John Ondrasik Discusses His Five For Fighting Songs, And Launches “Music Matters Challenge” To Help School Music Programs

John Ondrasik of Five for Fighting
John Ondrasik of Five for Fighting
(photo credit: Nikolai Puc)

For over two decades, John Ondrasik has been known as an acclaimed singer/songwriter who records and performs with the band name, Five for Fighting. He has recorded six studio albums, two which have been certified platinum (America Town in 2000 and The Battle for Everything in 2004). He has also received a Grammy nomination for his hit, “Superman (It’s Not Easy), and he’s had other memorable hits such as “100 Years” and “The Riddle.”

In recent years, Ondrasik continues to successfully tour as Five for Fighting, with two different lineups. He goes on tour with his rock band, and with a string quartet. In addition, he has recently written and released two notable singles. In 2022, he released the uplifting song, “Can One Man Save The World,” which is a tribute to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, and it honors Ukraine’s fight against Russia. Ondrasik flew to Ukraine and performed this song with the Ukrainian Orchestra.

Here’s an excerpt of our interview with John Ondrasik of Five for Fighting, who discusses his recent song “Can One Man Save The World,” which pays tribute to Ukraine and President Zelensky.


Ondrasik’s latest single is called “OK,” which he wrote in the aftermath of Hamas’ brutal attack of Israel. This song not only speaks out about Israel and the Gaza crisis, but of the anti-semitism and radicalism that has emerged.

In addition to his music releases and touring, Ondrasik has contributed to several causes that he cares about. Currently, he is promoting greater music education in schools, and has raised money to hire music teachers for schools that otherwise would not have a music budget.

Ondrasik is partnering with The Tullman Family Office (a philanthropic organization) for the “Music Matters Challenge,” which launched on March 26. Coinciding with Music In Our Schools Month,” the national online music challenge will help raise awareness and dedicate resources for music programs in the nation’s underserved schools.

Here’s a video of John Ondrasik explaining his “Let Music Fill The
World” project, which is to raise money for music education.

Ondrasik created the challenge with Cayley Tullman of the Tullman Family Office, after Ondrasik, Tullman, and a group of eight students participated in weekly after-school workshops to compose an original song, “Let Music Fill My World,” which expressed why music mattered in their lives. The students wrote all of the lyrics in the song and had the opportunity to professionally record their song and create a music video with the help of industry music producers. As a part of this effort, the Tullman Family Office fully funded a full-time music teacher for the students at Chicago’s Farragut Career Academy, which propelled the idea to create the “Music Matters Challenge.”

We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with John Ondrasik. He talks about his excellent career as Five for Fighting, how he wrote his hit songs, and the “Music Matters Challenge.”

DK:  You are partnering with The Tullman Family Office for the “Music Matters Challenge.” Can you talk about this project?

John Ondrasik: Basically, it goes all the way back to my mom. When L.A. Unified (Los Angeles public school system) cut funding for music teachers when I was in elementary school, my mom volunteered. She started putting on full musicals in our elementary school. I actually played Tony in West Side Story in sixth grade. It was great, and 50 years later those kids still call my mom and talk about what a transformative experience it was.

Music in the schools has always mattered me, and about a year-and-a-half ago, I partnered with the Tullman Foundation to write a song with some kids in Farragut Academy (an inner city school in Chicago) who had lost their music teacher. We wrote a song called “Let Music Fill My World”—the kids wrote the lyrics and we recorded it in the studio. And through that effort, we raised a quarter million dollars to fund a music teacher for that school. And so the “Music Matters Challenge” is a way to get that nationally, to bring attention to music in the schools, and provide another music teacher for a school in need.

Here’s the video of Five for Fighting’s song “Can One Man
Save The World,” with the Ukrainian Orchestra.

It’s like the ice bucket challenge for music, where people can upload a video, tell a story about a music teacher that made a difference in their life, sing a little bit of “Let Music Fill My World,” and enter the contest. The winner will win a prize of $10,000 [and help] provide a music teacher for a school in need, up to $300,000 for three years. We also have a school prize, where schools can compete against each other, and they can win a $25,000 grant.

Really what it is, is we want to raise awareness nationally for the four million kids who do not have a music teacher in their school.

DK: Your most recent single is called “OK,” which has a strong message about what’s going on in the world. What inspired you to write this song?

Ondrasik: Over the last few years, I’ve written some songs that I wish I never had to write. As songwriters, we usually write songs about things that are happening in our lives, or songs that hopefully people will listen to and sing back to us. And the last few years, I’ve written songs about events. The first was called “Blood on My Hands,” about the Afghan withdrawal. The other was called “Can One Man Save The World” which was about Ukraine.

The “OK“ song came out of the aftermath of October 7, the Hamas atrocities, and the moral decline of many of our institutions, particularly on our universities, where you see the anti-semitism and radicalism…not just the students but the professors and the administrators. I actually spoke to 500 college kids from around the world a couple weeks ago, and the stories of the anti-semitism…it just breaks your heart that these kids are on the frontlines of this.

DK: I like your song, “Can One Man Save The World,” which was about President Volodymyr Zelensky and featured the Ukrainian Orchestra. Can you talk about writing this song?

