On the plus side, Ondara got to enjoy the bulk of his late-winter arena tour with the Lumineers before the COVID-19 lockdown began. It was his most extensive trek yet in a burgeoning career that has also found him opening shows for Neil Young and Lindsey Buckingham.
Unfortunately, the date the tour halted in mid-March came just one day before he and bandmates the Laurel Strings were to play their hometown at Xcel Energy Center.
“That was sort of the big one near the end for us,” the Minneapolis-based singer-songwriter said. “It felt very incomplete.”
The sting of quarantine was especially sharp for Ondara, which may explain why he reacted so swiftly and purposefully, as only an emotionally driven songwriter can.
From his home in northeast Minneapolis, the Kenyan-born folk-rocker wrote an entire album of pandemic-related songs in April. In the spirit of how the material all came to him, he and his label Verve Forecast are rush-releasing it Friday without any advance warning.
“It’s not a typical album, and it’s not a typical time,” he reasoned, “so who’s to say what’s the right way to release it?”
Titled “Folk N’ Roll, Vol. 1: Tales of Isolation,” the 11-song, all-acoustic collection is one of the first significant records inspired by and entirely written and released during the COVID-19 quarantine.
Songs including “From Six Feet Away,” “Isolation Depression Syndrome” and “Mr. Landlord” — all clearly pulled from the headlines of the moment — were written in a three-day burst that Ondara likened to “vomiting them all up.”
“I had about a couple weeks where I was in a complete mental rut and did nothing,” recalled the 28-year-old tunesmith, who is using only his surname as his stage name now. (He previously recorded as J.S. Ondara, and before that as Jay Smart.)
“Then one morning, I just woke up and started writing these songs. I wasn’t trying to make a record at all. I was just trying to give myself a little therapy — trying to get by, really.”
He spent another three days recording at his sound engineer and tour manager Justin Schwartzbauer’s house. And that was it.
“I don’t know how to explain it, really,” Ondara said. “I feel like I didn’t have any control over it. It just came out. It was just go, go, go. I never really had time to think about it very much.”
Personal, yet universal
Stripped down to just acoustic guitar and harmonica like the early works of his hero Bob Dylan — whose influence was great enough for Ondara to move to Minnesota from Nairobi almost seven years ago — “Folk N’ Roll, Vol. 1” rawly captures the wide range of emotions of the coronavirus crisis.
The opening track, “Pulled Out of the Market,” captures the anxiety of suddenly unemployed restaurant and factory workers. “Mr. Landlord” pleads with the powers-that-be to keep roofs over our heads. “Ballad of Nana Doline” imagines the full life of any one of the elderly women lost to the pandemic.
More positively, “Lockdown Date Night Tuesday” spins a romantic tale of a couple getting dressed up to “meet at the kitchen table.” And “From Six Feet Away” documents the odd challenge of staying close to loved ones without touching — including a funny line about the oddest phenomenon of the quarantine so far, the Netflix docuseries “Tiger King.”
Ondara said the inspirations behind the songs are pretty evenly balanced between personal experience and stories he heard from friends or the media.
“Even the stuff that’s personal can be quite universal, because so many people are going through similar difficulties right now,” he said.
He pointed to “Mr. Landlord” for evidence of how universal the themes are: “That could be about anyone here in Minneapolis, but I was actually talking to friends of mine in Nairobi who are desperately trying to figure out how to pay their rent. I had to send them some money to help out.”
Likewise, he said, “My mom was telling me that in the tiny, tiny village in Kenya where she was born — which is very isolated — there have even been a couple cases reported there. That tells you just how far-reaching this pandemic is.”
In career terms, the lockdown came at what seems like an especially vital time for Ondara, who was enjoying quite an upswing following the February 2019 release of his Verve debut, “Tales of America.”
He earned ample press and a Grammy nomination for best Americana album off the record, which featured members of Dawes and Andrew Bird for backers. After the Lumineers tour, he planned to begin the rollout of what was supposed to be his second album, which he described as “drastically different” from the “Folk N’ Roll” record that popped up in the meantime.
“It’s a much bigger-sounding record, a natural progression from my last record, which was going to lead to me touring with a full band,” he said.
Of course, that studio album is on hold now, as are any and all tour dates. Ondara glumly predicted he won’t perform again in front of an audience until next year at the earliest.
So does that mean there could be a “Vol. 2” of the “Folk N’ Roll” album in lieu of other activity?
“The concept of how quickly and unexpectedly this record came to me is something I would like to see again,” he said. “But I certainly hope I don’t have to continue with the isolation theme. I’m over it.”