John Ondrasik on music, song writing, and work ethic

About John Ondrasik

John Ondrasik

Ondrasik began his journey at three-years old. “Johnny,” as he was called back then, could barely span four white keys with his small hands. His mom was a piano teacher and after giving him the basics she allowed him to walk away from formal lessons at thirteen, a freeing moment. From that point on, he was playing because he wanted to play; Writing music because he wanted to write.

He exploded onto the music scene with the release of Superman in 2000 on America Town. Having written those thousands of songs just for fun during first his youth and then his time at UCLA (an Applied Science and Mathematics major), the public adoration of “Superman” stunned his mother – a way to actually make money writing and playing music! Ondrasik’s father, a rocket scientist, was less surprised. As a businessman himself, he appreciated the long hours of dedication Ondrasik had put into honing his craft (45,000 hours, according to math major Ondrasik’s calculations!).

Inspiration plus an intense work ethic, Ondrasik had become an overnight sensation in only twenty years.

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Interview transcript


Rohan:  It would be great to get a little bit of background aside from what I’ve read on Wikipedia.  I do know that you came from a musical family.  I’m guessing music was some sort of natural progression.  You also went to UCLA and graduated in Applied Sciences and Mathematics.  It would be great to hear the story behind all of this. 

John:  It kind of makes sense because my mom was the musician in the family.  She was a piano major from USC.  She started me and my sister playing the piano very young.  My father was an astrophysicist who worked for the jet propulsion laboratory which is a division of NASA.  In the 70’s, he worked on a lot of the unmanned space flights.  I had the engineer father and the musician mother and they both certainly rubbed off on me.

I think I was always into my music and was passionate about music, but I was also pragmatic enough to realize that there might not be a career at the end of the tunnel.  In school I was very focused on the math and the sciences.  The deal with my parents was that they would continue to support my music as long as I had a back-up plan.  That was going to college and getting a degree where I could get a real job one day.  I enjoyed math and the sciences, and that’s why I ended up as a math major at UCLA.



Rohan:  Was it easier to get your first gig because your mom was a musician?  What was the process?  The reason I ask is because a lot of musicians make it sound like the first gig kind of just happened, but it doesn’t always happen.   I’d like to understand what the circumstances were.

John:  I wish it were that simple.  My mom was a classical musician.  She was just a piano teacher, so she was not involved in performing or anything in the industry.  For me, it was just 15 years of hard work, hitting the wall and rejection, and finally getting somebody to believe in me and give me a shot.  To this day, I think she’s very surprised that I have been able to make a living at it because, as a musician, she understands how hard it is and how lucky you have to be.  I think my dad was a little more optimistic than she was.  For me, it was literally just making demos, playing gigs, and trying to get my music out there.  I am one of those 20 year overnight success stories where I worked 20,000 hours before I made a penny doing this.



Rohan:  There are two songs that are very special to me and a lot of my friends.  One is “Superman” and the other is “100 Years.”  I’d love to know the story behind both of these songs if possible.  I also have a follow-up question.  You do a lot of singing and songwriting.  Is there a process?  Is it an inspiration will strike process or a more methodical process?  I would love to understand what the creative process is.

John:  To answer your first question about those particular songs, “Superman” was a gift.  I wrote “Superman” from beginning to end in about an hour almost 20 years ago now.  It was in the midst of writing many other songs.  As a young songwriter (and I tell this to other songwriters all the time) the key is to write a lot of songs, and I was.  I was writing hundreds of songs a year.  Not many good ones, but “Superman” was just one of those songs.  When I first wrote it, I didn’t think it was for me.  I fancied myself as more of a rock guy.  I always thought that song was a special song.  When we recorded it for the America Town record, me and my producer Greg kept coming back to “Superman” and say, “If anyone ever heard this song, they might appreciate the sentiment.”

