J.S. Ondara doesn’t need any help telling his story.
At 26 years old, Ondara has lived a more diverse set of experiences than many will live in a lifetime. He started out in Nairobi, Kenya where music was just a distant dream, before moving to Minnesota, where passion became reality, and fast forwarding to today, where he’s finding audiences in places all across America and as far away as Europe.
On February 15, Ondara released his debut album, “Tales of America.”
It’s a folk-led, storytelling project that Ondara wrote — music and lyrics — completely on his own. It showcases a soulful voice, tinged with the accent of his original home. The songs are laced with heartache and worry, but lifted by a genuine sense of optimism. As the title indicates, the album recounts the American Dream, but in today’s terms – something Ondara provides the perfect voice to explain.
It hasn’t taken the music industry long to embrace the Kenyan-born folk singer-songwriter, who draws inspiration from Bob Dylan and Neil Young (though was first drawn into music by the alt-rock sounds of the 90s). Ahead of his debut release, Ondara signed with Verve Forecast Records, of Universal Music Group. He toured with Lindsey Buckingham and First Aid Kit. And he starred in features from National Public Radio, Rolling Stone and Billboard.
And in Minnesota, where Ondara learned and refined his craft the past six years, he’s been a popular name in the alternative music scene. The Current has given him strong support, he’s been a popular act at Twin Cities events, and his first official tour show in the state, at 7th Street Entry, sold out quickly.
So naturally, when we at Southern Minn Scene gave a call to Ondara, who happened to be in London at the time of the interview, we started out talking about his new home.
I’ve seen you perform twice at First Avenue, as part of The Current shows. Both times, you sounded incredible and the crowd loved it. What has Minnesota become to you? How has it supported your music?
In simple words, it’s become a home. It’s where I rest my head and my spirit, so to speak. More than that, Minnesota became this very important incubation place. Being in Minneapolis for a few years, trying to find my place, it was just this crucial incubation period for my career. I feel I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else at all. I’m so grateful for that place.
There is something about the place. Those freezing winters hit me in such a devastating way that it forced me to learn some incredible lessons of life that I wouldn’t have learned in any other way. I appreciated that opportunity to endure that cold spell, because it taught me that sometimes in life, things are unpleasant, but if you wait long enough, the sun will rise and the leaves will sprout once more. There’s something very profound about that.
You wouldn’t have enjoyed this winter if you had been around too much.
(Laughs) That’s the thing about it. Sometimes things just suck. But in June, it’s going to be sunny and things are going to be great.
Tell me about growing up in Nairobi. Who was your family? What did you all do? What were your circumstances?
When I was a kid, my parents worked at a post office. We didn’t have much growing up. My two big sisters were my best friends. And I was just this kid that was crazy about music and words.
That was just something that I was drawn to from a young age. I never shared it with people around me, because it wasn’t something I could talk about openly. It was something that cultivated in me as kid.
I think, in general, within the culture back home and within my family, the arts was not something encouraged. It wasn’t a viable option. It was the kind of thing that would be shut down quite immediately. I learned to keep that to myself.
Where did those loves for music and words come from?
Words just came out, really, because I was fascinated by the world and by the universe. I had a fascination with the sun and I had a fascination with animals, with ants, with people, humanity. I needed answers about how the world worked and why it worked the way it worked and why it was here and why we were here.
The only way I could process these confused feelings was to write about them. My curiosities about the world and universe led me to writing and made me fond of words.
As far as music, it was the radio. It was listening to the radio and listening to all these rock songs from the UK and the US, and developing these strong attachments to these songs. They took me to a different universe.
They were like a spaceship that took me to someplace different, where people were different, things were different. I suppose as a child, it was something I needed. So I boarded that spaceship over and over again, because I just wanted to travel to this other universe.
What was your introduction to music?
It was the rock that was coming out in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It was Radiohead, Nirvana, Death Cab for Cutie. Some of that music, I heard it on the radio and that was the first spark, the first interest. I would then seek it out, because I found this spaceship, I needed to go find more.
When CDs became a thing, we had all these people that would go on to the internet and pirate music, even if they didn’t know what it was, and they would download all this random music from the west and sell it on the streets. You’d be walking down the street, and someone would call you over to try this CD, and you’d listen to it, and if you liked it, you’d buy it.
It was like wine tasting. Wine became CDs. I’d travel the street and try all these kinds of wine, and I was drawn to this pinot noir, which turned out to be rock music.
Why did you have to move to America?
I had to go. I had no choice.
It was the kind of thing that as soon as I realized what I wanted to do, I realized there was no way to do it where I was. Just everyone who was around me was consistently discouraging me. Secondly, there was just no infrastructure to support the kind of career in music I wanted. There wasn’t a very vibrant arts community to support the kind of music I wanted to do.
