Five for Fighting’s sixth album, Bookmarks, marks both a return to an earlier time as well as a new musical palette for singer/songwriter John Ondrasik.
“Bookmarks is certainly a more modern record from a production and melodic standpoint than my last few albums, though, as usual, it contains my lyrical slant. It was wonderful to re-partner with my producer buddy Gregg Wattenberg as we started this Five for Fighting thing together 13 years ago.”
That “thing” happened to be the platinum album America Town featuring the iconic song “Superman,” an album Ondrasik and Wattenberg made on a shoestring budget in 1999. Bookmarks reflects the best of their prior collaboration, along with all that’s transpired in the intervening years. And once again, Ondrasik’s music contains timely cultural introspection as well as an honest look into that which is us.
The inspirational, “What If,” a clarion call to rise above what divides us and asks a simple “What if you were me and what if I were you? Ondrasik remarks, “Americans are immersed in a shallow culture of instantaneous perception and rabid stereotype. What if we could truly understand each other’s experience and point-of-view? Walk in those proverbial shoes? It might not change our ideologies and beliefs, but perhaps we would have a bit more empathy and understanding for one and other…or not…What If?”
Bookmarks opens with “Stand Up,” an anthem for those of us who – all of us, ultimately – who have to bounce back after adversity. Not only to bounce back, but to do so in an intentional, positive way. Ondrasik leads “If you write a tragedy where you can’t be saved…Stand Up, cause you’re falling down.” From the classic “I Don’t Want Your Love” to the haunting “Symphony Lane,” to a taunting “She’s My Girl,” Ondrasik bounces from the serious to the satirical with one of the most unique and recognizable voices of the past decade. On that Ondrasik comments, “As a singer Bookmarks is the most vocally diverse record since The Battle for Everything. It was a blast to let loose on tunes like ‘Road To You’ and ‘Heaven Knows.’ It was time to put some of the rock back into the rock band.”
Add the clarity and cultural currency of “Down” and the traditional Five for Fighting sound on “Your Man” and “You’ll Never Change,” Bookmarks will likely please fans old and new. To close out the set, Ondrasik concludes with the poignant “The Day I Died,” a pure live piano/vocal recording sung through the eyes of a man on his deathbed celebrating “I was alive, the day I died.” A final reminder that with all the commercial success and production bells and whistles, Ondrasik is a simple man at a piano, an Americana singer/songwriter, providing a few bookmarks along the way.
Ondrasik began his journey at three-years old. “Johnny,” as he was called back then, could barely span four white keys with his small hands. His mom was a piano teacher and after giving him the basics she allowed him to walk away from formal lessons at thirteen, a freeing moment. From that point on, he was playing because he wanted to play; Writing music because he wanted to write.
He exploded onto the music scene with the release of Superman in 2000 on America Town. Having written those thousands of songs just for fun during first his youth and then his time at UCLA (an Applied Science and Mathematics major), the public adoration of “Superman” stunned his mother – a way to actually make money writing and playing music! Ondrasik’s father, a rocket scientist, was less surprised. As a businessman himself, he appreciated the long hours of dedication Ondrasik had put into honing his craft (45,000 hours, according to math major Ondrasik’s calculations!).
Inspiration plus an intense work ethic, Ondrasik had become an overnight sensation in only twenty years.
Superman continued to embed itself in the nation’s consciousness with the events of 9/11, as Ondrasik joined other superstar musicians for the fundraiser, “The Concert for New York,” a 2001 event dedicated to first responders affected by the events of September 11th.
Fast-forward three years with Ondrasik still searching for that second #1 Billboard hit. Recording in his studio, an 8’ x 4’ closet, and working on his third album, The Battle for Everything. His wife, Carla, had been a music publisher before leaving the business to devote her time to their two children, Johnny and Olivia, but he didn’t ordinarily bounce his songs off of her.
This time he did, and he held his breath as she listened and wept. “I immediately knew that I was either onto something, or my career was over.”
Turns out he was onto something, another #1 Billboard hit, the now-standard 100 Years.
Since, Ondrasik has ranged well beyond work in the studio to the world beyond.
Ondrasik has compiled five albums to give away to United States troops, with over a million distributed containing hit songs and bits from superstar musicians and comedians, in addition to Five for Fighting music.
“The coolest part of the CD for the Troops project was that everyone from Melissa Etheridge to Brooks and Dunn got on board. It’s been an effort where writers from the across the political spectrum have contributed songs to thank our troops.”
Ondrasik is an avid hockey fan – the source of the term for his “band” title, referencing five penalty minutes given to a player guilty of fighting. Further evidence of Ondrasik’s marvelous collision between sports and music is all around: writing for Sports Illustrated and his beloved Los Angeles Kings website, performing at NFL, NHL, NASCAR events, and appearing on ESPN’s flagship show, SportsCenter.
He doesn’t only watch sports, though. As he contemplated Bookmarks he ran a marathon, reconnecting with his musical roots of the 70s as he logged hundreds of training miles.
Another major philanthropic contribution came in the spring of 2007 when Ondrasik broke new ground by creating a video charity website – the first of its kind. Fans could participate in creating videos based around the question from his hit, “World,” namely, “What kind of world do you want?” and watch videos to contribute funds to their favorite causes. Through the site, over a quarter of a million dollars was raised for Augie’s Quest, Autism Speaks, Fisher House Foundation, Save the Children, and Operation Homefront.
Raising money and awareness for those organizations plus many others, Ondrasik finds it easy to get involved in worthwhile causes, often quoting his close friend Augie Nieto, who has ALS: “It’s about significance, not success.” In that vein, he’s also lectured at a TEDx event, spoken at colleges and in other motivational settings and still spends time at the family business, Precision Wire Products, where he worked in college as he began his music career and now working with his father in the business founded by his grandfather, toiling together alongside fellow metalworkers. All of them, making a difference. Significance.
“At the end of the day, it really is about doing your part, each one of us. In whatever area we can. What kind of world do you want?”
So that’s the gist of Ondrasik and his Five for Fighting thing. By now, I’m sure you got the drift.