John Ondrasik Goes Behind the Song On Five for Fighting Smash, “Superman”

In April of 2001, songwriter, John Ondrasik (aka Five for Fighting), released the now-U.S. Gold-certified song, “Superman (It’s Not Easy).” The song, which peaked at No. 14 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, saw regular rotation on pop radio stations and MTV, alike.

But the track had a second life after the tragic 9/11 attacks when it became an anthem of healing throughout the nation’s recovery. “Superman” played to honor first responders, firefighters, police and many more for seemingly moths on end. We caught up with the author of that seminal song to ask Ondrasik about he first came to music and songwriting, how he wrote the track (and how long it shockingly took him!), what impact the song had on his career and much more.

How did you come to music as a young person? I believe you were born in Los Angeles to a musical family, but how did music really enter your world then?

My mom was a piano teacher, so I grew up with the piano and she started me very young at about three-years-old, just kind of playing. That gave me the fundamentals and then she sent me to someone else to take lessons from because it’s hard to teach your kid. But she was wise. When I was 13 and 14, or so, and wanted to do other things, she let me quit. But by then I’d had the fundamentals. My sister got a guitar for her 15th birthday and so I picked that thing up. I just had a love for writing songs. I probably wrote my first song at 15-years-old and conned my dad to buying me a reel-to-reel Tascam 38 half-inch tape recorder and started making little demos in my room. I just fell in love with songwriting. It was my passion. I’ve been very blessed to be able to make a living at it.

At the time, were you writing songs thinking it could be a career or were you mostly digging in because it was fun? Perhaps a balance of both?

I really wanted to do it. Especially in high school. I had an English teacher who was a bass player and we would dissect Steely Dan lyrics. So, I really wanted to do it. I knew the odds were long so I made sure I had some plan-B’s. But every free moment I had through my late teens and 20s, I was recording or writing or singing or doing something. It really was my passion. My career is kind of a fluke. “Superman,” I was, jeez, let’s see, I was in my early 30s when that song hit, which is unheard of to have somebody have their first hit that old. So, it was kind of a miracle. But I guess it’s an example of perseverance. Sometimes when you persevere, the stars alight.

What was the first draft like for “Superman,” and how did you refine the song?

You know, it sounds crazy and it doesn’t happen often, but I literally wrote “Superman,” with the exception of doubling up the second pre-hook, I wrote the whole thing in less than an hour.

Wow!

It was a fluke. I wish I could say that about other songs but it doesn’t happen – I kind of look at it as a gift. But, yeah, I sat down like I’ve sat down 1,000 other times and that song came very quickly. Initially, I didn’t even think it was for me. I kind of fancy myself as a rocker and a rock guy and here was this ballad. I thought it was a nice song, but my producer when we were making America Town kept saying, “We have to record ‘Superman.’” To my ever-lasting gratitude, I took him up on it!

So, the song came out after just a few chords, the lyrics just tumbled out?

Yeah, it kind of came that way. You know, I’m an advocate of writing a lot of songs. I’m not a prodigy songwriter so, to me, the more times you take a swing, the more chances you have to connect. So, during my 20s, I’d write 150-200 songs a year. Now I wouldn’t necessarily demo them all up. But I’d at least start them, I’d get a sense of what they were and I’d put them in the catalogue. I think with my development as a songwriter, that was crucial. And I was writing all different kinds of genres, too – pop, rock, even a little R&B, even a little country. So, for me, it sounds kind of impressive. Yeah, I wrote “Superman” in an hour. But if you look at the thousands of songs before that most of them were really bad and then tens-of-thousands-of-hours just writing songs, you know, you have to factor that in, too. That didn’t happen, say, with the song, “100 Years.” Certainly, that song didn’t come in an hour. It came in four months and 150 lines to get the 30 that you hear. That’s more typical for me.

You can look at it either like “Superman” took an hour to write or your whole life to write.

Yeah, it’s true. It takes your whole life to get there, to have the confidence and to be comfortable with something so simple. “Superman” is such a simple song and sometimes it’s hard – the best songs sound very simple but they’re not that easy to write. But to have the confidence to do something simple and sweet and you have the concept, that takes a certain maturity as a songwriter. You have to write – at least, for me – a lot of songs to be able to get to that space.

Totally. And to have that experience to know when to let something go, as well. If you thought “Superman” was simple, you also had to be able to let it live on its own and not tamper with it, if that makes sense.

