John Ondrasik of Five for Fighting discusses performing an original song for Ukraine in front of the wreckage of Mriya and the band’s upcoming show at the Anthem with Barenaked Ladies with contributing writer Eric Althoff.
John Ondrasik would just as soon chat sports. In fact, even his stage name, Five for Fighting, comes from the world of hockey. When his face pops up on a Zoom screen, behind the singer-songwriter in his Los Angeles-area home resides not just his piano but jerseys of Pat Tillman and Luc Robitaille—the latter given to Ondrasik following the Kings vs. Ducks hockey game played at Dodger Stadium on a decidedly un-snowy California day in January of 2017.
“Not to rub it in, but I was at the final game when the Kings beat the Devils,” Ondrasik smirked of the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals. (I am from New Jersey.) When I shared that I am also a USC alum, Ondrasik, who attended cross-town rival UCLA, waxed about the dynasty of his alma mater’s basketball program under legendary coach John Wooden. Our conversation then turned naturally to both of our schools decamping from the Pac-12 in 2024 to join the Big 10.
“It’s like, be careful what you wish for! You’re going to be playing elite teams, and particularly for [USC], you’re kind of used to dominating the conference,” Ondrasik said in a gentle tease of what will certainly be an exciting football season next fall. “I think, long-term, it’s going to be OK because it’s going to make teams have to be better.”
Ondrasik himself knows something of personal improvement. After wowing the music world with Top 40 hits “Superman (It’s Not Easy),” “100 Years,” and “The Riddle,” rather than resting on his significant laurels, he is hitting the road this summer and playing a three-fer with the Barenaked Ladies and Del Amitri at the Anthem in D.C. July 5.
“We’re very excited to be going out with them—great guys, great band,” Ondrasik said of his Canadian co-headliners. “You’ll hear the songs hopefully you remember.”
Ondrasik, who is known for his advocacy, will take time to visit with friends “on both sides of the aisle” on the Hill. And being in the District around Independence Day allows the musician the chance to deliver a special salute to the troops.
“Being in D.C., I always play a song that recognizes our troops and our military families. It’s a big passion of mine, and has been for 20 years,” Ondrasik said. “I play a song [for the military] every night, but certainly when you’re in the nation’s capital, it has a little different vibe—especially around the Fourth of July.”
The setlist is all but certain to include “Can One Man Save the World?”, which he wrote in solidarity with the people of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion last spring. Ondrasik even traveled to Ukraine to film a music video for the song, performed in front of the wreckage of the Mriya, a cargo plane destroyed by Vladimir Putin’s forces. Ondrasik was joined for the shoot by the Ukrainian Orchestra, backing him up at his solitary piano in front of the destroyed plane. When performed live now—since Ondrasik is a solitary act—he pumps in audio of the Ukrainian Orchestra behind him.
“[That way] people can get a sense of what I heard sitting in that bombed-out airport outside of Kiev,” he said, adding that, while preparing to record the video, elements of Ukraine’s defense forces wandered over to the set. “It turns out it was the general that basically approved us, with [President Volodymyr] Zelensky’s blessing, to film on this hallowed ground.
“We spoke through an interpreter: He thanked me, I thanked him, we shook hands, and then he said something I’ll never forget: ‘Well, let me hear it.’”
About halfway through the take with the orchestra, Ondrasik looked up to discover tears not only among the professional musicians but also in the eyes of hardened warriors. When the final chord of “Can One Man Save the World?” faded into nothingness, Ondrasik said the music was replaced by “the loudest silence I’ve ever heard.”
“And in that moment, I felt, OK, this is why we’re here—this kind of communal experience with an American rock dude who lives in Thousand Oaks, California, sitting in Kiev with this orchestra [among] people fighting for their lives,” he said. “Collaborating on a song [recognizes] what’s happening.”
Not too long before that, Ondrasik wrote “Blood on My Hands,” primarily as a sonic prayer for America’s allies left behind in Afghanistan following U.S. military evacuation in August 2021. The songwriter claims several people advised him not to release the song at all as, sure enough, some right-leaning commentators invited him on their shows—believing the song was a poke at President Joe Biden.
And, in an odd twist, “Blood on My Hands” led circuitously to his eventual trip to Ukraine.
“Of course, I knew if the people at the top were different, the song would remain the same [but] I’d be on a bunch of left-leaning shows,” the composer said. “And then, when the Ukraine song came out, all of a sudden, there were some who loved [‘Blood on My Hands’] that weren’t so happy with [‘Can One Man Save the World?’]. And the people that shunned the Afghanistan song were embracing it.”
