Ep 147: Why We Have Blood On Our Hands – John Ondrasik of Five for Fighting

Today, I have a very special guest, and fighter for freedom Grammy nominated musician John Ondrasik. John recently wrote and recorded a video for his smash hit “Blood on My Hands” highlighting the travesty still playing out in Afghanistan. John isn’t a political hack, or ultra-woke celebrity; he is a rational thinking human who loves his country. We dig deep into his song “Blood on My Hands,” which was originally banned on YouTube, and then from pressure from his fans and some 1st Amendment supporting politicians, it was re-instated. We also discuss how we have hope that there is still some fight left in this country, and we just need to keep fighting the good fight. We dig into what keeps him motivated, how his music career didn’t take off until much later in life, and why he has a Mathematics degree from UCLA. I promise you this is a great interview, and you will leave inspired and motivated by John.

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About John Ondrasik:

The only way for a story to progress is to turn the page. John Ondrasik— the songwriter and performer known as the platinum-selling, Grammy-nominated, Five For Fighting—knows this well. In the two decades since his first major single, “Superman (It’s Not Easy),” hit the stratosphere, the artist has both evolved and come back ‘round full circle. Creativity, if nothing else, is paradoxical.

To date, Five For Fighting, has released six studio LPs, including the platinum certified America Town and The Battle for Everything; and the top-10 charting Two Lights, along with an EP and live albums.

Ondrasik has penned major hits, including the chart-topping “100 Years,” “The Riddle,” “Chances,” “World,” and “Easy Tonight,” which have earned tens of millions of streams and place him as a top-10 Hot Adult Contemporary artist for the 2000s. The reflective “100 Years” has joined “Superman (It’s Not Easy)“ as part of the American Songbook and continues to stand the test of time at weddings, birthdays, graduations, memorials, and many a home video. Five For Fighting’s music has also been featured in more than 350 films, television shows, and commercials, including the Oscar-winning The Blind Side, Hawaii Five-O, The Sopranos and the CBS drama, Code Black.

Referencing Fight For Fighting’s success in the 2000s, AllMusic called Ondrasik “one of the decade’s leading balladeers.” But perhaps his biggest achievement is performing “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 tragic September 11th attacks. Ondrasik performed alongside other big-name artists like Paul McCartney, The Who, Elton John, Billy Joel, and dozens more.

Says Ondrasik, “It was a surreal experience. I was honored and blessed to pay tribute to the heroes who ran into those buildings at ground zero, and hopefully, through a song, provide a little solace to family members who’d lost loved ones.”

Now, though, what once was a dream is a reality. Buoyed by his unique falsetto voice and his prowess on the piano—a skill bestowed to him by his piano teacher mother—Ondrasik has made a solid reputation for himself in the world of songwriting and performance, selling upwards of three million albums over his career. Not only does he tour with his popular string quartet and play solo and rock band gigs, but he is also a high demand keynote speaker in which he combines themes of creativity and innovation with his business acumen.  Along with his father, he has managed the family business throughout his musical career.  As Ondrasik happily puts it, his company, Precision Wire Products, “makes the best shopping cart in the world!”

He’s presented at TEDx, The Salk Institute, American Cancer Society, and dozens more. Perhaps being the son of an astrophysicist dad and having a degree in mathematics from UCLA has something to do with it.

“Math was the Plan-B to get a real job when the music thing imploded,” says Ondrasik, with a chuckle.

But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t always a student at heart. As he wrote songs in his late teens and early 20s, the Los Angeles-born Ondrasik studied his favorite rock vocalists. Finding out that singers like Freddie Mercury and Steve Perry studied classical voice, he did too, even seeking out some of those icons’ former teachers. No stone unturned.

Most recently, his song with the biggest sticking power is the powerful, “Blood on My Hands,” a protest song that takes a non-political, moral stance against the 2021 United States chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

While he’s well-versed in politics, he isn’t of a bickering mindset. For Ondrasik, it’s about the conversation. “Blood on My Hands,” the track, accompanying acoustic version, and docu-music video, “Blood on My Hands (White House Version),” has had millions of streams to date (despite little-to-no radio play). Like other protest songs of the past— “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young or “The Times They Are a-Changin’” by Bob Dylan—Ondrasik aimed to point out a problem. While it’s critical of President Biden’s administration, he says that if a Republican were President, the song would remain the same, only the names would change.

