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Five For Fighting

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This is the story of Five For Fighting, which is, at the moment, an alias?a pen name, for singer, pianist, guitarist, satirist and commentator John Ondrasik.

“What it is,” says Ondrasik of another way of looking at Five For Fighting, “is a group of people, musicians and non-musicians, working passionately to realize these songs and ideas.”

But to be clear, it’s more than that.

“It’s always stood as a metaphor for battling through this giant beast that is the music business, and working to get your songs heard, while still remaining non-trivial and honest.”

A born-and-raised native of the sprawling San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, Ondrasik’s piano teacher mother began his music studies at age two. His introduction to sports came later, and hence the explanation to the still lingering question of just what Five For Fighting means. Quite literally, it’s a punishment in hockey?five minutes in the penalty box for fighting. So now you know. Five For Fighting is an aka, it’s a battle cry, it’s a reprimand and it’s the songs and vision of John Ondrasik. And in the previous paragraphs, all spent for the simple purpose of explaining the name at the top of this page, you get a sense of the depth and complexity of the man behind Five For Fighting’s Aware/Columbia debut, America Town.

America Town is an ambitious and wholly satisfying work. While it’s not necessary to dig too deep to hear sounds and melodies and instruments reminiscent of contemporaries like Dave Matthews and Ben Folds and classics like The Beatles and Elton John, if you do the math you discover that these songs demand more credit than to be so quickly catalogued. “Easy Tonight” offers plenty of evidence of that; what sounds like it might be a love song is, in fact, about suicide. “The Last Great American,” which has the feel of a Civil War-era Appalachian arrangement, tells the ironic story of a guy who closes the lid on his own casket just before he’s buried alive. And the piano-man appeal of “Jainy” and “Love Song” completely belie their uncomfortable subject matter.

While his piano skills came from his mother, from his younger sister Ondrasik got his ability to play guitar. “When I was around 13 or 14, my sister got a guitar for her birthday, which I promptly stole and taught myself to play.” It was at about that same age that John was no longer obligated to study piano, so he abruptly quit and wrote his first song before diving into the guitar. “I bought the flashiest electric guitar I could afford and got the cheap amp, put on Frampton Comes Alive and played that for two years. I never became a great guitar player, but I became proficient enough to be able to write songs.”

And from his onetime astrophysicist father, Ondrasik gained an analytical side, graduating from UCLA with a Bachelor's degree in applied mathematics. “I started out majoring in computer science, but I found I spent 10 hours a day in front of a computer and two hours a day in front of a piano. So I changed my major to math, which allowed me to spend two hours a day in front of a book and 10 hours a day in front of a tape machine, a piano and a guitar.”

The centerpiece of America Town is “Superman,” a three and a half-minute serving of classic arena rock dressed up as an anthem in pop clothes. It’s an anything-but-popish lyric about a man feeling the limitations of being superhuman, wrestling with the need to somehow belong; ultimately, it speaks to man’s desire to stir some dormant sense of heroism in himself. Heroism, and the lack thereof, is also contemplated in “America Town,” while current icon worship is explored in “Michael Jordan.”

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