His music label calls him "Five for Fighting," but John Ondrasik said the moniker is "more like a brand" than a band name.
"Depending on what part of North America they're from, people hear 'Five for Fighting' and I get differing reactions," Ondrasik said. "In the south [aka the United States], they'll wonder where the five members of the band are or they'll worry that I'm pretty angry. But up in Canada, we instantly become someone's favorite band in spite of the fact that they haven't connected my music to the name."
There's a good reason for Canadians' quick acceptance of Ondrasik's stage name: "five for fighting" is a term from the hockey rulebook. Specifically, it means five minutes in a penalty box for fighting.
Boise Weekly sat down with the Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter to talk about his hits—on the airwaves, not the rink—his advocacy, and his musical and personal motivations in anticipation of a Friday, Oct. 2 appearance at the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce's annual gala.
How long has it been since you last performed in Idaho?
It's been four or five years since I've been in Boise. You have one of the most beautiful cities in the country—and you even have a hockey team.
We were going to get to hockey eventually, but let's jump in. What does an L.A.-born musician have in common with hockey?
When I was a kid, my family would always go to Laker games and, on occasion, we would go to this thing called hockey. No one went to L.A. Kings' games back then. This was way before the Wayne Gretzky era. Our family has been season ticket holders for 30 years, but the last few have been glory years. Honestly, I never thought I'd see us win the Stanley Cup.
Have you been anywhere near the cup?
[National Hockey League Hall of Famer and former Kings Team Captain] Luc Robitaille is a great buddy, so I drank some very cold Coors Light out of the Stanley Cup.
A non-hockey fan may not immediately understand the name "Five for Fighting." I'm guessing you've had to explain that for years.
It's fun. From a marketing strategy, it probably cost us half-a-million records, because there's a disconnect between my songs and the name. On the other hand, I've been invited to perform at some pretty amazing sporting events that, quite possibly, John Ondrasik may not have played but Five for Fighting did.
Don't people expect a band when they see "Five for Fighting" on the marquee?
They do. I have some incredible musicians, but some of my shows are only me and sometimes it's me and a symphony. At the end of the day, it's about the music.
Have you received pushback on the name from record promoters over the years?
Folks know the songs; they figure it out. It's way down my list of things to worry about.
A lot of your fans may have first heard some of your music featured in films like The Blind Side and We Were Soldiers. Plus, your music has been used during a lot of television shows.
As terrestrial radio has shrunk, the platform of media has become horizontal. You're always looking for your songs to be heard, but that may not be on the radio. My music being featured in The Blind Side and other films has been huge for me. Plus, I'm in the middle of selling a TV show right now.
What can you tell me about that?
It's a dramatic series where the music is a big piece of the show. I love doing the film and TV stuff. When you have the right image and the right song, it can be pretty magical.
Can you weigh in on the explosion of Pandora, Spotify and satellite radio?
Back in the day, terrestrial radio thrived on new music, but the consolidation of radio stations has led to the fact that they rarely give new music a chance. So where do you go now? Pandora, Spotify, Sirius. It's awesome.
They're finally figuring out fair compensation to songwriters on that new media.
I actually testified before Congress on that issue. Not too long ago, streaming royalties were nonexistent. But you're right, they're figuring that out.
Where does your philanthropic advocacy come from?
During the first Iraq War, I was getting emails from soldiers saying they would connect with the real world through some of my songs. After 9/11, I began doing a lot of events across the nation for police officers and firefighters.
Your song, "Superman," became a bit of a post-9/11 anthem. Have you ever deconstructed how that particular song emerged at a specific time in American history?
It's still hard to fathom. After the horror and anger of 9/11, the song helped a few people. It became something that had nothing to do with me. It reminded me that every once in awhile, music can matter. I'll always be humbled that it helped some people make their way through a critical moment in our lives.
Let's talk about your Boise appearance. This isn't anything like a typical concert.
I know the Boise Metro Chamber does a lot for job creation. Well, you'd be surprised at how building a career with music has a lot of similarities to that: creativity, innovation, relationships. A song like "Superman," there's definitely a story behind that. It was a little song, but then it became this big thing, and it certainly applies to business. Great songs come from listening. That certainly applies to business.
Talk a bit about your work with veterans.
The Boise Chamber does a lot for veterans, and that gets me pretty excited. I really want to support that. I hope this doesn't sound too cheesy but as a songwriter, my freedom of speech is dependent on people who protect that. It's important for me to support them any way I can.