“100 Years” was different because when I wrote “Superman” I was a struggling musician without a record deal just trying to make it.  “100 Years” was how do you follow your first hit, and how do you not become a one-hit wonder?  They’re both very hard to do.  I had to go from “Superman” to writing a song that could launch my career.  I think it’s almost harder sometimes to write that second song that is not just a copy of your hit, but a song that takes the next step.  “100 Years” took almost a year to get right.  Once I had the concept it took three months to get the lyrics.  “Superman” took 45 minutes.   “100 Years” took 3 months.  To this day, “100 Years” was the crucial song because I was a songwriter all of a sudden, not just the “Superman” guy.  That gives you a little background on those two songs.

One more interesting point that people sometimes appreciate is that “Superman” is not a song I could write today, the sentiment of that song being what it is.  “It’s not easy to be me” definitely reflects more on a struggling singer/songwriter than a middle-aged dad who has realized his childhood dream.  “100 Years” is a song that I certainly relate to more because I grow up with that song.  The nice thing about that song is as we get older there’s a verse for everybody.  I kind of grow with it.

That feeds in to the songwriting process.  There are a lot of things that go into a song or a creative work.  As much as you can talk about talent and inspiration and all that stuff, I’m a true believer in work ethic.  If I’m not writing or playing, nothing’s happening.  You may have to write a thousand songs to write “100 Years”, or write a thousand songs to get a “Superman”.  That being said, there are tools.  Inspiration can come from painful places.  Most of the good songs come from painful places, introspection, and integrity.  You can also find ideas through observations.  You can look at other people’s lives or circumstances.  I’m a believer that there’s a great song everywhere if you could just see it.

Sometimes, listening is a great tool.  So many of my songs come from listening to what my kids say, or what my friends say, or what I may see on TV or in the world.   I think the key is to always be on the lookout for a good idea.  With “100 Years”, once I had the concept of “living in the moment and a wish is never better than this”, and I knew that the verses were going to be vignettes in our lives, the rest involved more talent and spending 3 months writing 200 verses to get the 4 that I used.  It certainly is a process, and it’s a very frustrating process because, at the end of the day, what sounds very simple is very hard to create. 

It’s also a subjective process in that sometimes the best songs you write are not hits and are not popular.   There are much better songwriters than me sitting at home frustrated that they’ll never be able to get their music out there.  It is a wild occupation, but I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to do it this long and have been able to share my music beyond just the hits with a lot of folks.


Rohan:  I know you do a fair a bit of songwriting aside from your own songs.  When you talk about work ethic, do you make sure you show up at an office every morning?  What does a week in John’s schedule look like?

John:  Luckily, my office is in my house, 20 yards from my bedroom.  When I was a kid, I would be recording, writing, and singing for 70-80 hours a week and having to make a living in the meantime.  Every free second I’d be honing my craft.  I don’t do it as much anymore because I’m not a single 25 year-old chasing a dream.  When I’m making a record, I will put the kids to bed and I’ll go to work.  When they’re in school I’ll work during the day.  The hours may not be 9-5, but you’ll put in 1000-2000 hours’ worth of songwriting to get the 11 or 12 songs that people hear on the record.  Then you’ll put in another 1000 hours in the recording process and mixing, and then the whole promotion starts.  Then there’s selling the record. It’s a big ordeal.   Making the record is the fun part.  Going out there and getting yourself to make another one is what separates people who have a career from folks who come and go.



Rohan:  You’ve seen many one-hit wonders.  What is the biggest difference between someone who is able to sustain success for a long time and somebody who comes and goes?

John:  There are a lot of components to that.  One part is understanding that it’s not all about you.  I think sometimes, especially in the celebrity culture, you’ll have a hit song or movie and all of a sudden you’ll be rich and famous and it’s a very narcissistic place to be.  You need a certain element of narcissism just to do the job – to go on stage and sing for 1000 people, or go on TV and sing for 6 million people.  You have to have an ego, but you also have to realize that it’s not all about you.  You have to remember what got you there.  I was very lucky that I had success relatively late.  I was in my late 20’s, so I understood how hard it was and how lucky I was.  I think you have to remain humble and you also have to get a little lucky.  You have to have that next song that can launch your career after a hit.

