Friday, 18 July 2008

Five for Fighting

This is the story of Five For Fighting, which is, at the moment, an alias--a pen name--for singer, pianist, guitarist, satirist and commentator John Ondrasik.

"What it is," says Ondrasik of another way of looking at Five For Fighting, "is a group of people, musicians and non-musicians, working passionately to realize these songs and ideas."

But to be clear, it's more than that.

"It's always stood as a metaphor for battling through this giant beast that is the music business, and working to get your songs heard, while still remaining non-trivial and honest."

A born-and-raised native of the sprawling San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, Ondrasik's began his music studies at age two under the direction of his piano teacher mother. His introduction to sports came later, and hence the explanation to the still lingering question of just what Five For Fighting means. Quite literally, it's a punishment in hockey--five minutes in the penalty box for fighting. So now you know. Five For Fighting is an aka, it's a battle cry, it's a reprimand and it's the songs and vision of John Ondrasik. And in the previous paragraphs, all spent for the simple purpose of explaining the name at the top of this page, you get a sense of the depth and complexity of the man behind Five For Fighting's Aware/Columbia debut, America Town.

While his piano skills came from his mother, from his younger sister Ondrasik got his ability to play guitar. "When I was around 13 or 14, my sister got a guitar for her birthday, which I promptly stole and taught myself to play." It was at about that same age that John was no longer obligated to study piano, so he abruptly quit and wrote his first song before diving into the guitar. "I bought the flashiest electric guitar I could afford and got the cheap amp, put on Frampton Comes Alive and played that for two years. I never became a great guitar player, but I became proficient enough to be able to write songs."

And from his onetime astrophysicist father, Ondrasik gained an analytical side, graduating from UCLA with a Bachelor's degree in applied mathematics. "I started out majoring in computer science, but I found I spent 10 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."

John Ondrasik's third instrument is a voice that has been formally trained in opera. Still, his heart was in the music of artists like The Beatles, Journey, Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire and Elton John. So, a choice was made between rock & roll and opera. "Because I enjoyed writing songs I decided to do that." In fact, he did a lot of it, writing "bad song after bad song."

"It was a struggle," he'll acknowledge, "but I think you need to write a lot of songs to become a good songwriter, and that's what I did for years."

That America Town has been made is a credit to the fortitude of the lone member of Five For Fighting. In recent years Ondrasik has been victimized twice by folding labels, and by some untimely terminations of enthused A&R execs. "I am more proud that this record exists than the actual music on it, which I'm very proud of," says Ondrasik. "The Five For Fighting name applies now probably more than ever because it's been a battle."

Ondrasik made America Town with producer Gregg Wattenburg and a group of musicians. He played piano, guitar and sang, and he even "squeaked out a few horrible notes" on violin on "Michael Jordan." Of Wattenburg, he volunteers, "I thought Gregg had the right idea of doing nothing tricky--just let the voice carry the songs. We worked very hard and spent a long time on this record. There were a lot of trying times, but I think Gregg did a great job." What they've created in America Town is a piece of music that is as current as it is timeless, and a group of songs that speak of heroism; of despair; of hope; of confusion; of joy. And of which of these are the standouts, the hit singles? Well, let's just say that heavy-hitter Jack Joseph Puig (The Goo Goo Dolls, Beck, Counting Crows, Semisonic) was brought in to mix "Easy Tonight," "Superman," "Bloody Mary" and "Something About You."

Held together by Ondrasik's keen sense of musical dynamics, his splendidly expressive voice and his slice-of-life tales of modern day America, these songs are, with all due credit to Nick Lowe, pure pop for now people. The arrangements are both uplifting and remarkably uncomplicated. The melodies sooth and soar, while the words are edgy in some places, witty in others and honest everywhere in between.

"This music comes from the heart and hopefully it can move people. I think there's something here for everybody; my goal was to have songs that an 8-year-old kid would love to sing along to, and songs that the college graduate, the Dylan-lover, would love to get into. The greatest honor will be in 10 years if someone pulls this record out of their collection, puts it on again and remembers a song that meant something to their lives. That's what I hope we've done"

For now, that's the story of Five For Fighting. Of course, even Superman didn't work alone, so don't expect John Ondrasik to remain the lone member much longer. "I look forward to bringing this music to many people in many forms. Hopefully, in America Town, they will find a special place to live."


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