I had to go. I had to say good-bye. To get on this path, I’ve had to say good-bye to a lot of tihngs. That’s just how life has worked out for me.
Was your family OK with the move?
When I left home I told them I was going to medical school. I had to tell them that, so they would let me go. But I knew why I was coming to the States. I just didn’t share it with anyone, because I couldn’t.
Do they know about your career now? Do they accept it?
Well, yeah, that have no choice now, because all this music is online. (Laughs). They know now, and I think they’re slowly coming around. They don’t comprehend exactly what it is I do, but they’re slowly coming around.
Why, when you came, did you come to Minneapolis?
Minnesota just had to be the place I was going to go as soon as I found the music of (Bob) Dylan.
Finding Dylan kind of gave me a purpose for what to do with my life. As a 17-year-old kid, I didn’t know what to do with my life. I loved music, but there was no way to pursue music. I was this lost kid, and I found Dylan’s music quite accidentally.
And I saw that all of his songs were just poems; they were just metaphors built into melodies. I thought “I’ve been writing all these words since I was a kid. Maybe I can put some melodies around them and I can have a career.’ Once that became the path that I chose, it became a romantic decision that I had to move to Minnesota, where he was from, and start my career there.
Since moving to Minnesota, how have you evolved over the past six years?
I picked up the guitar, fooling around with it. So I guess the most significant part of my evolution since moving is that I can play an instrument now, which is something I just couldn’t do back home.
I think my songwriting has changed in the way that it is addressing different issues. I always had questions, as a child, that I was addressing through writing. The questions have just changed over time.
Right now, it’s not ‘What’s the fiery ball in the sky and why doesn’t it fall down?” It’s more like “What is my place in this world as a young 20-something and how do I add value to society and civilization?”
Have there been any “Wow” moments? What made them special?
I have those every day. What has become of my life is so bizarre to me. I very regularly do this thing, where I wake up and do a scratch on my hand to make sure it’s actually me existing on this body.
It’s everything really. It’s just being in the United States, and everything from touring with people that I’ve been listening to since I was a child, like Lindsay Buckingham, to signing with Verve and Universal and playing sold out shows in Europe for the first time.
All of it so bizarre and so wild when I think about it in the context of where I was 20 years ago as a kid in Nairobi, and somehow now I’m here.
Why did “Tales of America” need to be the first album?
Because Tales of America was born of my childhood fantasies. When I was a young child listening to all this music from America and fantasizing about going to America and fantasizing about, “Oh, perhaps one day I will go to America and make one of these CD things, and I will call it ‘Tales of America.’”
It’s like fantasizing about driving a spacecraft and traveling to another universe. There was no reason this needed to come true, just like there is no reason I need to travel to another universe. It’s just a fantasy I had since I was a kid.
Somehow, this particular one did come true, so when I moved to the United States, it was obvious that this was the record I was going to make. It always was, since I was a kid. It just took this long.
What is it about?
I suppose I’m telling the story of America through my eyes. I’m examining the times in America, the times of my life in America, and relating those to create one long thread.
Would you say it’s optimistic or not so much?
I am just a devout optimist really. It’s a fault of mine. The record becomes somber and critical sometimes and has some elements that are tongue and cheek. But at the very end of it, there is an optimism about it; this idea that I’ve been able to move here and find a path toward a career that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to have. There is an optimism to the American Dream despite what the country is going through at the moment.
Several times, you mention a “girl” or a “woman” or a “lover.” Is there anything literal about that?
I do talk about love quite a bit in the record. In the form of character, it is a woman. The way I address the theme of love in America is this elusive idea. It’s something beautiful and magical. I also talk about the idea of the American Dream in the same way, as this dream that is elusive. How I talk about love and the American dream as ideas is the same, and I’m just tying the two together.
You wrote every song on your own. Was that a purposeful decision you made?
It was definitely a deliberate choice. I’m essentially a storyteller. I have to tell this story with bias, lyrically and music, for better or worse. I have to write it the way I want to write it and tell them the way I want to tell them. Once I get in a room with talented people, we bring the songs I’ve written to life in the sense that I’ve envisioned them. It’s the most raw, natural way you can tell a story that is not corrupted by anything.
Did you get any pressure to change anything?
I have had pressure for a long time. As soon as I started putting myself out there, people started coming out with all these ideas of what I should be. Perhaps that’s why it took as long as it took to bring this record to life. I knew what I wanted out of the record. The vision was clear. It just took a while to make sure it’s not corrupted.
I’m fairly good at resisting all that and keeping true to the vision.
Where does your music go from here?
I know exactly where it goes. I don’t if I can talk about it yet. But I have the concepts for the follow-up record fairly complete. I’ve been writing songs and most of them are done.
It’s just “I’m here now.” And now I’m going to make records and tell stories until I’m out of time and I have to leave the planet.
By Philip Weyhe