Indeed, “Blood on My Hands” has also been taken up as a rallying cry by American veterans desperate to help their Afghan friends and allies. Because of the song, even Ondrasik himself has fielded pleas from people now trapped under the oppressive rule of the Taliban. Although his fame and advocacy has gotten some people out, many more remain behind—as is true in Ukraine.
“It used to be this thing called ‘protest songs’ [that] were embraced and people had a kind of appreciation for that,” he said, adding that criticism of U.S. involvement in Ukraine is certainly valid—and questions about where all those billions of dollars in aid money winds up are legitimate. “But of course, if a protest song doesn’t fit your narrative these days, you’ll be under attack.
“We live in a tribal society. It’s very sad. … As a songwriter, I’m not beholden to anybody; I’m not trying to have hits,” Ondrasik shared. “I’m lucky to be at a stage in my life where I can write something I feel. There’ll be some [who] are happy, some that are upset, but that’s kind of what we’re supposed to do. We’re not in the age of nuance, we’re in the age of win-lose. So be it.”
It’s his job as a songwriter to make us contemplate our place within the world—though none of us knows precisely how long we’ll have to do precisely that. Indeed, this is the philosophical quandary that informs “100 Years,” what with its constant reminder to enjoy every turn of the calendar. The song has become popular at 50th birthday parties, weddings, graduations, and even funerals.
Ondrasik says he was “at the top of the second verse” in terms of that song’s century-long arc when he wrote it. Now, at 58, he considers himself to be “in the bridge.”
“The nice thing about that tune is we’re all in there somewhere, and as I get older, I still enjoy playing that song every night,” he said. “When you play a song 20,000 times, sometimes it can get a little tedious, but I never get bored playing that song. I always find something [new] in there,” as do people who weren’t even born when he first recorded the song in 2003.
On a somewhat lighter note, the musician said no one from the DC Comics camp has yet asked him about licensing “Superman” for one of their films, though he’d gladly waive his typical fee since “I borrowed their symbolism.” His take on the Man of Steel is different, he believes, in that his narrator doesn’t even want to be Superman.
The real superheroes, perhaps, are still in Ukraine fighting for their lives. And even though almost no one on the music video shoot could understand the words Ondrasik sang in English, the power of that collaboration will stay with him forever.
“I wish everybody could experience what I did,” he said of that unique musical moment. (But even though you probably weren’t there in person, you can nonetheless help out by downloading the digital track—the proceeds of which will be donated to the program Save Our Allies and other NGOs.)
Although never a big drinker, Ondrasik says he doesn’t imbibe alcohol on the road at all in order to care for his vocals. In addition to looking out for his voice, he says that the covid pandemic was a reminder to be thankful for every gig.
“To be with each other and singing songs together, telling stories and laughing and crying—it’s so important for ourselves and our wellness to have this musical kind of experience together,” he said.
Asked if he and the Barenaked Ladies might belt out a tune together at the Anthem, well, you’ll just have to be there, Ondrasik said. (Although the two acts share a common history of having songs on the soundtrack for the 2005 movie “Chicken Little.”)
“A couple of my guys are Canadians as well, so we’ll have a lot of hockey talk, I’m sure,” the sports fan shared.
Given his work on social justice, Ondrasik’s calendar will almost certainly feature many more meetings on Capitol Hill during his days in town. But if you’re not a congressperson or senator, you can head down to the Anthem for a night of groovy music.
“It’s always very special to be in D.C. I usually play clubs or a small venue, so it’ll be nice to play for a bunch of folks the day after the Fourth of July,” he said.
*Five for Fighting will share the bill with Barenaked Ladies and Del Amitri at the Anthem in D.C. July 5. Tickets are available at TheAnthemDC.com. To download or stream “Can One Man Save the World?”, visit Bandcamp.com. *
A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.
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My interview with Amy Santis aka aSanTIS began in the most unexpected way. The Maryland-based flow-bending artist and lyrical storyteller came prepared to engage in conversation around questions I had posed – and she also brought one or two of her own thoughtful prompts based on her curiosities around my view of learning.
This practice of taking in her surroundings deeply through observation and inquiry has come naturally to aSanTIS ever since she was a young child. In terms of her early starts in music, she notes that she began as a discerning listener. “Just listening to music from my mom, on the radio, just being a consumer in the world of sound. But I think mainly, my mom has always loved dancing and listening to music, so that was sort of like second nature. We play music at gatherings, we play music in the car, and these songs are sort of like diaries that take us into a specific place.”
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