Yeah, that’s true. That’s, to me, one of the hardest things of putting on the editor hat or the critic hat, as well as the creative hat. And when do you stop? We’re not going to talk about “The Riddle” today but that was one of my other songs that was popular. That song I basically worked on for a year. And I still don’t think I really got it right. But at some point you have to throw in the towel. But yeah knowing when to stop or when it’s not right, when to go back to the drawing board – that’s a skill. Sometimes you have people around you that you trust that can give you insight. But at the end of the day, it’s your song. Knowing when to let it be and knowing when to keep grinding, that’s part of crafting songs.

How did the song go from that initial one-hour draft to MTV and to becoming such an important song post-9/11?

Again, so much of this is just fate and luck. “Superman” was not the first single of America Town. It was a song called, “Easy Tonight.” It was a number-one AAA song but it didn’t sell any records. So, I think we only sold, like, 10,000 records. “Easy Tonight” was just successful enough to get another shot, to get another single. And I remember the record company saying, “Alright, we’ll give you one more. But that’s basically it. If it’s not a hit, you’re done!” So, I had to think about, “If there’s one song I’m going to go down in flames on, what will that be?” They warned me like, “Superman is a nice song” but this was, you know, the 2000s, late 90s and there was no piano on the radio. Billie and Elton weren’t on pop radio anymore. It was grunge, Lilith Fair, boy bands. And I said, “If I’m going to go down, I’m going to go down with ‘Superman’.” Initially, radio was very skeptical saying it was too slow, had piano, too sentimental and they didn’t really want to play it. I had a few champions but we pretty much got to the point where the song was over. It just was one of those things where it started to work on a couple stations and then because it was different, it became a hit song. And after 9/11 it took another – I don’t even know what the word is, 20 years later I’m still trying to come up with that. Yeah, a certain stature within the country. But the weirdest thing was – I remember when “Superman” was struggling with radio, I got a call and they said, “Your song ‘Superman’ is number-one in Singapore!” And then it’s number-one in the Philippines. So, we got the sense that the song could be a big song because in some of these countries, it was the number-one song! So, it gave us a little confidence to just stay with it. But it was a long road. I think one reason why it really became a standard was, at the time, there was nothing like it on the radio. It was different. Then all of a sudden the piano started coming back, not necessarily just because of my song. But certainly 9/11 and it being one of the songs that paid tribute to the fire fighters and the concert for New York and all that stuff entrenched “Superman” in a way that no singer-songwriter could ever imagine. And I’m glad that song was there, I’m glad other songs like that were there. But, yeah, it’s wild and crazy.

Did the song evolve in your own mind over the years or did you hear from fans along the way who expressed how the song meant something to them in various ways?

Oh, yeah! I mean, that’s one of the wonderful things about having a song that makes a difference in people’s lives. The thing about music, too, is that people take songs and make them their own and they apply them to their lives and how they need them or want them – just like I do with my favorite songs. “Superman” has been used in so many causes for autism, children’s charities. The interesting thing about “Superman” – this is a funny story – is once it became a popular song, the record company called me and said, “Something very weird is happening with the record.” And I’m like, “What do you mean?” They said, “Old people are buying your record.” And I’m like, “What do you mean old people are buying the record?” They’re like, “Yeah, people in their 30s and 40s are buying your record.” Which is funny now because I’m 55. We’re all ancient. But what they meant was teenagers buy records, that’s who drives records. But why were adults buying my record? I’ve kind of found out over the last 20 years doing keynotes or concerts or meet-and-greets, so many adults really related to “Superman” because people that are basically responsible for families understand that it’s hard to be the rock all the time. You can’t be everything for everybody. You can’t be superman for everyone. I think it had a unique resonance with adults – and kids liked it to – that maybe other pop songs didn’t. I think that’s one reason why it had a certain place and probably why it’s still relevant in a certain way today.

When you think about “Superman” now, is there something that you especially love most about the song?

I just look at it as a gift. I don’t even feel like I wrote the song anymore. Because it came so fast and I didn’t spend those months pulling my hair our to get it right, I just look at it as a gift. The fact that it really shouldn’t have happened and I barely got a chance to get it out there and when it did – so many stars have to align for that song to reach people. As a songwriter, all you want is one thing: you want an opportunity to be heard. If people like you, great. If they don’t like you, great. But you just want a chance to be heard. And I’m so grateful that I had that chance to be heard with that song. It will always be my first born [Laughs]. I couldn’t write it today, to be honest with you. It’s not a song I could write today because the “it’s not easy to be me,” when you’re struggling in your late 20s and you feel the world’s against you and nobody will listen to you, you can write that song. But through “Superman,” I’ve met people with real challenges – our troops, ALS patients, autistic kids. It’s really kind of humbled me. I couldn’t write “Superman” today. I’ve found it’s actually pretty easy to be me but I’m glad the song is there for the world. It really, to me, is not even my song anymore. It’s for those who’ve embraced it.

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