If every album provides snapshots of where an artist’s mind at heart is at the moment, Slice, the latest offering from [lastfm]John Ondrasik[/lastfm] (aka [lastfm]Five for Fighting[/lastfm]), is a collection of digital jpegs and faded Polaroids. The album takes stories of friends, family and even American servicemen, and sets them to music shot through with the spirit of the great songs of his youth. It’s a diary, or a blog, in which Ondrasik speaks his mind about current issues, experiences and sentiments, while setting those thoughts to piano, bass and drums.
The title track and single, featuring Ondrasik’s soaring falsetto, comes from a daydream that we’ve all had at some point in our lives—that moment when we long for a simpler time when life seemed better and the songs were bigger. It’s a sly play on one of those grand songs, Don McClean’s “American Pie” – “There was a time a long, long time ago/Chevies and levies played on the radio/No cell phones just 20,000 lights, swaying on a Saturday night.”
Academy Award-winning composer Steven Schwartz (who penned the songs for acclaimed musicals such as Wicked, Godspell and Pippin), helped Ondrasik bring the idea to fruition, co-writing “Slice” (as well as the song “Above the Timberline”). “We sat down at a coffee shop to talk about writing together,” says Ondrasik, “I told him about my idea for ‘Slice’ and ‘American Pie’ actually came on the radio. It was surreal. Stephen immediately wrote the first two lines on a napkin, and we were off and running.”
“I’ve been a fan of Five for Fighting since I first heard ‘Superman’,” says Schwartz, “and then was blown away by ‘100 Years.’ I got the full CDs and was really impressed by John Ondrasik’s writing—great tunes and smart and surprising lyrics. So naturally I didn’t hesitate a moment when John asked me to co-write a couple of songs with him. It was, as I expected, great collaborating with him—experiencing first-hand his musicality and gift for melody, his incisive way with words, and the passion and care he puts into each of his songs.”
The celebrated, Southern California-born singer/songwriter’s fifth album under the Five for Fighting banner, Slice finds Ondrasik spreading his creative wings, ever so gently incorporating his love for classic R&B on songs like “Love Can’t Change the Weather” and even firing up a Marshall stack on “Transfer.”
“Chances” is a sweeping, grand pop song with a simple message: “Until you crash what have you done/Is there a better bet than love”. Says Ondrasik, “It’s all about taking the swing—there’s beauty in the scars.” This made the song a perfect fit for the film The Blind Side where it played out the ending credits.
Lyrically, he honors his family (“Story of Your Life” was written for his wife of 12 years), friends and personal heroes, from fitness pioneer Augie Nieto to American servicemen serving around the world. If it’s a tribute to a bygone era, Slice, the follow-up to 2006’s Two Lights, is also an accurate and well-rounded snapshot of who Ondrasik is at the moment, as an artist. Produced by Ondrasik and Gregg Wattenberg, and partially tracked at his Southern California home, the album features sweeping statement songs like the title track, but quiets on sparse ballads like “This Dance” and the ageless “Hope,” before ramping up again on tracks like “Note to the Unknown Soldier”.
It was of course his tender playing and touching vocal on the Grammy-nominated “Superman”—from the Five for Fighting album America Town (2000) —which thrust Ondrasik into the national spotlight nine years ago. While written and released well before 9/11, “Superman” has endeared Ondrasik to the survivors and families of those lost in that tragedy, as well as to servicemen serving around the world.
The events of 9/11 are at the core of the Slice song “Tuesday”, on which Ondrasik sings: “The thing about memories/They’re sure and bound to fade/Except for the stolen souls/Left upon her blade”. Ondrasik explains, “That song isn’t Superman part 2, there’s none of that in there. It’s much more of a plea for us to not forget the lessons we learned that day.”
Ondrasik’s relationship with those survivors and families has led to life-changing experiences and celebrated philanthropic work for the singer, who has since found performed USO concerts around the world. His audiences have included General David Petraeus and the National Guardsmen at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Ondrasik also conceived and produced For the Troops, a series of compilations featuring superstar recording artists that are available for free to every active service member in the U.S. Armed Forces (the forthcoming collection, For The Troops III, will feature comedians exclusively). Ondrasik’s charity work doesn’t stop there. His site whatkindofworlddoyouwant.com collects money for various charities.
The singer’s ongoing support of servicemen and women, and his dedication to his own wife and children, even led to him receiving a special fatherhood award from the National Fatherhood Initiative’s 2009 Military Fatherhood Award Ceremony. Married with a daughter and son, Ondrasik says it was actually his devotion to all three and his desire to stay home that is to blame for the new album taking a little longer than previous albums. That, and of course the fact that he fills his life with myriad projects, from writing a column for Sports Illustrated to co-writing with the likes of Brooks & Dunn, Josh Groban, and scoring music for such films as August Rush and Chicken Little.
It’s all a culmination of a life literally spent playing music. Born in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley and raised in a musical family, Ondrasik was just two when he started playing piano, later adding guitar. Yet it wasn’t for almost three decades (and four years after the release of the debut Five for Fighting album, Message for Albert), before he became a mainstream star via “Superman” from the critically lauded America Town album, which Ondrasik and company followed up in 2004 with The Battle for Everything, a springboard for the classic “100 Years.” Ondrasik’s songs “Superman,” “100 Years,” “World” and “Freedom Never Cries” continue to endure in America’s songbook proving Ondrasik’s ability to stand the musical test of time.
“Every round I try to write the best songs I can, and perhaps step out of the box a bit. To me, records are about offering my worldview while providing sentiments to which people may attach themselves or escape into. Slice is where I’ve come from, where I am, and a few scraps I’ve picked up in between. All in a slice of time.”
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