Photo: Daniel Mendoza/Recording Academy
Kenyan Singer/Songwriter J.S. Ondara On Telling His Own 'Tales Of America' With Debut LP
Although he grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, singer/songwriter J.S. Ondara has more in common with Bob Dylan than you might think. After discoving the music of Bob Dylan, Ondara moved to Minneapolis, not far from where Dylan hailed from, to pursue a career. Also like Dylan, Ondara wrote songs - a lot of songs. This year, the prolific Ondara wittled down fhundreds of songs he wrote to the 11 stories comprising Tales Of America, his remarkable debut album.
"I was trying, in some ways, summarize my jorney so far of my time in America in a few songs, a few words, and speak about my perspective on the times we're in in America, as an immigrant," Ondara told us of Tales... backstage at Newport Folk recently.
Ondara was making his Newport Folk debut, another Dylan parallel and another giant step in his American journey.
"I've known about this festival for a long time," said Ondara. "I used to watch videos of it when i was back home in Kenya all the time. Being here in person, experiencing it, is quite surreal."
Bringing his fresh take on Americana and the American experience, Ondara voice is a welcome and refreshing sound and perspective for the genre. On his latest single, a new version of an outstanding track on the album, "Torch Song (Echo Park)," he sings with a jarring fragility and wisdom beyond his years, "Don't hold a torch to the sun/My heart is never on time/Always a little behind/Oh when it's about to break/I close my eyes and count to ten."
Ondara's songs such as "American Dream," Television Girl," and "Lebanon" have stirred up quite a buzz, and Rolling Stone called him out as an artist you need to know earlier this year.
"The reception has been great, of the record," he said. "I don't know what I expected really, but this is more than I expected. I'm pretty grateful for all of it."
Catch Ondara on tour this fall in North America and France, and watch our interview with him above for more.