During a 1997 recording session for his debut album, “Message for Albert,” Southern California singer-songwriter and National Hockey League enthusiast John Ondrasik was told by a record company representative that male singer-songwriters were so yesterday and that he needed to adopt a band name.
Having just seen L.A. Kings enforcer Marty McSorley spend five minutes in the penalty box for on-the-ice fisticuffs earlier that evening, Ondrasik sarcastically suggested Five for Fighting. Although conjuring up images of mosh pits and shredding metal guitars rather than Ondrasik’s mainstream rock and introspective ballads, the name stuck, and he’s since released six studio albums, a live album, a best-of compilation and numerous singles.
Some of Five for Fighting’s first shows were in Sacramento with Ondrasik on piano and guitar, supported by guitar, bass and drums. And his fan base grew as his albums “American Town” (2000) and “Battle for Everything” (2004) went platinum, and singles such as the Grammy-nominated “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” (2001), “100 Years” (2003), and “The Riddle” (2006) climbed the Adult Top 40 and Adult Contemporary charts.
The first time Ondrasik appears locally will be Friday, March 17, at the Crest Theatre featuring a string quartet. With Dave Eggar on cello, Katie Kresek and Melissa Tong on violins, and Christopher Cardona on viola, Ondrasik will cover material as far back as “Message to Alberta.”
“It’s different than the band show,” Ondrasik said recently. “It allows me to pull songs out of my catalogue that I would never do with a band. (It’s) just kind of been a rebirth for me, at least in my live performance. I play my latest song, ‘Born to Win,’ the song that I just wrote last year. Sirius (Radio) is playing ‘Born to Win.’ So it allows me to continue to put out songs and play them in forums that are exciting to me.”
“When you play with strings, it’s much more intimate,” said Ondrasik. “It’s frankly much more musical. That doesn’t mean we can’t go a little crazy. There’s moments of rock and roll within our string set. And I walk off stage and let (the strings) do their thing. And they kind of go crazy and really show the audience their talents, which is my favorite part of the evening.”
The strings are new, but Ondrasik’s voice is still readily identifiable. “I sing in the high falsetto range kind of based on my favorite singers like Freddie Mercury and Steve Perry and those kind of singers that I grew up on,” said Ondrasik, 52. “It’s 15 years of voice lessons. And it’s developing a voice over time. I love Steve Perry’s voice, so I found his voice teacher, but earlier in my vocal training I sang opera for two years and developed my voice classically.”
Five for Fighting’s last album, “Bookmarks,” dropped in 2013, and Ondrasik has cut back on touring but is not dormant. He’s busy with family life in Thousand Oaks, which has inspired many tunes. He’s involved in the family wiring manufacturing business. (“If you shop at Costco, you know our shopping cart,” Ondrasik said.) He’s a popular keynote speaker-performer. He’s exploring Broadway musical projects and sold a TV show for which he’ll write songs.
Ondrasik has a relentless work ethic. He was “discovered” by his wife, who worked in music publishing, at a pay-to-play piano bar-coffee house. He has soared onto and fallen off of the commercial radar. He temporarily quit touring after the 2004 murder of their house sitter. And he performed “Superman,” his song about heroes and our common humanity, which was reinterpreted as an unofficial post-9/11 anthem, at The Concert for New York City.
“You work for 20 years to become an overnight success and have ‘Superman,’ and all of a sudden, you’re a one-hit wonder,” Ondrasik said. “How do you follow that up? And then ‘100 Years’ is a hit, but then ‘World’ is not. And then you are on the road and so focused on chart position and ticket sales and album sales. And your whole life seems to revolve around these numbers and ego and celebrity things.
“Then you come home, and your kids are 2 years old and look at you and don’t know if your song is a hit or a flop or you were embarrassed on ‘The Tonight Show’ or killed it. The dog jumps on your lap. And your wife keeps an even keel. It balances everything out. And you realize that a lot of these things you think are big problems are kind of small things.”