Thanks to the song, Ondrasik is now working with evacuation groups that strive to help the American citizens left behind in Afghanistan by the U.S. government, as well as the Afghan people who remain there largely under the threat of terrorism. It’s a difficult, and at times a polarizing subject, but it’s one Ondrasik is not shying away from. Not because of any politics or partisan pats on the back, but simply because he knows it’s the right thing to do.

Ondrasik notes, “There has been a tradition of musicians speaking truth to power. In the current tribal culture, our freedom of expression has never been more critical.”

Throughout his multi-decade career, which began when music publisher Carla Berkowitz (now his wife of 25 years) discerned him in a dive bar, Ondrasik has been involved in multiple charity efforts. Along with supporting the troops via multiple USO tours, Ondrasik created “The CD For the Troops” project with song and comedy compilations featuring artists like Billy Joel, Melissa Ethridge, Chris Rock, and others, gifting more than one million CDs to veterans and military families. John has also been deeply involved with the ALS charity “Augie’s Quest.”

While he may not be as obsessive as he once was—writing upwards of dozens of songs per month, Ondrasik is more focused today. He knows who he is, as an artist and as a human being. His is a career molded by light and darkness. At one point, he’d been looked over by every publishing house and label out there. At another, he had one of the biggest songs in the world. Those extremes give a person perspective.

“I’ve been incredibly blessed,” he says. “I still pinch myself.”

As Five For Fighting, which is a professional hockey term designating a five-minute penalty for fisticuffs on the ice, Ondrasik has also developed a close relationship within the world of sports. He was a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated as well as for his beloved Los Angeles Kings. Five For Fighting was one of the first musical artists to perform on ESPN’s SportsCenter, and has played The Daytona 500, Monday Night Football, The Heritage Classic, the L.A. Kings outdoor hockey game, and more.

“Singing from home plate at Dodger stadium,” Ondrasik says, “where, as a five-year-old boy, my dad and I would catch bleacher bombs during batting practice—that was a dream.”

Today, Ondrasik spends his time writing music, touring, working at the family business, and enjoying life with his wife, two children, and dog Ender.

Through “What Kind of World Do You Want,” Ondrasik’s charity driven website – WhatKindofWorldDoYouWant.com – he is currently raising funds for Afghan evacuation organizations, refugees and veteran mental wellness charities. The singer also launched his new episodic web docu-series titled “Meet the Heroes,” which features Ondrasik interviewing heroic Americans who are involved in rescuing and evacuating American citizens, Afghan allies, and persons of high risk from Afghanistan.

What motivates him musically now? He wants to promote dialogue. He’s set to speak his mind. In song, with the piano.

Ondrasik doesn’t shy away from nuance. He embraces it and seeks it – just as he does the next chorus, the next verse. It’s what artists and freethinkers do, after all.

It’s his gift to share.

His decided obligation, too.

Topics Discussed:

  • What was the motivation/inspiration for John’s recent massive hit “Blood on My Hands”.
  • Why the song was originally banned on YouTube
  • How difficult was it to get permission to film the video for “Blood on My Hands” in front of the White House?
  • What has pushed John into being more vocal politically in recent years?
  • Is the music business just as woke as Hollywood today?
  • When did John first begin playing music and when did he decide he wanted to make it his career?
  • How surprised was John when his song “Superman” (It’s Not Easy) became a massive hit that took him from obscurity to superstar?
  • John tells a funny, but good story about my favorite band RUSH
  • John’s roots helping run his family’s business building shopping carts (he still helps run it even today).
  • Who is John’s music manager and how they first met.
  • How important it is to John for playing on USO tours and when he started doing them.
  • Why did John start his “What Kind of World Do You Want,” charity and what do they do?
  • How did John become involved in THE MIRACULOUS LOVE KIDS charity and what does it do?

