It was Bob Dylan’s influence that brought him to Minneapolis from Kenya five years ago. But it was the Twin Cities music scene that got J.S. Ondara to where he is now — which has been almost everywhere except Minnesota over the past year.
The honey-voiced singer/songwriter spent a month last spring recording at the Los Angeles studio where the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” was made. He spent two months last fall touring as the opener for Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac fame.
More recently, he’s been up, up and away doing everything from a photo shoot for the latest Rolling Stone and a two-week tour of Europe to schmoozing at the Grammys and various other promotional gigs for “Tales of America,” his debut album released Friday via the storied Verve Records label.
As the title suggests, “Tales of America” is one young man’s account of resettling in the increasingly divided land of the free while realizing the American dream. With a mostly raw and acoustic sound reminiscent of 1963’s “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” the record rounds up stories and festering emotions that came to Ondara in the city he still calls home. Even though he’s rarely here.
Setting up last month before 89.3 the Current’s birthday party at First Avenue in Minneapolis — where he enchanted a packed audience with only a solo acoustic set — Ondara seemed excited to be back home but also a bit exasperated. He was due to fly out again the next day.
“I struggle with how surreal this all is,” said the 26-year-old troubadour, who dresses with a vintage ’60s panache and speaks with a faint British accent (traceable to Kenya’s colonial past).
“Just being an American in the first place is sort of miraculous. And then being able to play music as a career, that’s definitely miraculous.”
Looking back to when he first landed at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport from Kenya — not even knowing how to play guitar — he added, “It’s been five years. That was my incubation period, and I don’t think I could have done it anywhere other than Minneapolis.”
Knock, knock, knocking
As is now the popular story line about Ondara — Rolling Stone said “he can trace his entire career back to a bad bet” — he became enamored of Dylan’s music in his early teens after wagering a classmate that “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” was actually a Guns N’ Roses tune.
He’d heard GNR, Nirvana, Radiohead and other English-singing rock bands on his older sisters’ battery-powered radio while growing up in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. He had to go to the internet cafes in town to look up Dylan’s music, though.
“He hit me like a lightning bolt,” Ondara said. “I just went crazy for him, listening to everything I could.”
He also read up on Bob’s home state. The less magazine-worthy part of Ondara’s story is that he had an aunt living in the Twin Cities who put him up. But he said his infatuation with Hibbing High’s most famous alum was the deciding factor in moving to Minnesota once he lucked into a green card and family members raised money for his trip.
“Dylan appeared to be this romantic character who just up and did what he wanted to do: ‘Oh, I’m going to New York because that’s where Woody Guthrie is,’ ” Ondara said. “That’s how I felt about Dylan and Minnesota. It sort of felt like a creative destiny. It felt like the place I had to go to start creating my music.”
Like his hero, he picked an alias — Jay Smart — when he started performing and recording in 2016. (Most local friends still call him Jay.)
Also like Dylan, Ondara’s first recordings of note were reworkings of other people’s songs. They concealed his own songwriting talent but showed off his willowy, smooth voice, part Jeff Buckley, part Ray Lamontagne.
That was good enough. A dramatic cover of Haley Bonar’s “Kismet Kill” made it into heavy rotation on the Current in the fall of 2016, when a very un-GNR-like version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” also went viral.
“I knew I would have a lot of expectations for the first record I put out, so I wanted to get all the cards right,” he said of making those cover songs his calling card. “Familiarizing people about me by using other people’s songs sort of put off those expectations for a while, I think.”
Not for long, though. Ondara’s set at First Avenue for the Current’s birthday party in January 2017 (his last show as Jay Smart) led to a deal a month later with a national booking agent. Three months later he landed a tour opening for British folk-pop star David Gray. And that’s when record labels came calling.
‘J.S. is a seeker’
Verve Records, known for fostering everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to the Velvet Underground since its inception in 1956, recruited Ondara with a promise to fund a “real recording” (see: “Pet Sounds” studio) and to foster him as a long-term artist.
