Saturday, January 28, 2023

Finding ‘Superman’: Covid pandemic illuminates Five For Fighting 20-year hit in a new, personal light

John Ondrasik of Five For Fighting will stop at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater on Sunday. (By Nikolai Puc’ Photography)

While many musicians spent a good deal of time during the pandemic thinking, stressing and even obsessing over how they’d survive without being able to tour — and if they would ever be able to tour again — John Ondrasik spent little time writing or thinking about music.

Instead, he found himself spending his days in a whole different line of work. He took up manufacturing, a business that has been in his family since the 1940s.

“It’s a million miles away from the music business,” said Ondrasik, who performs and records under the band name Five For Fighting. “My dad, being 83, had to quarantine.”

Ondrasik managed Precision Wire Products Inc., a shopping cart maker, while his father isolated. And working from home was not an option for the majority of its 300 employees at the essential business.

“Many of them I grew up working with and they’re like family,” Ondrasik said. “They are in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and if Precision Wire goes down, they don’t have another option.”

Ondrasik said he felt intense pressure to ensure the business continued operating at all costs. It was the most “challenging two years” he has experienced in life, he added.

“Pressures were certainly much different than anything I’d experienced in the music business. But, fortunately, we got through it,” he said.

Most will recognize the musician’s sounds through the Grammy-nominated “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” — a song that put the keyboardist and singer on the music map. Released on Five For Fighting’s second album, 2000’s “America Town,” “Superman” slowly gained momentum and accelerated after Ondrasik performed it as part of a concert for New York City, honoring first responders and military following the 9/11 terrorist attacks that brought down the city’s Twin Towers.

The song became something of an anthem for the times and eventually reached No. 2 on the adult contemporary chart.

Ondrasik said 20 years later, during Covid, the track hit him in a different way.

“It’s funny, in my keynotes, I talk about how my Superman, he doesn’t want to be Superman — he doesn’t want to be everything for everyone because if you’re everything for everyone, there’s nothing left for yourself,” Ondrasik said.

To ensure the financial health of his family’s company and its many workers meant Ondrasik had to hone in on his own self-care.

“For the first time in my life, I actually lived my song,” he said. “I understood very quickly that I had better take care of myself first because if I go down, the whole ship goes down with me. So it was illuminating, but we got through it.”

The popularity of “Superman” was followed up with 2004’s another No. 1 song, “100 Years,” featured on “The Battle For Everything.” Both “Superman” and “100 Years” have remained familiar anthems to music fans ever since.

Five For Fighting followed up with moderately popular tracks, including “The Riddle” on 2006’s “Two Lights” and “Chances” from 2009’s “Slice.”

“I think maybe once I had those two megahit songs, maybe I got a little comfortable,” Ondrasik admitted. “But it also allowed me to not just be beholden to try and write a hit song so I could make another record. And I do realize that and I don’t take it for granted.” 

Ondrasik hasn’t made a Five For Fighting album in almost a decade, with “Bookmarks” released in 2013. Only in the past year has he released new music — specifically, two very topical and timely songs. 

The first, “Blood On My Hands,” arrived last year shortly after the botched pullout from the Afghanistan war. The United States failed to evacuate some of its citizens and allies who remained in the Middle Eastern country. 

Actively involved in a wide range of pro-veteran and military causes, Ondrasik said he was so angered by America failing to fulfill its promise of no man left behind. So he put those emotions behind a pen and wrote the dark and tense ballad as a scathing rebuke of the evacuation. 

The other song recently released, “Can One Man Save The World,” is a solo piano tribute to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky in honor of his steely resolve to defend his country country against Russia’s attack.

Ondrasik remains steadfast about both songs: They aren’t political, despite what some may perceive.

“I’ve said it before: If there was a different president [than Biden] and Afghanistan went the same way, the song would remain the same, only the names would change,” he said. “I’m not a person who desires to write these types of songs. But, at the same time, I do think we are in a critical time in our history and having generational events.”

The 57-year-old songwriter said he grew up on the “great protest songs of the ‘60s,” from which his influences derived.

“They spoke truth to power,” he said. “I’ve always kind of put my worldview into my music passively because the last thing I want is to lecture people. I get very annoyed with celebrities and even musicians who like to stand on their soapbox and lecture people. I’m just one person with an opinion. But the Afghanistan debacle, I think, was so egregious from a moral standpoint of abandoning our citizens and our allies — it was a song that was going to happen no matter what. I had to say it.”

Ukraine he said was different. It didn’t feel as politically divided, he surmised: “How can you not be inspired by President Zelensky and the Ukrainian people fighting for all the values we treasure?”

Ondrasik isn’t promising the two new songs mean he’s about to write a flood of other music. But after years devoid of much to say lyrically, the creative spark is showing renewed signs of life.

For now, Ondrasik is happy just to go on tour again. He did a spring run of dates with a string quartet, which has been his format of choice for about a decade. This summer he’s plugging in and returning to a rock-band format, something he said his agent has been asking him to do for years.

“‘Do you want to get out there and do the rock tour and get back in the bus?'” he said his agent asked. “And I said, ‘Yes.’ You know, being locked down for two years, I have such wonderful memories of being on the road with my friends. And I do think playing these quartet shows for so long, I was looking for something new.”

Five For Fighting will stop at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater on Sunday, Aug. 7. Tickets are $37.50 and The Verve Pipe will open the show.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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