Episode Resources:

Transcripts :

[Music]

with gary collins

your how-to guide for getting your [ __ ]

together

[Music]

[Applause]

[Music]

well thanks john for coming on i really

appreciate it you’ve been on ben stein a

couple times uh yeah i’m a big fan of

that show i’m on it

yes i know and they introduced

us and got us together and i wanted to

bring you on because uh i watched the

video uh blood on my hands the original

one you had a different version yeah

correct and i remembered that one

and then you kind of redid it and it’s

you did it from the white house and it

caused a [ __ ] storm

yeah and you got banned from youtube for

a while

or was it just a video did you did they

hit you as well

no it’s just the video as you said

initially when i wrote you know blood in

my hands to protest the withdrawal from

afghanistan we we just made a lyric

video you know we we weren’t planning on

doing a music video i had no idea what

the response would be it was just kind

of a burst of anger that i i put out

um but then over the next you know a few

months when i got such a response from

veterans and

and folks around the world who who felt

the song was recognizing you know their

anger their shame their suffering i

thought it important

that there was at least one piece of art

that documented the withdrawal you know

there’s been a great tradition in our

history of artists you know speaking to

power and documenting the times through

music

and i didn’t see any of that nobody else

was writing songs about you know the

women’s decimation in afghanistan

leaving our allies abandoning citizens

so i did i made a documentary and i

wanted to be um very respectful um

of the of the players and also

not be egregious i didn’t want you know

videos of president biden looking at his

watch and all that stuff i wanted to be

fair

so the first couple minutes were just

news clips wasn’t my voice news clips of

people telling the story how we got here

then as you said i performed in front of

the white house singing blood in my

hands

intermixed with taliban atrocities

and then at the end i actually had the

last word from an afghan vice president

saleh

uh who spoke about

america and what the abandonment of of

afghanistan and our allies

and our citizens that we promise protect

uh meant to the world and and so i

wanted an afghan to have the last

word

so we put it out and again it it it kind

of went viral and it was funny initially

youtube

put a child restriction warning on the

video

which i felt was appropriate i actually

the first thing i did was put a a a

graphic warning

um plank on on the front part of the

video because there were some horrible

atrocities you have to tell the story

you can’t talk about afghanistan without

talking what’s happening i mean you’ve

lived this for 20 years you’ve seen it

all well i love that you didn’t you did

not give in and i thought it was

incredibly important the visuals hit

home and i i want to thank you for that

because most people will not do that

well thank you i i again i wanted to be

honest and there’s there’s a lot of ugly

in it um

and you can’t it’s it’s a disservice to

the people suffering if you don’t show

what’s happening to them um so anyways

the you know youtube actually as i said

they put up a a graphic warning uh child

restriction which i appreciate it and

the video went out and

but only when senators started tweeting

the video and it went viral within the

country did all of a sudden they find uh

well we need to take this down

for a graphic warning that they’d

already warned about and of course you

know first thing i did was i googled

taliban atrocities i found

dozens of youtube videos that they were

monetizing uh with much worse atrocities

than mine and there was an outcry and

eventually they had to

apologize and put it back up with some

phony excuse and then they added another

warning so i think i have the world

guinness book of world records for

warnings on a music video i think

there’s three or four now there’s a lot

yeah but it was just it was just another

example of

you know censorship of one side it’s

hard to give them the benefit of the

doubt

and you know i’m fortunate enough to

have you know um folks that have

millions of followers that can pressure

them into that but what about you know i

think about all the all the artists who

who maybe speak a world view different

than the prevailing narrative that don’t

have that option that that are censored

so it’s a huge it’s you know it’s a huge

problem you know more to me more

chilling than than the youtube takedown

was the fact that

there was virtually no support for me

from my fellow musicians from the music

press from mainstream media i got more

inquiries from russia prontic propaganda

media to talk about free expression than

i did from the mainstream media so again

to me

that is very chilling when free speech

only applies to something that you agree

with um and that was the lesson i took

from that episode

well and it saddens me in a way because

you know i’m obviously a big proponent

of free speech yeah and

it’s sad in a way that no one came to

your defense and i’ve talked about that

there’s i won’t get into names but

there’s been recent people with big

names

who apologize and yeah and i go people

go why are you so wound around the axle

about that and i go

my problem is

they’re screwing the small guy because

we don’t have a voice right and when

they do that they basically protect

themselves and screw everyone else

because we don’t have any defense

