John Ondrasik, who is the popular music act Five For Fighting, grew up in the San Fernando Valley but moved his family to the Conejo Valley 13 years ago.
“I just kind of fell in love with it,” the Grammy-nominated artist told the Guardian. “Westlake Hills Elementary was a good school, and we caught a good break so we could get a house where I could put my studio. So it all worked out. We love everything about Thousand Oaks — the restaurants, the people, the park, the hiking in the hills and all that.”
On September 7 and 8, Ondrasik, who just came off a summer tour with the Barenaked Ladies, where they played for 7,000 people a night, will bring his popular string quartet show to the Scherr Forum (Bank of America Performing Arts Center) in Thousand Oaks.
Five For Fighting has released six studio albums, two certified platinum. Ondrasik’s hits include “Superman (It’s Not Easy),” “100 Years,” “The Riddle,” “Chances,” “World” and “Easy Tonight,” and he is one of the top adult contemporary artists for the 2000s. This is the eighth year of string quartet shows, and for many in his audience, it’s their favorite way to experience his songs.
The quartet shows started after Ondrasik performed his own music with a symphony, highlighting the sophisticated arrangements of his songs. He wanted to present that music in smaller venues around the country.
“We reduced the arrangements to string quartet,” he says. “It’s fun to do this intimate show that’s part storytelling and adds a dynamic to the songs people know and allows me to pull songs from the catalog that I wouldn’t really do with a rock band.”
“I am able to go behind the music, tell some stories and talk about the songs,” Ondrasik says. “The quartet alone is so amazing every night to listen to. Halfway through the show, I walk offstage and let them do their thing for ten minutes. That alone, to me, is worth the price of admission.”
Ondrasik plays piano accompanied by Tony Award-winning concertmaster and co-orchestrator of Moulin Rouge! The Musical, Katie Kresek on violin; Grammy-nominated violinist Jeremy Kittle; Broadway’s Chris Cardona on viola; and Peter Sachon on cello.
“It’s an amazing group of players and really perfect for the room there at the Civic Center because that room is big enough where you have 500 people but is intimate enough where you have the pin-drop listening experience,” Ondrasik says.
The Thousand Oaks shows also will be special “because it’s basically where I live,” he says.
Ondrasik has long used his music and celebrity to support U.S. troops.
He performed “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” at the 2001 Concert for New York, a benefit show at Madison Square Garden that honored first responders and the fallen about a month after the September 11 attacks. Ondrasik performed alongside Paul McCartney, The Who, Elton John and Billy Joel.
“During the Iraq War, I started getting many emails from troops who used my songs in their wellness in many different ways — to escape, to pump themselves up, to calm down. I saw firsthand how much music mattered to our troops,” he told the Guardian. “I would get firsthand accounts of what was going on with that war, which was not what we were hearing on the news, so I made many relationships there.”
Ondrasik has since given countless performances for the USO and has participated in keynote speaking engagements across the globe. More than one million copies of his compilation, “CD for the Troops,” have been distributed to soldiers worldwide. Fifteen years ago, he started partnering with actor Gary Sinise to do shows for troops and also became an ambassador for Sinise’s foundation.
“Gary is the Bob Hope of our generation,” Ondrasik says. “He’s my best friend, and we have this passion for our troops. With this foundation, we’re expanding it to first responders.”
After Borderline, Ondrasik performed a memorial show in Thousand Oaks with friend and local resident Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon. He also has spent a lot of time with Ventura County sheriffs and has many friends in the department, including former chief Don Aguilar, with whom he attends Kings games.
“I’ve really connected with the local law enforcement in our community and have great respect for them,” Ondrasik says. “There will be some first responders at our show. We have ten tickets we’re giving away to Ventura firefighters and Ventura police to recognize them. It’s really been the honor of my career to support those who keep us free and safe, and working with Gary is quite the blast, too.”
In recent years, Ondrasik wrote a song called “Blood on My Hands” about the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan; it became an unofficial anthem for Afghan vets ashamed of the abandonment of their allies and American citizens.
“I’ve been doing [work with soldiers] for a long time, but it really entrenched me in the special forces community, which is a very unique world,” Ondrasik says.
He recently traveled to Kyiv to film a music video of his new song “Can One Man Save the World?” with a Ukrainian orchestra. The video debuted on Good Morning America. Ondrasik will play a special arrangement he wrote with Katie Kresek at the string quartet shows.
“Hopefully, I’ll go back when this war’s over and play this song in a free Ukraine and recognize their sacrifice,” he says.
Delayed Success — and Advice for the Young
When asked what kind of advice he would give to local young people just starting out in their careers, Ondrasik recalls how he scored his first hit in his mid-30s — a self-described “15-year overnight success story.” Passed on by every record company and publishing company, he persevered through rejection — and counsels young people in Thousand Oaks and beyond to do the same.
“The arts are not a meritocracy. The arts are not sports,” he says. “In sports, if you’re Michael Jordan, you’re gonna play. If you’re Leonard Cohen, you maybe never make a penny at music. Music has to be your passion. Talent is nice, but it’s certainly not going to be the defining factor in your success. I wrote thousands of songs before ‘Superman,’ and a hundred songs to get ten on a record.”
Even then, radio didn’t want “Superman,” and his record company didn’t want to release it because “it was different,” as Ondrasik puts it. But two radio programmers — one of whom lived in Westlake — believed in the song and kept pushing it until it grabbed national attention.
Eventual success was the fruit of good relationships and working the business side, he says.
“Be humble. Forge relationships. Network. Work hard,” he says. “With songwriters and artists, I always say, collaborate. Work with a lot of people. Write a lot of songs. Paint a lot of paintings. Write a lot of short stories. Record them. Listen back to them so you can have that perspective.”
He also encourages young musicians and artists to use social media and technological tools to do what only large companies could in the past.
“You can build a career without a record company,” he says. “You can make a record on your laptop. You can make a video on your laptop, so take advantage of all these artistic resources.”
Mostly, he says, “Just enjoy it.”
“Too many young kids think they need to be superstars by the time they’re 22, and they start panicking,” he says. “Love the arts whether or not you make a career out of it, just because it’s part of your life, your wellness and your passion. That’s what it’s all about. Don’t lose the joy. Understand that there’s always going to be some barricades in front of you, and failure is many times the key to success. And if you’re fortunate enough to have success, that can bring some challenges as well.”
After the Thousand Oaks shows, his string quartet will appear at the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center on September 9. In all the shows, “You’ll certainly hear ‘100 Years,’ ‘Superman,’ ‘Chances,’ and ‘The Riddle,’ the songs that people know. You’ll always hear a song we do for our troops.”
He also promises “some surprises that we’ve never done before that I think people are really going to enjoy, that take a little departure from some of my songs.”
“I’ll always add a song I’ve never done before on a quartet tour. We arrange it for a quartet, so even if you come see the show ten times, you’re not going to see the same regurgitated show. There’s always something new, always something we’re experimenting with. … It’s always very intimate and fun, and you never know what’s going to happen. People bring their kids and their grandparents, so we always look forward to it.”
For more information, visit bapacthousandoaks.com.