You also have to fight the record companies because a record company’s tendency is that once you have a hit, they want to regurgitate that song again.  I’ve seen so many bands or songwriters be forced by the label to regurgitate that song that made them successful.  If you do that too close, nobody wants to hear the same song anymore.  The challenge is how to write something that can stand on its own and is a great song, but still stays true to who you are.  That’s why I have so much respect for the iconic bands and songwriters whether it’s U2, Billy Joel, Elton John,  The Beatles, or The Who, who continue to re-invent themselves but still stay true to who they were and write great song after great song.  It’s really hard to do, especially today in a faceless pop scene where music is so generic.  It’s really hard to continue and build yourself a real career.



Rohan:  We always hear from the music companies as to the cost of piracy.  Speaking from Asia, this is a very important issue.  For example, I buy my music on ITunes but it’s problematic because I need a US address to get access to all of this.  They don’t make it easy here, so piracy is rampant.  What is the artist’s view?  How does this affect you?  Does most of your money come from records bought online or concerts?  It would be great to get a sense of it from your point of view.

John:  To take your point, I think the record industry did a terrible job with the early downloading and early piracy, even here in the states with Napster, making it easy and cheap to download music.  They just wanted to sue everybody.  Basically, what happened is we have a generation who grew up getting music for free because it was hard to do, or they were made the enemy, or for whatever reason.  It’s similar to where you are.  It should be easy to get music and cheap.  Here in the states, it’s easy.  I can go buy any song for 69 cents.   That’s easy for me to do.  Even if you’re 12 or 15 years old you can afford 69 cents.  Now, you have a culture of free downloading and people expect music to be free.

For me personally, it’s not going to change my life.  I frankly got lucky in that “Superman” came out when people could still sell records and make money.  I caught the end of that.  For me, it’s not a huge financial burden, but what I’m concerned about is that making music is not free.  It costs money to make a record.  Even with technology, it costs $50,000-$200,000 to make a record when you hire mixers and engineers and musicians.  Then you have to promote your record and it’s not free to hire a band, it’s not free to go on a TV show for people to hear you.  Even though video costs have come way down, you can make a video for $20,000 instead of $200,000, it’s still not free.  I’m concerned that it’s becoming so hard to make a living at music unless you’re a superstar that music will become more of a hobby and the true singer/songwriters that can become part of the culture will be factored out just because there’s no income stream and there’s no career.  I am concerned about it.  I think it’s a big problem.  I don’t know what the answers are.  For me, I’d say less that 5% of my income comes from record sales.  But, I am concerned about it.



Rohan:  I hear that it’s becoming more about concert sales than record sales.  What is the general norm?

John:  It depends.   If you’re a songwriter, then you do very well on royalties.  You get radio royalties.  Now with the internet, you get SoundExchange royalties.  If you’re a good touring act, you can make money touring.  A lot of pop musicians don’t write their own songs, so there’s not that income stream.  Even if you’re a successful touring act, if you’re a band you have to split that up and you have a lot of expenses.  For me, yes, virtually all of my money comes from touring, which I don’t do as much anymore, and royalties on my songs from either licensing or radio.



Rohan:  You launched a video charity website.  Why is that?  What was the inspiration?

John:  I think that when you’re fortunate enough to live the dream, and you see that your music can make a difference in people’s lives, and you feel very blessed financially, you look at yourself in the mirror and say, “What can I do to give back?”

When “Superman” came out, so many different charities started asking me to use that song for fundraising or awareness.  I saw how music can really make a difference in people’s lives emotionally, financially, to build awareness, all of those things.  So we started doing that with my songs and I’ve been doing it ever since.  The website you mentioned, What Kind of World do You Want, ran it’s course but it was a charity website to raise money for charities close to my heart.  People could make their own videos and capitalize on the YouTube phenomena where everybody’s a film maker, and use different songs in a creative way to raise money.  That was a fun way to raise money.  We did that.  It was great.  I’ve been fortunate to work with many different projects.  We did that for a while and raised some money.  Then, we did a CD for the troops project which gave free CD’s to the soldiers and their families.  It’s great.  You feel good.  Giving is a selfish enterprise because you feel so good when you can make a difference.  I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to do that.



