It requires considerable artistic agility to write deeply personal songs that also reflect the broader world. That’s just what platinum-certified Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter John Ondrasik and his band Five For Fighting has consistently accomplished on each of his previous CDs. Now with Two Lights, his new Aware/Columbia release, John delivers his most personal album to date, creating nothing less than an American family portrait.
John’s Grammy-nominated song “Superman (It’s Not Easy),” from the America Town CD, was already a hit when 9/11 happened. Afterwards, the song became a spiritual national anthem, and John joined superstar headliners Mick Jagger, Elton John, Paul McCartney and others for the post-9/11 fund-raiser “The Concert for New York.” “Here’s a kid just getting over shock of hearing himself on radio for first time,” recalls John, “sitting at a piano in Madison Square Garden playing a song that seems to provide solace to the emergency workers and their families. Halfway through, seeing these burly firefighters with tears rolling down their faces: it was the most important thing I’ll ever do musically.”
In 2004 he recorded The Battle For Everything, which yielded the hit “100 Years,” once again proving Ondrasik’s ability to craft inspirational songs with a social message. “It means a lot as a writer when your songs find their way into everyday lives,” he says. “To hear mp3s of ‘100 Years’ sung at graduations, or to speak to folks about how certain songs helped out, inspires me to keep on swinging.”
Two Lights should yield no less. Produced by John and band mates Curt Schneider (bass, guitars) and Andrew Williams (guitars), the album was inspired in part by conversations John had with ordinary Americans. Cops and cruisers, soldiers and surfers all have a place in John’s America. Overall the CD is classic Americana, grittier and riskier than his previous work. That’s especially so on songs like “California Justice” and the darkly comic “Policeman’s Xmas Party,” both based on real events.
Yet he also touches unflinchingly on the personal. The CD’s debut single “The Riddle” is a song he wrote for his children, while the companion video features his beloved blue Mustang (a car passed down to John from his father and the inspiration for the song “‘65 Mustang”). Says John of the single, “A lot of my songs touch on mortality, but at its heart it’s a love song from a father to his son.”
The father-son motif is most poignantly expressed in “Two Lights,” a song that came to John after having dinner with a young soldier bound for Iraq, and the soldier’s father, a Vietnam veteran. “I talked with the kid’s father,” John remembers. “In that moment, I saw a mixture of pride and fear in the old man’s eyes. I wanted to write a song that talked about the reality of how these parents feel. The simple thing of ‘Two Lights’ is two lives: the father’s and the son’s. That’s what inspired this song, the look of pride and fear in a father’s eye.”
Whatever subject he tackles, John’s music is always infused with an empathetic spirit and sung in one of the most richly distinctive voices in contemporary pop. Still, the new CD may surprise those unaccustomed to the sharper edge of John’s musical persona. “Producing is rewarding but also an extra slice of pain and suffering,” he says. “Songs like ‘The Riddle’ and ‘California Justice’ are 90 percent craft, whereas others like ‘Road to Heaven’ and ‘I Just Love You’ are essentially live takes. In either case, the band has to be in the room, the clock has to be turned off, and the red light (or hard drive)...blinking.”
John Ondrasik was born in L.A.’s sprawling San Fernando Valley, and grew up in a musical family. At two, he began studying piano and later added guitar. He majored in math at UCLA, but his heart was always in music. His hard work paid off, and today he’s right where he wants to be: a working touring musician with a great family to come home to. “Being in a band,” he says, “you spend a lot of months on a bus rolling through America. Unless you do that you don’t have a sense of the expanse and the differences that make it so great. My music just comes from my experience putting the miles on tires.”
Over the last year, John has also been busy working on music for films. He wrote, produced and performed “The Best,” the main title song for the upcoming animated baseball-comedy feature Everyone’s Hero (he also teamed up with country greats Brooks & Dunn to co-write “Keep On Swinging” for the same film). For the movie August Rush, John produced and wrote “Break,” which is performed on screen by actor Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. Although primarily known for performing his own compositions, John also recorded a compelling new version of the classic Jimmy Webb composition, “All I Know” (a chart-topping pop hit song for Art Garfunkel in 1973), for the hit Walt Disney Pictures Film, Chicken Little.
But right now, Two Lights remains first and foremost in his musical life; that, and reaching out to an ever-expanding audience of admirers, whether in a darkened concert hall or on an iPod during morning rush hour. “I just try to get better as a songwriter,” he says. “That’s all I can do: try to write things that matter. At the end of the day all you can do is say what you believe.”