John Ondrasik, aka Five for Fighting, released his hit song, “100 Years,” on November 24th, 2003. The track, which followed the artist’s 2001 mega hit, “Superman (It’s Not Easy),” solidified Five for Fighting in the American cannon. The track, which follows the course of a life from birth to old age, hit number-28 on the Billboard charts and has since earned U.S. platinum-status. “100 Years,” which boasts some 50-million YouTube views to date, came as the result of a great deal of work and craft for Ondrasik. We caught up with the songwriter and asked him about the song’s origin, how he became so skilled on the piano, what he loves most about the song when considering it today and much more.
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How did you become so skilled at playing the piano in all of its regal nobility?
My mom started me early as a little kid. I played recitals and I loved The Beatles, I had The Beatles songbook. I also played a bunch of Broadway – Godspell songbook was on my piano. Burt Bacharach, all that stuff. I would play the contemporary hits. I loved piano. Then, you know, in high school, you’d go to parties and you’d sit down and play “Somebody To Love” from Queen or a Journey song and all of a sudden the girls who wouldn’t talk to you actually talked to you. So, I was used to doing that. And guitar, too. I’m certainly not a great guitar player but I’ve always – piano has always been part of me. I banged it at 2 in the morning last night to relieve my stress. It’s a tool for songwriting. But I’ve always been kind of comfortable and after you play 1,000 shows you kind of learn how to do that, too.
What inspired the through-life theme for you in particular on “100 Years”?
Pretty much every song’s been written, it’s just how do you say it in a different way. After “Superman” – I tend to be one of those people who’s always competitive, always pushing the goal posts. And I think having children actually was very helpful in the basis for that song. When you have kids and they’re sitting on your lap, you can’t help but be in the moment. All the outside stuff that seems to matter kind of takes a backseat to that. I remember, you know, sitting with my kid, two- or three-years-old, and trying to find a song. How do you follow “Superman” after that? I wrote a bunch of “Superman” sequels but, as we know, sequels are rarely as good as the original. So, I was sitting with the kid and I kept having to tell myself, “Hey man, appreciate the moment. Sometimes it’s not great but appreciate the moment.”
A lot of these songs, they’re little post-it notes to myself. Even “Superman” in a way and “The Riddle” and “Chances.” And “100 Years” was a little post-it note saying, “Dude, just chill and appreciate the moment, recognize the moment.” Once I had the lyric, “There’s never a wish better than this,” and I had the piano theme, I had this concept of let’s let this song be a lifetime. Let’s have each verse be the stages of our lives, let’s move through the song. “100 Years” is different than “Superman” in that, for me, it’s always relevant because I’m always somewhere in the song. I wrote it when I was the beginning of the second verse, now I’m in the bridge, you know? Pretty soon I’ll be in the vamp.
So, when I sing that song, it is a song I could write today – or at least I could conceptually think of today. That’s been kind of cool, growing up with that song. There’s a place for everyone in that song, which is why I think folks relate to it so much. Now, this song did not come in 45-minutes, as I said. I spent three or four months writing 30 or 40 different verses. I rearranged the thing in probably a dozen permutations to get it right. We did, you know, 30 different demos, tempo-mapping the whole thing. It was really much more structured and concise and took a lot more effort, which is more typical for me for songs. Especially songs you think may be, like, a single or a song you want to take to the masses. You have to be much more myopic and microscopic and really go to every detail to get it right. Luckily, that song secured myself as a non-one-hit-wonder! That was nice!
Though there was so much work put into it, the song is so pleasant and clean and bright. Can you talk about how you achieved that sonic crispness?
It’s like all songwriters know, you explore many different keys, you explore many different tempos. “100 Years” is really long. It’s, like, four minutes long, which is really long for a song that’s on the radio. But I think we needed to tell the story. We could spend an hour talking about this, but finding the right drum pattern, the exact perfect piano part and then the vocal. The vocal is key. And mixing it. Everything – you know, you miss on one thing, the whole house of cards can collapse. But we had a sense, you know? I spent two years trying to write the follow-up to “Superman” and I knew it had to be a song that was the same guy but it couldn’t just be “Superman” regurgitated. And that took a long time.
I think a lot of bands or songwriters who have a hit song, the tendency is to try and write that song again. I knew that was the kiss of death. But there was a lot of pressure, though. Especially with what “Superman” became. No other song could do that. But you want a song that, if “Superman” never existed, could maybe stand on its own and raise your hand as a songwriter. So, it took a long time. Again, I’m grateful that the masses picked that song up and embraced it. Even to this day – I look at that as more of a song of mine than “Superman.” Because “Superman” came so fast. With “100 Years,” there was a lot of sweat and tears and work to get it to work. Songs are strange and how they come is strange. You start with a blank canvas and you end up with that thing and everything in between is kind of a miracle when it works.
This might be a stretch but do you ever think about how that song was numerically oriented and you have a degree in mathematics?
Well, some people think I used numbers from my favorite sports players, which we’ve actually made videos – of course, 99 being Gretzky and 33 is Kareem. But, to be honest with you, I just picked numbers that sang well. You know, 15 had a ring to it. But 17 has three syllables. So, I tried different numbers, thinking, “What sings well? What flows?” So much of lyrics is in the consonants. It helps when you’re a singer because you can see what rolls off the tongue good and what flows. So, most of the numbers I picked just because they sang well and they stood out properly. We basically jumped 10 years every verse. So, it had to get to 99 before too long!
What do you love most about “100 Years” when you think about it now?
I love that “100 Years” is kind of in many people’s video catalogue of their lives. I’ve seen so many birthday parties, marriages, graduations, even funerals – that song is kind of part of America’s home movie catalogue. That, to me, is just amazing and wonderful and I always get a smile when somebody sends me one like, “Here’s our anniversary” or “Here’s our wedding” or “Here’s our first child.” Like, “Now I’m 33 for a moment with a family.” To me, that’s a gift.