Rohan:  One of the things that you always associate with celebrities is bad family lives.  From reading about you on the internet, obviously family takes a different place where you’re concerned.  How do you manage that with all of the fame, and the paparazzi, and everything that goes with who you are?

John:  You’ll never find me on the cover of People magazine.  There are a few reasons for that.  Number one is that I’m very low on the totem pole of celebrities.  I’ve had success, but the reality is that most people know my songs; they don’t know me.  I’m fine with that.  It’s nice to be recognized, and it’s nice to have people know who you are and want your autograph.  I think being older when I had success, and being very grounded by my parents, and having a wife that holds me accountable, and having kids are some other reasons.  When you have kids, it doesn’t matter if you have a hit or you don’t, because they look at you the same.  You’re really able to have a certain balance.

I’m not going to lie to you, I’m a very competitive guy.  I like to win, and I like to have success, and I like to have all those things that go along with success in the music business but I also think they give me certain perspective where at the end of the day I know what really matters.  A lot of that stuff you talk about, all the drama that goes on with celebrities, those are very unhappy people.  I’ve seen in my life people who rise to great success, not just in music but in different occupations, and their private lives are miserable because they don’t have that balance in priorities.  Luckily for me, I have a great family and all of that other stuff, I’ll leave it to the other folks.



Rohan:  Do you have any favorite TV shows, movies, or books that you generally watch or read? 

John:  I’m going to be very cliché, but of course with the end of Breaking Bad, we all love Breaking Bad.  Maybe that’s bad that we love Breaking Bad, but we love Breaking Bad.  I enjoy those kinds of shows.  I love The Wire.

I’m a sci-fi guy because of my dad.  I like old school Asimov, Heinlein, and Frank Herbert.  I’m a big reader.  I love to read Murakami.  I love him and Margaret Atwood.  I love reading and I draw inspiration from books.  Those are a couple I’ll throw at you, and there are a lot more that come from there.



Rohan:  Even if your office is 20 yards away from your bed, you probably need to do a lot to stay productive.  I’m sure you have a lot of requests and hundreds of things going on in a day.  Are there any productivity hacks that you use?  Are there any little habits during the day that help you stay productive and focused on songwriting?

John:  Murakami is one my favorite authors.  He wrote a book called What I Talk about When I Talk about Running.  In that book, he talked about how every day he will go for a workout.  He’ll go run an hour or two and it stimulates his creativity and keeps him sane.  I agree with that.  I write my best lyrics when I’m not staring at the page.  I’ll put my headphones on and go for a two hour hike, and I’ll write lyrics.  I find that staying active, staying healthy, and working out trigger those endorphins which stimulate the creativity too.  It’s a balance.  You have to do the work.  You have to sit at the piano; you have to sit at the computer.  You have to write thousands of verses.  But I find that physical activity really also helps stimulate the creative and they pay dividends both ways.



Rohan:  What is an idea that inspires you that you would like to share?

JohnEven at my cynical old age, I do love the idea of starting from nothing and creating something.  It doesn’t have to be just a song.  It can be a poem, a book, a business, entrepreneurship.  I love that spirit of starting with a blank slate and then ending up with something.  It doesn’t even have to be great because I truly believe that the joy is in the journey.  The results may be exciting or disappointing.  When I look back on my career, whether it’s on a high note or a low note commercially, the path to get there is really what I look back on fondly.  Maybe that’s the inspiration that I can leave with you.

Success is not easy. So are living a grounded life, and going for the things that make you happy. It was a pleasure having you here. We enjoyed your candid answers!

Real Leaders Team