all walks of life together and we can all share something whether it is a game or we can sing a song together and that is the beauty of the arts. I didn’t vote for President Obama but when he was elected I was excited because I thought, here is an opportunity to really bring the country together. I thought he could do that – he ran as a moderate and unfortunately, he has just turned out to be your typical politician who is more interested in destroying the other side with populism and denigration and he is not interested in bringing people together. Neither is his administration and I just think it is really sad – it has hurt the country and it has hurt him. I think that it has hurt the people that he wanted to help the most. I think it was a unique opportunity in American history and we have lost that.
It is going to take time and people who I think have a more open heart and an agenda that is not just political to recover from that. It is very sad and we are kind of stuck in the middle. I think until we have a leader who can bring us together – and I don’t know who that is – but I’ve never seen a more polarized country in my life. You can’t speak your mind without being labeled something – whether it’s a racist or you’re a sexist, you’re an ‘ist’ you know? It is terrible because with that dynamic we cannot solve problems. We can’t have an honest conversation.
AMB: Recently the Aspen Institute, which is an educational and policy studies organization released a report, America Looks to 2014: A Survey of the Modern Mindset. They surveyed people to see what they thought America would look like in 10 years and the results were distressingly pessimistic. While social issues received positive marks, in terms of the economy, there was doubt about the country’s strength, and statements were made that America is moving from an “Age of possibility” to an “Age of impossibility.” America’s role in the world was seen as having changed from being “The indispensable nation” to a “More dispensable nation” predicting that China, not the U.S. will lead the world in 10 years. If the survey results truly reflect American perspective, what do you think the root causes are of this pessimism?
JO: Unfortunately, I would agree with the sentiment of that survey and I think it is the policies of the administration and the last two presidents who have so polarized their opponents that everybody is negative. Look when you live in a culture that is ashamed of the American dream…we used to be proud of the American dream, we used to be proud of success, we used to aspire to success. Now, you’re ridiculed, you’re shot down, you’re the problem and we so demonize so much of what made America great that I am not sure of who we are anymore.
I think the country is split – there are people that believe in American exceptionalism and the ideas of freedom and liberty being a force for good around the world and there are those who don’t believe that. I blame both past presidents for that. I think that when we went to Iraq and we did not find weapons of mass destruction that was a generational mistake that cost credibility for not only Americans here in the political system but around the world. I think President Obama has doubled down by incredible weakness that we have seen in Syria, we have seen with his apathy on Israel and we see down at the border today. I think there is a reason to be pessimistic for a lot of us who, you know, are not twenty years old. I think even for the twenty year olds the illusion is fading.
Until the American people can elect somebody who can make the hard decisions, I think we are on that path. Maybe it has to get really bad before we wake up and frankly what scares me the most is that maybe we are not who we used to be. We live in a culture that is a junk age – people are so ignorant. More people who graduate from college – I read the other day – are fans of socialism than people who don’t. So when you have an educational system that is basically teaching kids that America is bad, you have a media that is so complacent and enables one side of the aisle, I think the recipe is disaster! I keep hoping that we are going to wake up one day. I know a lot of Republicans don’t like Mitt Romney but I truly wish that he had won. I think we would have turned it around because I think he gets it. But until we elect somebody who gets that there are severe consequences for the way we are going I think people will be pessimistic and their fears will be realized.
AMB: You were really good friends with Andrew Breitbart. After his passing, it made me so sad to realize the loss of such a vocal warrior. If you could sum up for Andrew in a few sentences, what do you think he would have to say about the state of the nation now?
JO: Well first of all he would be in heaven with all of the scandals. He would be on cloud nine. Even now it is hard to talk about Andrew. As much as I respected him as a political warrior, he was one of my best friends. It is a huge loss personally and I think for the culture because Andrew was unique. What people don’t realize about Andrew, was that he wasn’t really a political guy. He hated hypocrisy and his biggest pet peeve, as is mine, is not the politicians it is the press. He felt like I do that the biggest problem facing this country is not Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Boehner – it’s not the politicians, it’s the press – a complacent, enabling press.
If you don’t have an adversarial press, no matter what party is in the White House, our government will have no accountability and this is a threat to our democracy. That is what he exposed – the bias of the media. He was the media – I mean he and Matt Drudge changed the landscape with The Drudge Report. He was fearless and unlike most Republicans, he understood culture. If I could tell you some of the meetings we had with various politicians – the Republicans are so clueless about the culture and that is one reason why the Democrats do so well. We live in such a Justin Bieber world and for a lot of young voters they vote on, ‘yeah, that guy’s cool’ and my favorite artist likes him. They vote for the personality and when people don’t care about what is happening and the issues then you’re not going to win that vote most of the time. I think Andrew’s loss is immeasurable and I believe that the whole landscape would be a little bit different right now since he did hold people accountable. Sometimes he did cross the line but he called it like he saw it and I miss him every day.
