In Tales of America, his stunning full-length debut album, J.S. Ondara holds a mirror to the promise of his adopted country. His voice, at the same time resonant and fragile, is front and center in the spare arrangement, and the effect is haunting and shattering as he explores the paradox of today’s America from an immigrant’s perspective.
He arrived in Minneapolis from Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013, benefiting from the luck of the draw—a winning application in the Green Card lottery. He chose Minnesota because he had an aunt who lived there, and because it was the home state of Bob Dylan, one of his songwriting heroes.
When he landed, he had pages of lyrics, but couldn’t even play guitar. In the six years since, he’s gone from performing at open mics, posting covers on the internet, and independently recording an EP, to working with producer Mike Viola and guest artists Andrew Bird, Joey Ryan, and Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith on Tales of America. He’s selling out rooms across the country on the tour supporting the album, and he was recently nominated for “Emerging Act of the Year” by the Americana Music Association.
On one hand, it’s the American Dream. But, as the songs on Tales of America tell us, things are never that simple.
How is your tour going? You’re opening for Neil Young tonight? Is that correct?
Is that kind of crazy for you?
Yeah, very crazy. Totally.
If someone had asked you a few years ago what the chances were that in a few years you’d be opening for Neil Young, what would you have said?
Very close to nil. Zero. It’s surreal.
Was he one of the songwriters that you listened to when you were growing up?
Yeah, absolutely, definitely. He’s a huge influence on me, on my path as a songwriter, as a storyteller. It’s a big honor to be out here with him.
What has been the most surprising thing about America for you?
Good question. I think the change in tides, as the politics of the country are concerned. That was definitely a surprise to see that happen, and the aftermath of that. I think that was a surprise for people all around the world, not just me, I guess.
The last song on your album, “God Bless America,” seems to imply that although you’re grateful for the chance to live in America and to pursue your career, you’re very aware that others don’t have that chance. Is that something that you’ve thought about?
Yeah, I think I was wrestling with that same idea throughout the making of this record, trying to grapple with my fortunes and other people’s misfortunes at the same time. And that push and pull between gratitude and terror at the same time. I’m grateful for the opportunity, but I’m also aware of the troubles that the country is going through. So that’s definitely is something I had in mind throughout the writing of the record.
Will you let me bring Isabela here from Nairobi / On the phone she was ill, and so was the economy / In fifty years, when I’m frail, barely on my feet / Will you be kind, oh dear, like you promised at the embassy
In the song, “Days of Insanity,” you use the metaphor of animals, rather than describing a specific scenario, to demonstrate that these times are far from normal. How did you come upon this way of telling the story?
I was online, watching some videos of kittens, and then YouTube brought me this video that it thought I should watch. It was a video of Stephen Colbert having a talk with John Mulaney, the comedian, and at some point during that conversation, John was telling Stephen about some trip that he had just taken abroad. When he was abroad, he came up with some kind of analogy, I suppose, to explain to those people what the times are like in America. He would tell them it’s like there’s a horse loose in the hospital, just something that no one’s ever seen before. And he explains it in a more elaborate way, maybe–you should go look it up–but I remember seeing that, and thinking that would be very poignant and very accurate, and so I wrote a whole song around it and built more characters, more animals around it.
There is a bear at the airport, waiting on a plane / There is a cow at the funeral, bidding farewell / There is a goat at the terminal, boarding the C train / There is a horse at the hospital, dancing with the hare
Also, on that song, at the end of the chorus there are a few seconds of this whirlwind of strings that give it an ominous feeling. How did that idea come about?
We were thinking of adding something to the song that brought in that element of insanity, in a way, just like, something is about to happen, something ominous, something terrible. So, we brought in a double bass player, and had him fool around, and that’s what he did. He fooled around, and we liked it, and we kept it.
When you were working on this album, was everyone on the same page about what kind of record it was going to be?
Yeah, absolutely. We wouldn’t get into the studio in the first place if there wasn’t a shared vision. When I walked in the studio I brought records. I brought The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and I brought Astral Weeks (Van Morrison.) I brought Nebraska (Bruce Springsteen.) I said that I wanted to make this very stripped-down album. There’s maybe a few things happening on top of it, not too much. Very focused on the stories and the voice and the guitar. And we always went back to those records when we thought we’d lost our way.
You have a real gift for language–for metaphor and for storytelling. And it’s astonishing to me that you’re writing in a second language. Have you also written any songs in Swahili, or is English really the language that you turn to when it comes to music?
Yeah, it’s what I communicate in musically. It’s always English. It’s how I fell in love with all this music from the U.S. and the U.K. at a young age. It was partly the music, but it was also just that the language was so different. I was very fascinated by the language, and I wanted to learn the language because of it. And so, my interest in the music and the language sort of started at the same time. They’re sort of intertwined together in that way.
Were you learning English in school as a child, or did it really start with music?
They did teach it in school, but like anything else, for you to develop a good command over any language, you’ve got to have that interest outside of just school. It helps to motivate you to keep learning, to keep building the vocabulary. And that was music for me.
Have you ever written any songs that you discover new meanings for later on?
That happens all the time. That happens because some of my songs are just subconscious stream of thought. And then over time the meanings sort of reveal themselves in the conscious mind and I start thinking, “Oh, you know what, that’s what that song’s about.” So, I’ve had that happen a lot. I’ve definitely had that happen with my song “Saying Goodbye.”
In what way did that song change for you?
I wrote those words after landing here from Kenya many years ago. I had those words down and there was no melody for it, there was no song, just words in a book. And so, I turned it into a song and I started singing it. I thought it was a love song, and then, the more I sang it, the more I realized it was me grappling with saying farewell to my past, to my family, to my culture. All those things that made up my past, that in some way made me who I was, but also, in some ways held me back from becoming the person that I needed to be. It was just that process of saying goodbye to all that, so I could move here and move closer to the best version of myself in the world.