J.S. Ondara’s journey from Nairobi to Minnesota, Bob Dylan’s home state, is a fascinating one. He arrived in America without any connections in the music business or even a guitar; all he had was his dream of pursuing a life in music. Ondara’s debut album, ‘Tales of America’, was released to critical acclaim earlier this year. Its theme of the ‘American Dream’ and the conflict between the ideal and the reality is brilliantly realised, thanks to Ondara’s beautifully delicate vocal, sparse instrumentation and intelligent lyrics. Sometimes joyful, sometimes bleak and haunting, the album has a strong sense of identity, offering a timely commentary on modern America through the eyes of an outsider. J.S. Ondara took the time to speak to Andrew Frolish of Americana UK before taking to the stage in Bristol during his recent tour.
Growing up in Kenya, you were obsessed with American music. Did that really set you apart or were there are others who were into the same things and encouraging you?
It definitely set me apart. I was a little weirdo as a kid! I was obsessed by this music that was not around. I was definitely different from my peers. Throughout my whole childhood, I felt like an outsider and I think I still do in some ways.
Were you always creative?
Yeah, I was always drawn to words and melodies. I would walk around making up melodies in my head. I would write poems and stories, so I guess that was my creative outlet, growing up, until I found a way to turn it into a career.
Were there any people who encouraged you or inspired you in your journey in music?
Not anyone that I knew personally but there were people who I would see online or hear on the radio that I felt inspired by. There wasn’t anyone close to me that was a source of inspiration or encouragement; really, it was all from outside.
So, in a way you really were the outsider. Then, of course, you got the opportunity to move to America. How did that come about?
It happened about six years ago after I discovered folk music. I had this goal in my head that I wanted to move to the USA and become a singer and so I tried for many years unsuccessfully. At some point, I ended up winning one of the Green Card lotteries. That allowed me to relocate to the States and start on a path to be a folk singer.
That’s quite a brave thing to do as a young person on your own: to move to a faraway country. So, when you arrived what were the biggest challenges that you faced and what surprised you?
The cold was a huge surprise. The winter was something I struggled with from the second I landed and for the whole time I stayed in Minnesota. The winter was something drastically different from anything my skin was used to but also just being in a place where I didn’t know anyone who could help me pursue the career I wanted to pursue. I was starting from scratch in a place where I didn’t know anyone who could help. I couldn’t even play the guitar so, when I think about it in retrospect, I can see how that could’ve been difficult but at the time I was just full of wishful thinking and childhood dreams. I was fuelled and it was like something that I just had to do. It could have been difficult if I had a different mindset.
It’s all about mindset. It’s an amazing thing to set a goal and pursue it. It’s a great example. Do you see yourself like that: as someone who has set an example; as a role model?
I’m hearing that more and more when I talk to people after my shows but it wasn’t something that I was looking for. That’s just how it happened so, you know, I’m glad for it.
How did the people in America react to your hopes and dreams when they found out what you were trying to achieve?
Well, I think the idea of the American Dream is such a universal idea that people outside of America can relate to it and people in America can relate to it as well because they’re all pursuing the same things. I think the reception was good and I was well-received.
So, they appreciated what you were trying to do. When you started making your music, how did they react to that?
It was well-received. When starting out a career in music, there are steps. It took a while until my music was ready to put out to a record label. Along the way, I had a lot of support from friends of mine, who were Americans and liked the music I was making.
You mentioned the American Dream. Obviously, that’s a theme that runs through your album. What does the American Dream really mean to you as an individual?
I think that idea has shifted over time and those shifts in my perception of what the American Dream is was, perhaps, what I was trying to put across in the record. When you live outside of America you have this ideal of what America is, this dream, and then you get to America and you’re faced with the day to day struggles of being resident in the USA. The dream you had starts to look something like a nightmare. After a while, once you’re over that period of worrying whether the dream is going to work, the innocence of the dream starts to rise again and you think maybe there is hope, maybe I can still find his dream. My perception of that idea has changed over time. That change, that shift, is what the record ends up being about.
There is a sense in the record of that conflict: there is the dream but there are also harder realities. You mentioned that you felt like an outsider back in Nairobi. Did you still feel that way when you had settled in America, that you were the outsider?
Absolutely, yes. I still do. It’s been the theme of my life, for the most part. I have always felt something of an outsider and it didn’t really change when I moved to the States. I am an outsider travelling around the world. I enjoy it thoroughly but I always feel like an outsider wherever I am. I think I’ve found a way to find comfort in that and, you know, create a box of sanity within that.
Do you think you’ll ever feel differently?
I don’t know; we’ll have to see how it goes. I have no expectations!
That’s a positive attitude! As an outsider in America, do you feel you are well placed to comment, through your music, on the American Dream and the state of America today? Do you feel you have an interesting perspective? There is a real sense of that commentary about America on your album.
