One of the more interesting cats to emerge in the acoustic guitar world in the past couple of years is Kenya-born, Minneapolis-based singer-songwriter J.S. Ondara (known simply as Ondara now), who came out of the gate strong with his wonderful 2019 debut release, Tales of America. The album was greeted by rave reviews, found its way onto Billboard’s Emerging Artists, Americana/Folk, and even Rock album charts, and earned him a Grammy nomination in the Best Americana Album category. Ondara has opened for the likes of Lindsey Buckingham, Neil Young, and the Lumineers. Not bad for a guy who didn’t even play guitar until he won a green card lottery and moved to the United States in 2013.
However, growing up in Nairobi, Ondara was constantly scribbling away in journals—poems, stories, potential song lyrics—all the while absorbing the music of American and British songwriters, from Dylan to Bowie, as he dreamed of someday being able to afford a guitar. His songs—some drawn from those early journals, but mostly more recent jottings—are personal and evocative, his voice a clear tenor that sometimes climbs to a searing falsetto (which sounds quite “African” to me). His guitar playing is a mix of sturdy strums and the occasional decorative filigree.
Tales of America drew heavily on his experience of being an immigrant, and now his second album, which unexpectedly materialized this summer, is entirely devoted to songs inspired by the coronavirus pandemic: Folk n’ Roll Vol. 1: Tales of Isolation finds Ondara, alone in his apartment, armed with just acoustic guitar and harmonica, baring his soul on a powerful collection of tunes he wrote and recorded over a period of less than a week. What was originally slated to be his second album, a fully produced affair with other players, will become the third offering from the fascinating and prolific artist.
I caught up with Ondara by phone, and began by asking about the pandemic album.
How did the songs on the new album come about?
I wrote a bunch of words first; it was a strange process. Just go-go-go—almost a stream of consciousness over three days in my journal. Then I went through it and picked out ones I thought could be made into songs and came up with some melodies, and then I grabbed the guitar and tried to put them in some progressions. It happened really fast. I didn’t want to think about it too much, so I recorded them right after that. It was almost like a vomit of words and melodies.
But in a good way!
[Laughs] Of course, yes! And of course it helped to be able to have an engineer who could just set up and record.
One of the last records I recall that managed to successfully distill ideas and capture some of the zeitgeist of an event was Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising, which came out in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. I’m curious, are you a fan of his?
Oh, yeah. I was coincidentally listening to [Springsteen’s spare acoustic album] Nebraska a lot when I was making this record. I love that record.
It sounds like you mostly listened to Western music growing up. Did you have any relationship with benga or soukous or any of the other African forms that are popular in Kenya?
At the time I was there, I was sort of using music to escape to another world, because life was hard. I wanted to go to travel someplace musically where people spoke different and sung different and instruments sounded different, so I became attached to Western music at a very early age. It’s one of those things where when I was there I wanted to come here [to America] and make this kind of music, and now that I’m here I want to in the future find a way to connect with the music that was back home that I never got the opportunity to establish a keen relationship with.
You said you used to write songs before you owned any instruments to play. How did you write down the melodies?
I’d just keep them in my head. I had these long walks going to school, and all the way I’d be singing melodies; I still remember those melodies to this day.
What was and when did you get your first guitar?
I got to America a few years ago and I was working some temp jobs trying to save up for a decent guitar. I bought one of those Mini Taylors and it worked out really well: It was great for hopping around to coffee shops and open mics and play a folk song or two. But before that I found this old, rundown Yamaha [L5] that was in the bedroom of my aunt’s house [in Minneapolis]. I started playing around on that. It wasn’t in good enough condition to play out, though. It was more of a thing to learn on.
I picked up a lot of things learning online. Chords and some strumming, trying to put that together. I started out by playing a couple of Dylan songs: I learned “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” I learned [Neil Young’s] “Heart of Gold” early.
I love your version of that on the Deluxe version of Tales of America—so eerily beautiful!
