Turns out, the party was very short-lived when Minneapolis singer/songwriter J.S. Ondara found out he earned a Grammy nomination for best Americana album two weeks ago. He was just about to board a plane from Glasgow to Paris.
“I didn’t have any service on my phone and couldn’t really talk to anyone,” he recalled. “I just had to sit there. Which was maybe for the better.”
So consider the Grammy nod just one more thing for Ondara to celebrate as he comes home — finally! — for his First Avenue headlining show with a full band Saturday. Already sold out, the hometown gig is his first since a packed 7th St. Entry solo show in March; the dude has been on the road virtually nonstop in the interim.
Talking by phone last week from Paris — before flying home from a string of France and U.K. dates — he sounded gracious and appreciative about the Grammy nomination and the rest of the whirlwind year he has been enjoying/enduring.
However, he sounded more excited when talking about the year ahead.
“Everything that’s happened this year has felt like my dream coming true,” said the 27-year-old tunesmith, whose love for Bob Dylan partly led to his relocation to Minnesota six years ago from Nairobi, Kenya.
“But I’m still on a mission. I still have many things I want to achieve.”
Here’s a recap of what Ondara achieved in 2019: He dropped his debut album, “Tales of America,” on the legendary Verve Records imprint in early February. He earned raves from Rolling Stone, NPR and Billboard; the latter praised his “striking singing voice, which ranges from a velvety croon to an immaculate upper register.” He landed the prize for best emerging artist at Nashville’s Americana Music Awards.
On tour, he crisscrossed the country and the Atlantic Ocean, including opening dates with Neil Young, a set at the Newport Folk Fest and appearances on NBC’s “Today Show,” CBS’ “This Morning: Saturday” and NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
Among all that action, he picked out two personal highlights: “Touring with Neil Young was very big for me and very surreal, too, because he’s one of those artists I used to just sit and watch for hours on YouTube back in Kenya,” he said. “And the same thing with playing Newport. I used to watch those old videos, too, and never thought I’d be playing there myself.”
He still seemed to be processing the Grammy honor.
He wasn’t even sure if he would be able to attend the awards ceremonies in Los Angeles next month because of scheduling issues — rather enviable scheduling issues, it turns out. He might be touring big venues early next year, opening for an artist he could not yet disclose. (Our guess? The Lumineers, but we’ll see.)
He also expressed a little trepidation about landing in the Grammys’ Americana category, where his competition includes Keb’ Mo’, Calexico with Iron & Wine and fellow newcomers Yola and Madison Cunningham. The latter nominee actually sang on one of Ondara’s outtakes from “Tales of America,” a harmonious folk ballad called “Milk and Honey.”
“The other artists in the category are amazing, but I don’t want to be typecast into that genre,” he said. “My next album is going to sound very different.”
And, yes, despite having such a full plate, Ondara has carved out time to start working toward his next record.
He recently went back into the studio with producer Mike Viola and some of his cronies in the Los Angeles scene, including members of Dawes, with whom he made the debut album. He also did some recording in Paris and plans to do more over the next few weeks in Minneapolis.
“There’s definitely a certain mind-set I get when I’m writing and recording in Minnesota, especially in winter,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting back to that.”
In the meantime, Verve recently dropped a companion album of sorts featuring alternative versions and bonus songs from his debut, titled “Tales of America: The Second Coming.” He explained it as “just some of the many tracks left over from LP 1 that aren’t going to make it to LP 2.”
The collection includes elegant reworkings of songs by Young and David Bowie, “Heart of Gold” and “Afraid of Americans,” both of which fit the original album’s themes of coming to America in search of a dream amid a sometimes nightmarish sociopolitical atmosphere.
Ondara has hit many of his goals since the album’s release, but not without a classic by-the-bootstraps American ethos.
“As lucky as I’ve been to enjoy all these things I’ve been working toward,” he said, “it has been a lot of work, and it’s been pretty intense. I’ve been fairly swamped. So there haven’t been a lot of quiet moments to take it all in.”
Spending December and part of January in Minnesota should help remedy that.