I have a perspective but I don’t know how interesting it is! I think, when I talk about the state of affairs in America, I’m talking about it from the perspective of someone watching from the outside. I’m watching as if it’s in a film. I don’t have any particular biases; I just live there currently and happen to be affected by the same things that affect other immigrants and Americans. When I’m talking about it, I’m painting a portrait of what I’m seeing of America, whether it’s racism or police brutality or gun violence or whatever. I don’t have any bias about these issues or whatever America is going through. It’s just me making my observations and saying: “This is who you are America.” I’m hoping that by painting this portrait that it helps people see themselves and maybe make some necessary amendments towards a better place because, perhaps, art at its best is just a mirror of the society, trying to show us who we are. We do a lot of things subconsciously; we are just animals of method; we don’t really think about it and then art tells us who we are. We can reflect and make changes if we need to.
Have you been back to Nairobi since achieving success in your music?
I have not. I haven’t been back since I moved to the States six years ago. Hopefully, someday.
Is that something you can imagine doing? How do you think people would respond to your music and success at home?
I have no clue but I’m curious to find out at the right time. I look forward to going back there and playing a big show.
The album feels autobiographical. Were there particular events or experiences that inspired some of the songs?
I don’t think there were any particular events that I can put a pin on but there were definitely a number of experiences that tie together to tell these tales, these tales of my time in America. One song might be a collection of six different experiences turned into one thing. It’s a lot of experiences tied into one, a sort of story arc.
What comes first when you’re writing? Is it the story and the lyrics or is it the music? Or is it different every time?
I think now it’s different every time. Initially, the words came first. For the most part, that’s still how it is. I would usually have a poem written or a story or a stream of consciousness, a bunch of words, and then I will try to build something out of it, create a melody.
What is your favourite part of the process? Is it the lyric writing or the music or the recording process?
That’s a good question. I enjoy to write a lot. I think it might be my favourite part but only by a small degree because I like doing the other aspects as well. Recording is amazing: that process from when you have a concept of a song. Like today, I was the fooling around with a new song that I wrote. It’s called ‘Downtown Tokyo’ and might be on my next album. I was fooling around with it during the soundcheck and then I’m going to jam with it tonight. I’ll probably record it next month. That process is like raising a child, bringing them into life, and it’s very fulfilling.
What was it like recording the album?
It was very surreal for me because I had wanted to make this record for the longest time and then I was there actually doing it. I spent most of my time thinking: “Oh, this is happening – I’m making a record!” I got to play with some of my favourite musicians, which was just mind-blowing. The whole experience was very emotional and very surreal.
To have that record you can hold in your hand and to know that people are listening…What does that mean to you?
It’s a strange feeling. I’m still trying to figure out what that means and what that makes me now. The songs are out there and people like them and are listening. I’m sort of puzzled by that. It’s a puzzle. I hoped for it but I didn’t know it would happen. Now that it has, I’m puzzled by everything! It’s a learning process and I’m learning how to be. You change in a way; you have to, I suppose, align the little wires in your brain just to stay sane in different ways because your methods of sanity are different now. So, you learn every day and try to the best person you can.
Going back in time, you were originally inspired by the likes of Neil Young and Bob Dylan. What contemporary acts are still inspiring you?
I’m a big fan of a songwriter from Seattle called Noah Gundersen. I like Ray LaMontagne, Damien Rice and Jason Isbell. Yeah, there’s a couple of good ones!
You’ve played a lot of shows in America. How have the audiences over here in the UK reacted to your album and performances?
It’s been great! The first show I ever played here in the UK was in January. It was just a little promotional thing to try out the market before the album was out. It went really well and the day before yesterday I was in Manchester, which was an amazing show. There are people who travel really far to come to the shows. It’s been great so far and I’m looking forward to tonight in Bristol and tomorrow in London. I think my audiences on the tours that I’ve done have always been consistently listening audiences that come to hear me play the record. The shows have been small so far because it’s the first tour and the first record. We’re playing these really small rooms for just a few fans for the first tour. So, it’s just been people who have come to hear me play the songs. In that way, it’s been consistently positive.
Thinking of the future, how do you think your sound might develop as you continue writing?
That’s an interesting question. I’m thinking about a couple of things to add onto the next record which I’ve already started writing. I might record it in the UK, actually. I don’t want to spill any beans but the record is going to be different but not too different, familiar but also a move forward towards something new.
Last question: has the dream changed?
Not really; perhaps it is extended but not changed. It’s still the same dream I had since I was a child: to travel the world and tell stories, to hopefully contribute positively and take civilisation to a better place by storytelling and playing my part.
‘Tales of America’ is out now on Verve.