Ondrasik: It was wild. I think what really struck me about Zelensky…in the first couple days of the war, we offered to send him a plane ticket. And he said, “You can keep your plane ticket; send me some Stinger missiles.” This was at a time when he knew he could be assassinated. I was inspired by that courageous act, so I wrote “Can One Man Save The World.” It was not just about him, but the fortitude of the Ukrainian people.

Here’s the video of Five for Fighting’s hit, “Superman (It’s Not Easy).”

Eventually, I had the opportunity to go to Ukraine, and go to a bombed-out airport in front of this symbol of Ukraine independence called the Mriya, which was the largest cargo airplane in the world. And in the beginning of the war, Putin blew it up. So you have this blown-up plane at this airport, and we were able to put the orchestra in front of this plane (for the video), to collaborate on “Can One Man Save The World.” It was a powerful experience. And I saw first-hand the fortitude of the Ukrainians, and I’ll always be grateful for that experience and going there.

DK: It’s been about 10 years since you released your last Five For Fighting album, Bookmarks. What projects have you’ve been working on since then?

Ondrasik: You know, I had such a wonderful run. I made six albums and I lived my childhood dream. After Bookmarks, I took a little break. I had things outside of music; we have a family business that I wanted to help my dad run, and there were charitable organizations I was working with. I’m also at this stage of my life where I’m not chasing radio, I’m not trying to have hit songs. I just write when something moves me, or when an opportunity comes around. I wrote a song for the 100th episode of Hawaii Five-0, which I loved called “All For One.” And I’d been doing songs for various films and television shows.

I do think about making another album. I think I’m ready to write some songs that are more optimistic, joyful, fun and kooky like I used to.

DK: I want to ask you about some of your earlier hits. First, can you tell the story of how you wrote “Superman (It’s Not Easy)”?

Ondrasik: “Superman” was a gift. I had written thousands of songs, but that song came very quickly. From beginning to end, I wrote it in less than an hour. It’s never happened since, but it was about the frustration that many songwriters feel, about the desire to be heard and the frustrations of the music business, and all that goes into being a struggling artist. I probably couldn’t write the song now, but to see how it resonated for so many people still to this day. As a songwriter, there’s nothing better when your music provides something that makes people’s lives maybe a little bit better.

Here’s the video of Five for Fighting’s hit, “100 Years.”

DK: One of my favorite songs of yours is “The Riddle,” which has a beautiful melody and feels good to listen to. Can you talk about writing this song?

Ondrasik: “The Riddle” actually started on guitar, and then I took it to the piano. You probably don’t write that song without having two little kids. It’s really about…there’s a reason for the world, and it’s us. It’s our relationships, our families, and our friends. That’s what give us joy, purpose and meaning. “Superman” was the shortest song for me to write, and “The Riddle” was the longest. I struggled with it. It took me almost a year to play with all the different arrangement permutations, to get the key right, and get the lyric right.

DK: One of your most popular songs is “100 Years.” What inspired you to write this song?

Ondrasik: It’s funny…when I wrote the song, I was in [the lyric of] the second verse. I was 33 with a family on my mind. Now I’m in the bridge; I’m in my late 50s. And soon I’ll be in the vamp (laughs), and I’ll move through the vamp. But the nice thing about that song is that we’re all in there somewhere.

When I was coming off “Superman,” I was really struggling, trying to find a song that could stand on its own weight, and not be a regurgitation of “Superman.” And it took me two years and I wrote over a hundred songs. Finally, when I had the idea of “100 Years,” certainly everybody knows the cliché—“Live in the moment, appreciate the moment.” And frankly, I was not very good at that. So in a way, “100 Years” was a post-it note to myself, to say, “Hey, we’d all like to push the goal posts, we dwell in the past. The moment is not always great but it’s what we have. Try to appreciate and recognize the moment.” So a lot of these songs are little reminders to myself, and maybe that’s why they resonate, because we all feel that sometimes. The moment is what we have, and we need to recognize that and appreciate what we have.

DK: This year, you’ll be playing many shows. Can you talk about your new shows and tour?

Ondrasik: The first run we’re doing, is going out with a string quartet. I love doing shows with the string quartet. They add a different dynamic to the songs. It’s very intimate…it’s a storytelling show. They’re all Broadway players—my violin player, Katie Kresek, just won a Tony Award. So they are worth the price of admission alone, and they blow me away every night. So it’s inspiring to play with them.

Here’s the video of Five for Fighting’s hit, “The Riddle.”

DK: Are most of your shows now with the string quartet, or is it shows with your regular band?

Ondrasik: I like mixing it up. I like doing a string quartet tour in the spring and the fall with smaller venues, and then during the summer going out with the rock band. Then you can play the big venues and rock out and have fun. They are both totally different experiences and they’re both wonderful. Also, it keeps things fresh. And sometimes, I’ll go out and do solo shows and keynotes. So doing all these different permutations keeps things new and fresh.

DK: Thank you John for doing this interview. Is there anything that we haven’t talked about yet, that you’d like to mention for this article?

Ondrasik: I’d just like to ask all my songwriter friends to participate in the “Music Matters Challenge.” It’s something that I think all songwriters can relate to. All you have to do is go to and follow the instructions. And I think songwriters and artists need to lead this effort, because we all have a story to tell and people listen to us and people hear our messages. So that would be the one ask I have for all the amazing songwriters on your platform.

Here’s the link to Five for Fighting’s site:

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima