SXSW Music Interview: J.S. Ondara

Kenyan-born songwriter works out his feelings about America on debut LP


J.S. Ondara immigrated to America with a cold dream. When he arrived in Minnesota from Kenya in 2013 to pursue music, he couldn't even play an instrument.

When he arrived in Minnesota from Kenya in 2013 to pursue music, he couldn’t even play an instrument.

"I had no clue what I was doing. I had a stupid dream and was stupid enough to follow it through," laughs the 26-year-old songwriter. "There's a chance it might have not worked out, but you never really know. It's that line where you make decisions that are either very clever or very stupid, and it's just hard to tell at the time until the results of your decisions have materialized."

Last month's acclaimed debut LP, Tales of America, validates Ondara's naive direction. His striking, high-ranging vocals ring against the easy strums of poetically straightforward but evocative ballads. Ondara paints a complex portrait of his adopted country, both hopeful and sad in the tension between ideal and reality.

"I think the process of writing this record was the process of me trying to figure out my feelings about America," he offers. "I love this place and am very grateful to have the opportunity to come here and build this career out of nothing, something that I otherwise wouldn't have been able to do. So I'm very fond of this country and fond of the American experiment, and the ideal of the American dream.

"But I'm also looking at it from the perspective of once you get to the country and are faced with the realities of being here and the social turmoil that comes with living in America. So the record ends up becoming this romance, this push and pull where I'm grateful, but I can also see how this path that I've had has been missed by millions of others. That's the love and war I'm trying to portray on the record."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

SXSW Music 2019, J.S. Ondara, Tales of America

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