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HYANNIS – John Ondrasik of Five for Fighting knows the good that a song can do when it is crafted the right way. He’s had success on the pop charts, and now he’s also getting involved with worldwide affairs and offering his music as support and encouragement to those around the globe.
Ondrasik recently traveled to Ukraine to shoot a music video with a Ukrainian orchestra for his song “Can One Man Save the World?” about President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He has also teamed up with a group of other musicians, including Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, for a song about the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan titled “Blood On My Hands.”
When it comes to Five for Fighting’s South Shore Music Circus July 31 gig and its Aug. 3 show at the Cape Cod Melody Tent, those in attendance can expect to hear these new songs plus the radio-friendly and chart-topping “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” and “100 years” that have become pop staples. The alt-rock band Verve Pipe is the opening act.
A surprising start in another genre
After almost 10 years, Ondrasik is taking the Five for Fighting rock ensemble back out on the road following stints where he previously focused on string quartets, acoustic and symphony setups. Being stuck inside during the pandemic can make you change your mind about things.
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“You kind of realize what you miss and you think about good times and the people and I love my rock band players,” he says. “I just felt this kind of urge to do music again. I really missed doing the rock shows.”
Some may find it hard to believe, but Ondrasik, who has made a career out of being a singer/songwriter behind a piano, was once in a Bon Jovi-style rock band before finding success doing what he does today. Out of college, he met up with Rudy Sarzo, a metal bassist who played with the likes of Quiet Riot and Ozzy Osbourne, and formed a band that also included ex-members of Pat Benatar’s band.
“We had some good songs and had some interest and were about to do a big management deal and then this little band called Nirvana came out and the whole hair-metal thing blew up,” he says.
What’s perhaps more surprising, back before he was even in a band with metal players, is that he “really sang opera” for four or five years as a teenage student of “the voice teacher to the stars” Ron Anderson. He recalls attending lessons at Anderson’s Chino Hills location, and he wasn’t the only one there who would become well-known in a completely different genre.
“It would be weird. I was the little kid — it was almost like ‘Almost Famous’ — I’d be sitting there waiting for my voice lesson and here comes Axl Rose (from Guns N’ Roses) and Don Dokken (from Dokken),” he says. “But we actually trained classically.”
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Ondrasik says having his involvement with metal be nothing more than a brush was actually a “blessing.” His mother played piano and had taught him how to play when he was younger. The time was right, he says, for him to return to the instrument.
“I went back to the piano and started writing my songs, but it was great to be with those guys,” he says. “I learned a lot from them.”
Those “songs” would end up becoming the Grammy Award-nominated, platinum-selling “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” and platinum-selling “100 Years,” propelling Ondrasik under his then-new moniker of Five for Fighting into the spotlight.
What’s in a hit song?
Ondrasik says he could “talk for an hour” when asked what he looks for in a well-written song. It’s important for a song to tell a story, he says, and points to Harry Chapin’s "Cat's in the Cradle" as an example.
“There’s a sentiment to the song but there’s also an evolution of the song and as you move through it you learn things,” he explains. “At the end, hopefully there’s something that resonates with you.”
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Ondrasik’s own “100 Years” is similar in that approach and is about recognizing and living in the moment, with a verse for each stage of our lives.
“I hope that when you’re at the end, you feel something and somewhere in the song you can find yourself,” he says. “I think that’s why that song and a few others (I’ve written) have stood the test of time.”
The music itself is important, but what’s even more important in Ondrasik’s experience are the lyrics and intent the songwriter has.
“Melody can get you on the radio,” he says. “Lyrics can keep you there for 20 years.”
Ondrasik describes some of his songs as “post-it” notes to himself, a way of working things out in a therapeutic sense and, by extension, for the listener as well.
“It was like lifting weights or boxing,” he says of songwriting. “It was a way to get out my angst, my anger. ‘Superman’ is an angry song in a way. It seems like a ballad but (the lyric) ‘It’s not easy to be me’ is frustration and ‘What do you do?’ Sometimes you do things you shouldn’t. Certainly, for me, it was therapy and still is.”
Ondrasik then points to “Blood On My Hands,” a song dealing with the U.S. withdrawing from Afghanistan, and says about his songs, “They’re really kind of screams, and sometimes you scream through your instrument.”
‘Courage is contagious’
Although he is now back in the States, it was clear in the phone interview in late June that his visit to Ukraine was still weighing on his mind. Ondrasik says that being in Ukraine and seeing what is happening there was “surreal” and “heartbreaking,” and he hopes that his song “Can One Man Save the World?” and the new video to go with it will “help put the spotlight back on Ukraine and give them a shot in the arm.”
“(The Ukrainians) are taking the lead from Zelenskyy and that’s really what the song is all about – that courage is contagious,” he says.
See Five for Fighting
When: 8 p.m. July 31
Where: South Shore Music Circus, 130 Sohier St., Cohasset
Tickets: $51-$71; members $45-$65
Info: themusiccircus.org or 781-383-9850
This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: John Ondrasik and Five for Fighting to play South Shore Music Circus