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J.S. Ondara offers a unique take on the American dream on Tales of America, his debut album. Ondara grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, listening to American alt-rock and making up his own songs for as long as he can remember. After discovering the music of Bob Dylan, he moved to Minneapolis in 2013 to pursue a career in music. There he began making his way in the local music scene, continually writing songs about what he saw, felt and experienced in a place far different from home.
From a stockpile he says is hundreds of songs deep, Ondara chose 11 for Tales of America. They’re captivating tunes built around acoustic guitars and adorned with subtle full-band accompaniment for an openhearted folk-rock feel. He sings in a strong, tuneful voice well-suited to the gorgeous melancholy he expresses on the wistfully lovelorn “Torch Song,” or his steadfast infatuation on “Television Girl.” Ondara sings rueful lyrics in an anguished tone on “Saying Goodbye,” and leaves plenty of room for interpretation on “American Dream,” the first single.
“I knew I wanted a song called ‘American Dream’ on the record, but I didn’t have that song,” Ondara says with a laugh. “I couldn’t find it. I wrote like twenty songs called ‘American Dream’ before I found the one that ended up being the record.”
His persistence is evident throughout Tales of America, which is indeed a classic American tale. It’s the story, told in song, of an immigrant seeking a new life, who dedicates himself to achieving his vision through hard work and determination.
When did you begin learning English?
I had studied it in school, so when I’m speaking it, I’m just assuming I’m in a class. I don’t know how good I am at it, but I think it’s like when you study any other language as a second language: you grow into it over time. I think listening to a lot of Western music and watching a lot of movies, stuff like that, helped inform my vocabulary.’
How big of a challenge is writing song lyrics in a second language?
I think I just naturally wrote songs in English, because the songs I first fell in love with were in English, and were Western songs. Jeff Buckley songs were some of the first songs I ever started singing. I didn’t necessarily know what I was saying. I just sang them because I thought they sounded cool to me, and as I grew up
I started understanding, “Oh! That’s what that word means.” My sister had brought home a mix-CD that had some Nirvana songs, some Pearl Jam songs, some Jeff Buckley songs, a bunch of rock music, and I was like, “This is so cool.” I have memories of listening to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and singing the words completely wrong.
You’re self-taught as a singer, songwriter and guitar player. Would you ever consider lessons?
There’s a magic about just fooling around and finding it. When I’m just holding my guitar and I’m putting my finger here and then there and then, “Oh, wow, this is cool. Maybe this sounds like a song, it sounds like a chord.” Or when I’m free-writing in my journal and I come up with a string of words that sound like a song. I appreciate the magic about it and I’m sort of afraid that I’d lose it if I study how to write songs or how to play guitar, how to sing.
How has living in Minneapolis shaped you as a songwriter?
The thing about Minneapolis is that it’s low-key, so I had time to grow and find my actual voice and find the songs that I wanted to put out to the world, slowly. There was no one trying to turn me into a particular thing. If I had moved to a place like Los Angeles, or New York, then it probably would have been a little frustrating with all the people saying, “This is what you should do.” I maybe wouldn’t have had time to learn the guitar, because I couldn’t really play guitar when I moved here. So I think it offered me this security of a place to grow at my own speed.
You started out with around a hundred songs you were considering for this album. How did you narrow it down?
The title of record ended up informing a lot of the songs that made the final cut. I always knew that my first record was going to be called Tales of America. I made a record before this one that I threw away, because I didn’t like it at the time, and it was called Tales of America.
So the title has stuck with me for a long time — it came before the songs. I don’t usually write with an idea in mind, but when I looked at what I had written, I was like, “Oh, there’s this sense of a theme, of what this particular record is about.”
So are these songs about America, or about being in America?
There’s a combination of both. Some of them are about America. Some of them are about the journey to America. A lot of them are about time in America, inspired by events that have happened in my life in America. I think most importantly I wanted to highlight my journey from home to here and to make the new record.
Are there specific things that inspire you to write?
It’s everything really. It’s film, it’s other records, it’s a river, a lake, it’s the sky. It’s where I am at the moment: cities, and all kinds of things. Anything can inspire me at any particular point.
How do you keep yourself open to it all?
Just by being present really to every moment, being present and being open to accepting new experiences, and then taking time to document these experiences through your own perspective. So it’s like you take this experience and you sort of compare it to your other experiences and turn it into this story that ends up being a song.