Artist You Need to Know: J.S. Ondara - Rolling Stone
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J.S. Ondara’s American Dreams

Nairobi-born singer-songwriter offers a fresh perspective on this country’s promise and failings

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J.S. Ondara in Brooklyn in December 2018.

Erik Tanner for Rolling Stone

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J.S. Ondara can trace his entire career back to a bad bet. As a teenager in Nairobi, Kenya, Ondara once swore to a friend that “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” was written by his favorite band, Guns N’ Roses, and not by someone named Bob Dylan.

“What are you talking about?” he remembers thinking when he first heard Dylan’s name. “After losing that bet, I discovered this mind-boggling person.”

A decade later, Ondara, 26, is on the verge of releasing Tales of America, a clear-eyed acoustic newcomer’s tale of American promise and calamity that establishes him as an invigorating new voice in American folk music.

Aside from the fateful bet, the other event that has set Ondara on his current course is when he won a Green Card lottery that allowed him to move to the United States about six years ago. Since then, he has learned to play guitar from scratch, earned a major-label deal and opened up for artists like Lindsey Buckingham and First Aid Kit.

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“When I think about it, it’s not very real,” he says. “When I think about my childhood, and where I’m from, the chances of this are so random that sometimes I lose words to try to explain what it’s like.”

Growing up obsessed with passé American rock music already made Ondara stand out in Nairobi. “I was definitely the weird guy listening to a bunch of rock songs,” the singer says. After losing his bet, he began skipping class, spending the daily bus money he’d receive from his mother at the local internet cafe instead. He memorized much of Dylan’s catalog, and began to research the history of American folk music. “I dove deep and fell hard,” Ondara adds. “The music was so strange that I felt this attachment to it.”

His family was not wealthy enough to afford musical instruments, which, according to the singer, were considered a luxury where he grew up, but he had been writing songs, poems and lyrics in a notebook for several years by the time he discovered Dylan. He’d longed to move to the United States for just as long. “The moment I realized I wanted to sing and make music,” he says, “was the moment I realized there was no way to do it where I was.”

Immigration paperwork in hand, Ondara came to the United States in February 2013 at the age of 20, a move that instantly sparked his creativity. “Can’t sleep,” he tweeted within weeks of moving to America. “Mind is super-charged with ideas!”

He settled with an aunt who lived near Minneapolis, choosing his new home in part because of Dylan’s connection to the state of Minnesota. “One of the reasons I love Dylan so much is that he was this romantic dude: ‘I’m going to to go to New York because Woody Guthrie’s over there,’” says Ondara. “I’m a romantic in that same way. I just figured I’ll go to America, this random city. I’m going to follow where my heart wants me to go. And for me, it was Bob Dylan.”

Arriving in Minnesota in the middle of winter complicated the romantic image he had of America. When he first made the pilgrimage to Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, in northern Minnesota, he was stunned. “There was nothing there. It was surreal.”

The toughest mental adjustment, however, was artistic. “I had been thinking I’ll move to this place and I’ll form a band, and then I’ll take it on the road,” he says. “But then I get to Minnesota, and it hits me very quickly that I don’t know anyone. Getting to America was impossible, but the path ahead of me, once I got there, felt even more impossible.”

Ondara settled on his current solo-acoustic performance style out of necessity. “I don’t know anybody who can form a band with me,” he remembers thinking, “so I’m going to try to accompany myself.” The young singer began teaching himself guitar online, playing open mics in Minneapolis, honing his sound and a stylish look based around pristine vintage suits.

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Photograph by Erik Tanner for Rolling Stone

Erik Tanner for Rolling Stone

“Old troubadour style,” is how he describes his music today. “A guy playing sad songs with a guitar, for now. Until I go electric and make everyone upset.”

Ondara eventually began uploading covers of favorites like Nirvana, Dylan and Neil Young to YouTube. One of those covers, a stripped-down rendition of a local pop-rock hit by Twin Cities singer Haley Bonar, caught the attention of Andrea Swensson, a DJ at the taste-making Minnesota Public Radio station the Current.

“Everytime I played him, I’d get a handful of emails demanding to know more,” says Swensson, who first started spinning Ondara in the fall of 2016.

Local radio attention led to music industry buzz for Ondara, who spent the next several years writing and recording his debut album in Los Angeles after being courted by several labels. Friends and colleagues describe Ondara as highly confident about the type of artist he wants to be. During recording sessions in L.A., “He would talk to the musicians and say, ‘Is this up to the level of Astral Weeks?” says the Current’s program director, Jim McGuinn, recalling a recent conversation he had with the singer.

The resulting album,Tales of America, out February 15th, offers a compelling outsider’s perspective on what it means to be a young adult in 21st-century America. “Just me pondering, trying to search for wisdom,” as Ondara describes it. “Life is weird, and America is so weird.”

Delivered in a rich, commanding tenor that frequently slips into a quivering falsetto, songs like “Torch Song” and “Television Girl” are stark, lonely blues portraits of deep yearning, while “American Dream” and “God Bless America” are urgent reflections on the gap between American promise and American reality.

The latter song, which begins with the line “Will you let me in?/Or are you at capacity?” is a commentary — hopeful and heartbroken – on modern American immigration. “I was grappling with that question from my perspective, and from the perspective of other people from other countries who did not get the opportunity that I did,” he says.

Ondara gets told a lot that he doesn’t sound like anyone else. It’s that element of his music, perhaps, that made Minnesotans feel like they had to know what they were listening to the first time they heard his music on the radio. Ondara himself says he’s been pondering how his debut album might be received and what type of larger musical community or genre he could call home.

“This new world, everyone is different from you,” he says. “It’s something I’m constantly grappling with. I’m trying to find where I’m supposed to be. Maybe I will someday. But maybe I’m not supposed to be anywhere.”

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