AMB: The song World from the 2006 album Two Lights resonates on a global level and it poses the question, “What kind of world do you want?” The song was featured in a video by NASA commemorating the last space shuttle voyage. As a “bloggernaut” on the site Fragile Oasis you wrote that the kind of world that you want “is one in which mankind continues its exploration of our universe. From our solar system to Star’s End!” What is your take on the MarsOne Foundation that seeks to provide a “grand adventure” and establish a human settlement on Mars? Is this idea of a one-way trip outrageous or intriguing?
JO: Well it is probably both – it is outrageous and intriguing. I grew up with a father who worked for the jet propulsion lab for NASA so I’ve always been a “spacey.” Personally, I have always been one of those people excited about the exploration of space. But I think on the other side and equally relevant is the great technology that we accrue through the exploration of space. I think giving up on NASA and scaling back our exploration – I think it hurts our country. I understand that it is expensive and there are other priorities but if you look at our debt and how we spend our money I think it is a drop in the bucket for what we would get back to continue reaching outward. So anybody who has ideas, however grandiose, publicly or privately funded of going to Mars – I think would be a great next step. I would love to see us go back to the moon. I get it – I am a fan of all that stuff and I think it is another symptom of looking inward instead of outward and it is a mistake. It was very sad to play the closing of the space shuttle for those folks. As someone who kind of grew up in that world, I hope someday we get back to that because I think there is so much to be learned and to be had and to kind of grow as a society. It’s another thing that we talked about – that we can share together, the excitement of that and it is unfortunate that America is not leading in that way as well.
AMB: In an interview this year on My Life as A Dad you were asked to give advice for new dads. One of the things you said was that the most important thing is “to just love your kids” and that you might have to sacrifice in some ways, either in that you give up certain things to be with them or you give up time with them to be able to provide for them. While loving them is key to the foundation of the family, what about their ability to create their own futures? Right now, a record number of the younger generation are opting out of college because it is so expensive and the job market is so lean. What effect will this have on future generations?
JO: I am of two minds on that because as someone who got their degree, I want my kids to go to college but I also see – in the institutions – so much of what they are getting in college is either useless, counterproductive or wrong. It’s not how the world works. There’s nothing better than real world experience. You see so many academics who have never had to run a business, meet a payroll, work on a product line – you listen to their view of the world and it is not rational. I think we see a little of that in our president. His ideology and beliefs are based on academia, not real world experience. I would love my kids to go to college. On the other hand, I think it is more important that they learn the most important things, which are work hard, be a good person, develop good relationships, believe in yourself and those are probably more important than a four-year bachelor of arts from an accredited school. I am kind of mixed – I think it depends on the kid. I’m not one of those people who believe that college is the end all but I do still think college is a great experience – it is kind of your last four years before you have to grow up and I would like my kids to have that.
AMB: You continue to create on a musical and lyrical level and this serves to enrich the lives of your fans who often comment, in rather gushing terms, about how your songs have marked significant moments in their lives whether it is a breakup, a marriage proposal or a birth. The accolades for your musical achievements are impressive, you perform on tour, you are a family man and a giver to charities. You support American military and first responders with benefit concerts and your CD’s for The Troops and you are also a bigtime fan of the Sacramento Kings Hockey Team who co-opted your song, Stand Up after winning the 2014 Stanly Cup. Other than the fact that have not been able to go into space, is there anything missing? Is there any piece to the puzzle of your life that you have not found yet?
JO: Interesting question. You know, I think I can never be totally satisfied. I am certainly very grateful because in the big things I have been incredibly fortunate. I have worked hard for some of that but I have also been incredibly blessed. It may sound a little corny and cliché but to be born in the greatest country that has ever existed that allows me the opportunity to have the freedom of speech, to work – it’s “Ameritocracy” – to have the opportunity to succeed. To have great parents who stood by me when I was pursuing my dream and everybody told me I was crazy. To have a great wife who understands the sacrifices I have to make sometimes – especially early in my career – who supported me. To have wonderful children and all that stuff and people who have helped me along the way – I feel very lucky.
Are there things you want to do and continue to do? Sure, you always want to be relevant, you always want a seat at the table. You always want to have people hearing new music and keep growing but at the same time, at this point in my life I am going to be turning 50 this year. I do kind of sit back and can recognize some of the really cool stuff and experiences that I have had and my family has had. You always want more but at the end of the day, you know the big things… having a healthy family and the means to pay your mortgage and kind of do what you want…to have buddies like Andrew Breitbart and interact with some of the people who define the culture and move the sports world and the political world. Yeah, I am pretty satisfied. I am never complacent and I never take it for granted but it’s been a fun ride.
AMB: I know you realize the emotional impact you have had on people – perhaps more so than many other artists. I believe this is because of what we first talked about, both the musical and lyrical voice that you have. For some reason you seem to understand the “everyman” and I think that is what has made you so successful – that you reach people. This is something that the leader of this free nation has not successfully done but you and your band Five for Fighting have and I am very grateful that you continue to do so.
JO: Thank you and I appreciate the kind words.
Opinion By Alana Marie Burke
Interview with John Ondrasik
My Life as a Dad