Never has the phrase “he shoots, he scores” been more applicable than when mentioning rabid hockey fan and singer/songwriting super man John Ondrasik. The Californian, who goes by Five for Fighting (a five-minute penalty for on-the-ice fist-a-cuffs), burst on the scene some 15 years ago with his Grammy Award-nominated hit “Superman (It’s Not Easy),” and has been a mainstay on mainstream radio ever since. While he doesn’t wear tights and fight crime as his breakthrough track might suggest (in title anyway), Ondrasik’s songs could bring any maniacal villain to their knees with his poignantly -sharp songs that cut deeper than a Ginsu knife.
And like he has for the Los Angeles Kings, Ondrasik’s fans have cheered him on from his first album to his sixth. Speaking of sports, let’s play to his proverbial baseball card because his stats are stellar. He’s sold over 2.5 million albums, including the platinum America Town and The Battle For Everything. The aforementioned “Superman” went Platinum, was #1 on Adult Top 40, #2 on Hot AC, and in the Top 40 Top 10. His “100 Years” went 2X Platinum, and didn’t just melt hearts, it gave just about every age group a buffet of nostalgia or – at the very least – an endless need for some Kleenex. Other notable tracks include the certified gold “Chances,” the certified awesome “What If,” AAA #1 “Easy Tonight,” and the mega-hit “The Riddle.”
Yet, there’s more to Ondrasik than the music. His off-the-ice endeavors are equally, if not more, impressive. But before venturing into a long “band” bio, which this so clearly is, let’s cut to the chase and say this: his childhood, early struggles in the music biz, level headedness, family life, extensive charity work, public speaking engagements, and – naturally- sports fandom, have and continue to shape him as an artist and a man. Read Five on Five below and you’ll find Ondrasik is always thinking ahead while appreciating the past, counting his blessings while looking out for others, and – to repeat that overused phrase – continuing to shoot and score. On a related note, the sports metaphors may or may not end there throughout what that follows below.
Five for… Family and Foundation
Ondrasik was born and raised in Los Angeles, and almost immediately after dropping from the womb, he ventured into music. “My mom was a piano teacher and my father an astrophysicist at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. I grew up in two worlds of music and science,” he explains. Far from an instant rocket scientist, he took to piano lessons at two with his mother and later with a family friend. While she came from a classical background, his mother exposed her son to Broadway musicals, even producing his sixth grade musical. “I squeaked out Tony in ‘West Side Story’,” he cracked.
After mastering the keys (the first album he bought, by the way, was Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life”), Ondrasik’s focus turned to songwriting and playing guitar. “At 15, my sister received a guitar for her birthday, which I quickly commandeered as I was beginning to realize the purpose of musicianship was to meet girls, and the piano was tough to haul around,” he quips.
Ondrasik’s love for music grew concurrently as he did. The musician, who considers Freddie Mercury and Steve Perry among his musical influences, would haul around an 8-track Teac tape machine, which his dad bought, to USC and UCLA. And while he continued to make music, ever the realist, he earned a math degree should he need a stable profession to fall back on. Oddly enough, the only “C” he got in school was in music theory. Still, the hours he spent in that class really honed his skills in production, arranging, and songwriting, and led to him playing gigs whenever and wherever, writing songs, and taking additional music lessons.
His career and life would take quite an interesting turn between the dive bars and the low-dough shows. One night, Carla (maiden name irrelevant) saw him perform live and saw a star in the making. A music publisher, she helped make him an overnight sensation after 15 years in the business. Oh, and she also married him, and together, they had two children. But back to the start, Carla helped get his career off the ground.
What started as a slow burn (think sitting in traffic on the 405) would grow more toward a car chase on the 405 – sans traffic if that ever happened – as Ondrasik signed his first deal in 1997 with “Message For Albert.” His follow-up “American Town” really took flight and that is totally meant to be a play on words. “The first time I heard a song of mine of the radio was a tune called ‘The Last Great American.’ A friend of mine played it on local L.A. radio. I cried like a baby on the 405 freeway as I’d been working 20 years for that moment. Subsequently my song ‘Easy Tonight’ became a number 1 AAA song so I got a bit used pinching myself,” he says.
Five for… Flighting
“Superman” hit the airwaves, and reached #1 the same week Ondrasik’s daughter Olivia was born. Not a bad week… “As my wife understood the demands of the industry, it helped us deal with the obligations and my time away from home,” he explains. The song was not just a deeply-felt, mega-hit, it served as sort of an unofficial anthem following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on American soil. The song, which Ondrasik performed at The Concert For New York City, propelled “American Town” to platinum.
“’Superman’ was a gift as we barely had enough success to have a second single. I do remember hearing it in the car and thinking, ‘it’s so different than what’s on the radio these days, if it connects, it could be a big song…never imagined it would be what it was,” he explains.