mechanisms if they go out and fight like

you did and fight for

the word free speech for the individual

they’ll express yourself that protects

us all

you know and that’s where i get really

upset these people who have more money

than god they don’t need any more money

and they will cower in a heartbeat

you know it was i agree i have to give

one credit john rich did come out and

speak for me

there was one but you know the really

disturbing thing to me was even folks

who like to portray themselves as

patriots in country music and and maybe

say lean a little bit our way in our

world view

even some of them we reach out to said

you know um

sorry you know it’s a little too

controversial and i agree with you uh

you know when you let the bully win it

makes it harder for the next person

who’s bullied and uh and the fact that

you know

the the virtue signal signalers that you

know in the mainstream media and music

media who like to lecture us on how bad

we are and terrible we are

um you know when when they

uh are the suppressors themselves you

know the tolerance or the intolerant

that’s a scary place and i think you

know we’re seeing that in the culture in

so many ways but um no i agree with you

it’s uh it’s it’s a it’s a it’s a dark

time for free expression in this country

and if if we don’t speak up and take a

few hits for that in a way it’s our own

fault

well and that’s why i’ve always said the

the people who have the ability to fight

need to fight yeah uh once we lose that

we’ve lost period um

yeah i mean yeah and that the song

you like you said you didn’t care if if

uh you know trump did this you would

have

did the same thing with trump in it

yeah

you know you’re exactly right gary i

mean i think what what i i understood

because i’ve been through this a while

and let me qualify this too is you know

i’m blessed to be on the backside of my

career um i’ve had security so you know

it’s not like some brave dude like

risking it all for this song 30 years

ago when i put the song out i don’t know

because i had a mortgage and i had kids

and and i had to pay the rent um but but

that said you know

if donald trump was president i would

have written the same song only the

names have changed and all the people

shunning me would be waving the flag and

frankly many people applauding me would

be cursing me so you know in this tribal

world we live in

um i try not to get caught up in in the

praise or the hate on the show because i

understand everybody is so brainwashed

for their tribe that uh

you know if i put out uh a january six

song tomorrow you know all the haters

would you know have me on their playlist

and i probably have a seat on the view

so i you know if you kind of look at it

in in that narrative understand and just

kind of say what you believe

you know that’s all an artist can do

it’s just one man’s opinion um but you

know

i do i do

i lament the fact that there’s not more

songs about afghanistan there should be

there should be a live aid there should

be a sun city because it is a

generational humanitarian disaster that

we caused that were participated in um

and i’m not talking about the decision

to withdraw i’m talking about the

withdrawal itself they’re still

americans trapped they’re still our

allies trapped you worked in military

intelligence for you know for decades

you understand that you have a somebody

next to you um that maybe saved your

life or that that you fought with

and imagine abandoning that person to

terrorists and how the guilt and shame

that comes crashing down on our veterans

just today i read an article about

another afghan veteran who committed

suicide for our actions so um it’s

ongoing i know ukraine has the news but

uh it’s it’s a moral shame of our

generation and we can’t just sweep it

under the rug

well in the sad part is we haven’t done

it once we’ve done it twice we just did

it you know we’re doing it to ukraine

we we don’t even have the brunt of the

evacuation problem yet yeah we’re

getting there but you know and that’s

where i think a lot of us uh

who who love our country and for a guy

like me who served i i had foreign

nationals who

you know they did the bomb sweeping of

our vehicles overseas you know they were

they were intel analysts they worked

with us they went out in the streets

they were our guides

you know and they had families and these

people were killed all the time people

understand that the middle east

especially they would go target their

families all the time

and and leaving them uh to me i had some

problems i’ll be honest when i afterward

and judah knew it i i had friends in the

military we had a lot of problems for a

week or two after we just i shut down

yeah it hurts because we go these are

the people who helped defend us yeah and

not only that but we destroyed a country

and we didn’t have to

correct afghanistan doesn’t even exist

truly

by

government standards anymore we

literally wiped it off a political map

now it’s run by the taliban and groups

of isis or whoever now i mean you can

alphabet soup and terrorist nation it’s

there and we created this huge vacuum

and we’re doing it in the ukraine again

[Music]

so

[Music]

[Applause]

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2 thoughts on “Ep 147: Why We Have Blood On Our Hands – John Ondrasik of Five for Fighting”

  1. Loved this interview!! I’ve been a long time fan of Five For Fighting. Listen to his song “Freedom Never Cries”. He’s genius. Thanks Gary!

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