Thank you. That was one of my first lessons. That’s basically me trying to learn how to play, but it came out all right. I was so anxious to put my stories to music and write my own songs to be able to play them at open mics that I went in that direction, coming up with the chords for what I heard in my head, or just finding anything that sounded good to me, and experimenting with a capo and trying different tunings.
The process of learning the guitar has been a continuous process. It’s very experimental. It’s me touching this and putting my finger here: “Oh, that sounds interesting. Maybe I’ll take this story I wrote and turn it into a song.” On the new record I used a few different tunings: open G on “Isolation Anonymous” and open D on “Six Feet Away.”
Don’t sell yourself short. There’s some really nice guitar on there, like on “Isolation Anonymous,” which is a cool strumming workout.
It’s fun. I’d never played that way until I did, so it’s really me just trying things and being curious about what can be done to help me tell my stories.
When I first heard “Days of Insanity” I immediately thought of Van Morrison’s strumming cadence on the song “Astral Weeks.” Do you know that song and album?
Oh, I love Astral Weeks! I was listening a lot to it when I was making my first album.
Morrison is a guitarist who doesn’t get much credit for being a really good player, but in fact he has a fluid personal style that serves his songs perfectly.
That’s right. I learned a lot from Van. And from Dylan, too. He’s a very expressive player.
Is there a Dylan period you particularly like or relate to as a songwriter?
The albums that got me into Dylan were the early ones, like The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. I was a teenager struggling to figure out what
I wanted to do with my life when I first heard that. I liked writing poems and stories, but I didn’t know how to turn that into anything, and I didn’t think I had a good voice. My artistic ambitions were suppressed by the nature of the culture I grew up in. But hearing Dylan I thought maybe I could learn to play guitar and sing my stories and go to America and maybe people would listen to them. So he was the model for me. I’m very fond of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, too, but I like almost everything he’s done. He’s had great longevity and sustenance of a career by being honest to himself as a person in the time that he’s making a record.
Who are some of the other guitarists you’ve been influenced by?
I’m mostly inspired by songwriters and how the guitar intertwines with the songwriting and is used as a tool. I like Neil Young. I like some Nick Drake, as well—that sound and those strange open tunings. Joan Baez is a really good picker, and Joni Mitchell, of course.
What, if anything, have you learned from opening for people like Lindsey Buckingham and Neil Young?
A lot of it is just is seeing them go up onstage and give it everything every night; they really do. And they’ve been doing it for decades and decades. It’s almost like they’re doing it for the first time every time. They still have that passion and that fire and that connection to the audience that is very raw and very real. What an inspiring thing to see that! And I hope that after I’ve been doing it a long time, I’ll feel the same way.
In your NPR Tiny Desk concert online you played three different Martins. What can you tell me about them?
I have a Martin endorsement and they’ve been very kind to give me guitars. I played a show and somebody [from Martin] came up to me after and said, “That was a great set. Do you want this Martin guitar?” I was like “Uh, yeah, absolutely, I’ll take that guitar!” [laughs] It sounds amazing. I travel with a few guitars because I don’t like to tune between songs if I don’t have to. So I usually have a few guitars and my guitar tech, Justin, to help me out, so the tuning stays fresh. I tend to use a capo pretty regularly, so he deals with that, too.
Do you have just those three Martins, or do you have other guitars?
I have others. I still have the Mini Taylor and the Yamaha, and I also have a Gibson Hummingbird. My Martins are a D-28, a D-18, a D-45, an HD-35, and an HD12-28.
How do you think you’ve matured as a player and a singer since your open-mic days?
That’s an interesting question, because after touring for a while, I felt very confident. I’d never really sung or played in front of humans. I basically just learned a few chords, put some poems to music, and decided I was going to become a folk singer. And I got pretty comfortable: “Hey, maybe I really can do this.” But then after the tours were cancelled recently and suddenly there was this long break where I didn’t play for people, the first time I went and did an online concert, I felt like a novice all over again. I felt scared of playing, maybe because of how I started playing later in my life. Now I feel the only way to keep the confidence going is being on tour consistently and feeding it. Keep moving; keep playing.