More proverbial metal followed with his follow-up, 2004’s “Battle for Everything,” which featured the instant classic “100 Years.” More hits followed including “The Riddle” and many key television and film placements including, the 2007 drama “August Rush” (“King of the Earth”) and the 2009 Academy Award-winning film “The Blind Side” for which the hit “Chances” appeared. He’s also had songs appear on HBO, WWE, The L.A. Kings Stanley Cup Championship video, and recently penned an original track (“All for One”) for the 100th episode of the “Hawaii Five-O.”
Making his mother proud no doubt, Ondrasik also got to work with Tony-Award winning composer (“Godspell,” “Pippin,” and “Wicked”) Stephen Schwartz on the track “Slice.”
Overall, Ondrasik has had his songs featured in 350 films, TV shows and advertisements. His talents have extended beyond the Five for Fighting scope with the songwriter penning tunes for everyone from Josh Groban to The Backstreet Boys.
Ondrasik has also performed regularly for the USO, and take part in many inspirational speaking engagements including Ted Talks to the Salk Institute. He’s also presented at various private and corporate events. “It is becoming a big part of what I do and separates me a bit from the pop pack,” he explained.
Keeping with the theme of the one-man Five being in some pretty cool places, Ondrasik has also performed at The Kennedy Center, for presidents and fancy world leaders, and gave a special performance for NASA to commemorate the conclusion of the Space Shuttle Mission. Keeping with the aero theme, Richard Branson selected “What If” as the theme to his Virgin Unite charity.
In addition to making music, Ondrasik has made a difference. As clichéd as that phrase sounds, it’s quite true. The musician has pulled a hat trick of sorts – not just being an accomplished singer and songwriter, but an advocate for various causes. “Music is the great healer as well as being a unique vehicle in raising awareness and funds for important causes,” Ondrasik says.
To name a few of his random acts, Ondrasik has given away five volumes of compilation albums he created featuring not just himself but the likes of Billy Joel and Melissa Etheridge – to United States troops. Over one million albums have been distributed to troops worldwide. Additionally, a charity site, www.whatkindofworlddoyouwant.com, was created off of his song “World,” which saw fans uploading videos showing their respective interpretations of a better world. That initiative raised more than $250,000 for five designated charities — Augie’s Quest, Autism Speaks, Fisher House Foundation, Save the Children and Operation Homefront.
“Personally, giving back through charity work has been the most selfish exercise of my life, as I meet such wonderful and inspiring people,” he explained. “Whether it’s the CD for the Troops project or my work with Augie Nieto and ALS, I am continually in awe at the courage and strength of the human spirit.”
Five for… Fandom (Let’s Not Forget That!)
It’s well documented what a sports fanatic Ondrasik has been, but he’s also been able to put that passion to some good use. An avid hockey fan (shocking), the devout Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings fan has served as a sports commentator for SI.com and the Kings. He’s also appeared on various programs from Jim Rome to ESPN’s SportsCenter, where he became the first “band” to appear and perform.
Ondrasik has also made appearances at the an Outdoor Hockey Game between the Kings and the Ducks at Dodger Stadium (“greatest day ever”), Landon Donovan’s last Galaxy game, and the 10-Year anniversary of 9-11 at Jets Stadium. “I recognize the immature shallowness of the adult sports fan obsession, but I’ve always had it. Lakers as a kid, UCLA, Kings etc…Many folks use music as their escape, I imagine sports as mine. Writing is a kick as I’ve always had a fantasy to be a sports reporter/writer,” he says gleefully.
As he explores the possibility of a Broadway show featuring his tunes, he’s currently on the road (not literally) performing songs as a quartet (Five for Fighting literally) and with symphonies around the country. “The symphony and quartet shows have been fantastic,” he said. “I’ve had the honor of working with some world class arrangers in my career. To present the more ambitious songs, as well as the popular tunes, in this format has refueled my passion for performing.”
Ondrasik is also working on his follow-up to his sixth album, Bookmarks. Throughout his musical journey, he’s kept a level head and he noted it’s likely because he had to pay his dues for so long before finding success and his family has kept him grounded.
“The fact that we were married and had kids before I had commercial success was important. Also it didn’t hurt that I was in my late 20’s early 30’s before having hits,” he explains.
And while he continues to hone his craft, and excel at it, it really does come down to family. Case in point: he received the Father of the Year award from the National Fatherhood Foundation. “I have been blessed to have loving and supportive parents, an amazing wife and partner, and two great kids. Family is crucial to any career, keeps the ups and downs, down and up,” he says.
To wrap it up, Ondrasik looks ahead while looking back clearly pinching himself and keeping his head on straight every step of the way. “I’ve always realized we are one flop away from having to get a real job,” he says. Quick to elaborate, he says 15 years ago he would’ve found it hard to believe he’d have six studio albums under his belt, “surrounded by healthy and happy loved ones.”
Adding to that self-reflection, Five For Fighting pointed out one stat he’s arguably most proud of: he drank out of not one, but two Stanley Cups proving, “if you spend enough time in the box… dreams can come true.” Thankfully, without any missing teeth.