Interview: J.S. Ondara’s Artistic Journey Led to Minnesota

The Bob Dylan-inspired, Kenyan-born, folk-rock singer-songwriter’s first album arrives in February

J.S. Ondara’s deubt album, Tales of America, is expected February 15.

Photo by Josh Cheuse

A native of Nairobi, Kenya, J.S. Ondara fell in love with American rock music he heard on the radio and on pirated CDs sold out of the trunks of cars. He became a massive Bob Dylan fan, and moved to his hero’s birth state in 2013. While staying with relatives in Minneapolis, Ondara found an old Yamaha guitar and started strumming and performing around town in a style that pulls from folk and gospel. The main attractions are his stunning, room-filling voice and world-wise storytelling, which landed him opening slots on national tours with Lindsey Buckingham (formerly of Fleetwood Mac) and many others. His debut album, Tales of America, arrives February 15.

How much traveling had you done before you moved to Minnesota?

I really hadn’t left the country before I came here. I spent my life in Nairobi, born and raised there. I am who I am because of that city. It made me. But I have become very attached to Minneapolis. Every time I’m away I get very homesick. I’ve begun to ask myself, am I homesick because I’m away from Minneapolis or because I’m away from Nairobi?

When you lived in Kenya, how were you exposed to new music?

[At first, a battery-powered radio] was the only way to hear a song. My sisters would put the radio on this rock station. That’s how I heard most of the songs. It happened very quickly when CDs started becoming a thing. My sisters would come home with mixes of rock songs. Back home, you’d walk around the streets of Nairobi, you would see people on the side of the road blasting music and selling pirated CDs. People would go and say, “Can you play this for me? I want to know what this is. Maybe I’ll buy it.” It’s like tasting wine or something.

How did you decide on the sound of your album?

I wanted to make a really stripped-down and raw record because that’s the music I fell in love with. I listened to a lot of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and a lot of [Bruce Springsteen’s] Nebraska while recording. But also I tried to incorporate these textures that don’t take too much away from the voice and the story. There’s a lot of songs that are just me and a guitar. The whole record is a collection of experiences I’ve had mostly in Minneapolis.

What happened to that Yamaha guitar you started with?

I have it with me right now. I have other guitars now, but I’m sort of attached to it. It really shouldn’t sound great, but it sounds amazing. I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of that one. I don’t always write with that guitar. Sometimes I just ramble and do this stream-of-consciousness thing. That’s how I began writing when I was a kid.

What are you doing when you’re not working on music?

If I’m not playing a show, I probably want to go see a show. I love it. I’ve been touring with incredible bands, and every night watching them. Watching Lindsey Buckingham play all these songs I’ve loved for so long, like “Go Your Own Way” every night. I’m not in my musical mind, I’m in my spiritual mind.

Name a local show that left an impression on you.

I saw Dylan at the Xcel [in St. Paul], which was my first time seeing him. I didn’t really know what to expect, but it was amazing. He played songs I know, but in a completely different style. You can’t really sing along, you just watch. It felt like I’d gone to a museum and looked at a Picasso painting for two hours. Someone asks you, “How was that show?” You’d say, “I dunno, you just have to go see it.” Same thing with a painting: “I dunno, you just have to go see it.”

What went into the writing of “Lebanon”?

That’s quite a mysterious song, even to me. That’s one that just comes out of you. My songwriting is subconscious, just free writing things. After these songs have existed for a while, sometimes days, sometimes months, sometimes years, I start to figure it out, “Oh, that’s what that meant, that’s what this meant.” The songs start developing meaning. When I think about it, I talk about Lebanon and Canada. I think it’s a reference to someone I knew from Lebanon, another person that I knew from Canada. Referring to a person as a state. It’s just a love song about sticking it out through the thick and thin with the person you love.

What would you say to Bob Dylan if you got to meet him?

When someone has such a great impact, you don’t really even know how to act or be around them. I would like to meet him at some point, if possible. I’m also perfectly fine with not meeting him at all. That’s okay, too. I don’t know what I’d say. “Oh, hi.” It would be quite strange for me. He’s had that kind of impact, not just for me, but for a lot of songwriters.

Catch J.S. Ondara at First Avenue in Minneapolis January 19.

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