Bio Writer: "Do you feel pressured to follow up 'Superman' with your new record?"
John Ondrasik/Five For Fighting: "Actually, it's the opposite. 'Superman' gave me a free shot, and I'm taking it."
That, in a nutshell, is The Battle For Everything, the follow-up to Five For Fighting's second album, the smash America Town. It's also a finger in the eye of all who can't see the forest for that one huge tree "Superman" that fills the foreground. Even more, it's proof that Ondrasik is a singer/songwriter with real staying power.
The evidence is all over Everything. There's "100 Years," the first single, a meditation on the poetry of time passing. But then there's "The Taste," whose delicate opening gets pulverized by slashing electric guitar and a raw, screaming vocal. A crocodile sings on "Disneyland," loss and hope hover in the haunted melody of "If God Made You," Heaven itself crashes and burns on "Infidel," and, on tunes like "The Devil in the Wishing Well" and "Nobody," turbulent lyrics and ambitious compositional structures unleashed panic back at the record label for a minute, at least.
In fact, Ondrasik is a more contradictory figure than most who've made it as far as he has in this business. He's a crotchety romantic who lives on a volatile blend of irreverence and idealism. He's a headliner who knows how to tear it up onstage ("The concert was more than just good music, it was a total crowd experience," raved one reviewer after a recent college show) and a UCLA math grad who still works when he's in town at his dad's office. His head is in the nimbus of stage lights, but his feet are planted on ground that feels familiar to us all. Which explains Everything except for one thing: How did Ondrasik bring the disparate pieces of his world together long enough to cut this album? Answer: He disappeared.
"I'm a regular guy," Ondrasik explains. "But sometimes taking out the trash and paying the bills isn't that conducive to writing."
And so, when the opportunity arose to take his family and disappear for ten full months up to the Northern California coast, write songs, seek inspiration in sunsets and sips of local Cabernet, and put together a new Five For Fighting album, he did exactly what you or I would hope to do . He rented a place near the bluffs of Mendocino, a short jog from the studio of producer Bill Bottrell (Sheryl Crow, Shelby Lynn). There, or with guitars in hand on the front porch, and in sessions that followed in New York and L.A. with Gregg Wattenberg (America Town) producing, he conceived and recorded a set of powerful new songs, tumbling with images born from daydreams and nightmares, watered by long streams of melody and lacerated by sharp, unforgettable hooks pictures even more vivid than those from America Town.
Yet the world has changed since that last album, as has Ondrasik, as have we all. "I didn't have kids when I was writing America Town," he says. "Also, traveling the world and meeting people in the military after September 11 put a different focus into my brain. And after spending twenty years trying to be heard and finally getting that chance, my challenges come from a different place."
As a result, The Battle For Everything is a bristling mix of contemporary emotions and classic techniques. It affirms the importance of context as well as song, so that piano-driven rock, acoustic guitar pieces, ambitious structures and concise musical packages, join into one listening experience. "When I was a kid I could put on Dark Side of the Moon, turn up the sound in my headphones, lie down in the dark, and go away," Ondrasik remembers. "I wanted that experience again, and so Bill and I were ambitious to the point of absurdity. If we wanted drama, we'd get a thirty-piece orchestra. If we wanted a rock edge, we went after it with reckless abandonment. It was like doing my own private Quadrophenia."
One question remains: Why this title? "Because it is," he replies. "Considering that nothing in the making of this record came easy including concern over the title itself in the end it was appropriate." Or, if you prefer it in song, skip ahead to the last track, crank it up, and listen. You'll find your answer, and the essence of Five For Fighting, there
From "Nobody": "Though endings are never ever happy, it's the happy moments along the way that in the end make it okay."