He liked one other part of the deal, too: His artist-and-repertoire representative at the label, Mike Viola, also served as producer for the debut album.
“Just like Dylan,” Ondara proudly noted.
Viola is a Los Angeles studio ace and former Candy Butchers bandleader who has also helmed records by Ryan Adams, Jenny Lewis and Matt Nathanson.
“J.S. is a seeker,” Viola raved of his latest collaborator.
“He can sing, he can play, but what’s most appealing and rare in a young artist like him is his curiosity to find new ways into a song. He’ll throw himself through a bay window to get to a better chorus.”
Even though he and Ondara brought in some of Viola’s MVP associates — including Andrew Bird and members of Dawes and Milk Carton Kids — to play and sing backup parts, they opted to keep the recordings relatively stripped-down to accentuate what’s best about the singer/songwriter: his singing and his songwriting. (Duh!)
“It helped to work with people who are songwriters themselves,” Ondara said. “They were there to really serve the songs.”
He and Viola used Dylan’s early LPs and another album, Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks,” as sonic guideposts — “albums where you can hear the acoustic guitar and the voice most of all,” Ondara said, “but there are all these little pieces, these little musical embellishments around the raw elements.”
The end result ranges from the light-jazzy, violin-laced opening track “American Dream” (heavy on the “Astral Weeks” influence) to the softly strummed, poppy, radio-baiting gem “Saying Goodbye” to an a capella song about finding the perfect all-American girl, “Turkish Bandana.”
While Ondara’s immigrant status makes for a unique theme, the latter song is one of several featuring a topic found on pretty much every decent album by a red-blooded male songwriter in his 20s.
“Some of the record is about the elusiveness of the American dream,” he admitted with a sheepish laugh, “and some of it is about women who were elusive.”
While he’s yet to settle into a steady relationship on the dating front — and probably won’t for some time, given the demands of touring through all of 2019 (including a return to 7th Street Entry on March 29) — Ondara makes clear in the LP’s closing song, “God Bless America,” that he still feels the romantic pull of his adopted homeland.
Looking over the soon-to-be-packed First Avenue main room last month, he said simply, “Look where I am. I’m in it. This is the American dream right here.”
More from J.S. Ondara
On leaving Nairobi: “I had to get out. It wasn’t a dire situation where anyone was shooting at me or my life there was hopeless, which is true of a lot of immigrants who come here. It was just a situation where I just felt like I knew I was called to play music, and it became evident to me that I couldn’t do it back there. So in that way, I had no other choice.”
On living as an immigrant in America: “It’s bittersweet for me. I can see how difficult the times are right now for immigrants and the political environment in general, but the magnitude of that is drastically different from where I was. I can see both sides. America is still a place where people can come and pursue their dreams. The experiment of America in that sense is still working. The job now is to not ruin it.”
On touring with Lindsey Buckingham: “Part of the reason I spent a lot of time on the road was to simply learn how to play out in front of people without freaking out. Going out and doing it is the only way to learn how to do it. And doing it with someone as accustomed to touring as Lindsey and his crew was a very valuable experience. He was very kind to me, and so were his crowds.”
What he loves most about Minnesota: “I wasn’t conscious about it at the time, but I’m seeing now how much I grew here. Even just having to deal with winter taught me things: that life can be harsh at times, but after a while the darkness gives rise to the sun. Couple that with there being a supportive music scene but not being around too much industry here, I had time to focus within and write these songs — and rewrite them and work on them — without too much distraction.
But what he still hates about Minnesota: “I was in pain the first time I got off the plane; I’d never experienced cold like that. Everybody said, ‘The winters haven’t been all that bad lately, this is just a particularly bad one.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Just my luck!’ I still haven’t experienced a ‘good’ winter. I stepped off the airplane last night and thought, ‘Yeah … being away hasn’t been all bad.’ ”