J.S. Ondara Examines An Elusive American Dream On His Debut

Feb 18, 2019
Originally published on February 18, 2019 5:16 pm

A decade ago, J.S. Ondara was just a kid from Nairobi, Kenya, obsessed with American artists like Nirvana, Neil Young and Bob Dylan before he could even understand their lyrics. Now, at 26 years old, the self-taught musician has just released his debut album, Tales of America — an examination of this country and the American dream from a newcomer's perspective.

Having been in the U.S. since 2013, the musician says he still sometimes feels like an outsider, partially because "America is such a dynamic place and things change every day. ... Having not grown up here, I feel I'm always educating myself on what this country is, what it has been and perhaps what it can be."

Ondara spoke with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly about crafting his debut, the importance of storytelling in his music and more. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for interview highlights.


Interview Highlights

On writing about the American dream

I speak about the American dream in the record as something that's a bit elusive, in a tongue-in-cheek way. But also, [I'm] trying to live out my life in a way that perhaps offers some sort of optimism on it. ... It's one of the best ideas our civilization has come up with, this idea that you can be free, you can make a living doing things you don't absolutely hate and you can do the things you want. It's an excellent idea that I'm very fond of.

On whether or not the American dream is intact

I think there's definitely reasons to be concerned. My experiences and my journey so far as a testament to what the American dream is — having moved here and just gotten this path out of nothing, making this record and having this conversation with you — I think there's something to be said about that. But [I'm] also being conscious of the fact that the country is going through some things and that notion, that very great idea, can be lost. ... Just the relationships between the police and black people and what that entails, and how I suppose that affects me — I'm perhaps looking at these experiences from a completely different perspective.

YouTube

On finding new meanings for his songs

Once I've put these words down and I'm talking about them to people — revisiting them or singing them over and over again — their meanings gradually bring themselves to life. That's what happened with previous songs like "Saying Goodbye": I wrote that five years ago when I moved to the States, and they were just words in a book. ... I didn't have much context for it. But I've sung it quite a lot now and talked about it, [and] I feel I know what my subconscious mind is drawing from. That's happened to a few different songs here and there, where I sort of figure them out over time, or people figure them out for me.

Tales Of America is out now via Verve Forecast Records.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, J.S. Ondara's most prized possession was a tiny battery-powered radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KNOCKIN' ON HEAVEN'S DOOR")

GUNS N' ROSES: (Singing) Knock, knock, knocking on heaven's door.

KELLY: He loved listening to bands like Guns N' Roses, Nirvana, Radiohead. He considered himself something of a rock expert. Then he lost a bet about this very song "Knockin' On Heaven's Door."

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN N' ROSES SONG "KNOCKIN' ON HEAVENS DOOR")

J.S. ONDARA: I remember it so vividly I'm just having this very spirited debate. This friend of mine is telling me, oh, no, it's actually by this guy called Bob Dylan. And I'm like, well, no, it's not. I've been listening to this since I was a kid. I know it's a Guns N' Roses song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KNOCKIN' ON HEAVEN'S DOOR")

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) I feel I'm knocking on heaven's door.

KELLY: He ended up falling in love with Bob Dylan and American folk music. And it changed his life. That's where I started when I recently spoke to J.S. Ondara about his new album "Tales Of America."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN DREAM")

ONDARA: (Singing) It was just an American dream. It was just an American dream.

KELLY: So, I mean, this must have been quite the turning point for you because you ended up coming to the U.S. in 2013.

ONDARA: Right.

KELLY: You settled in Minnesota, which you picked because that's where Bob Dylan's from.

ONDARA: Right. You know, I had all these stories and poems that I was writing, you know, from when I was a kid. And, I mean, you could call them songs, but they weren't really songs to me. They were just stories - little snippets, just words. No one really ever told me as a kid, oh, you know, your voice is sort of pleasing in a way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN DREAM")

ONDARA: (Singing) But there's a beast on the clock, guarding against the folk. And the ghost from the river is watching. She won't let you get any close.

I love to write. And so when I found Dylan's music, I thought, oh, wait; so I could perhaps take all these words I've been writing, and maybe I could put them in a melody. And I suppose that's a folk song. And maybe I can have some kind of career. And so then I quickly realized as well I cannot do it from where I was. So I set my path on a going America and, you know, settling to Minnesota where he was from.

KELLY: You say this whole album is an examination of the American dream from an outsider's perspective.

ONDARA: Right.

KELLY: Do you still feel like an outsider after six years in the U.S.?

ONDARA: Yeah, I do very much so. I feel I still am learning new things about America every day.

KELLY: Like what?

ONDARA: About issues that are tied to, I think, politics - I think, you know, just the relationships between police and black people and what that entails and how, I suppose, that affects me as someone who doesn't necessarily - is from here. And so I'm perhaps looking at these experiences from a completely different perspective and educating myself on what the history of the country is because I think that adds a different perspective with how you interpret experiences, you know, if you lack the context of history.

KELLY: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD BLESS AMERICA")

ONDARA: (Singing) Will you let me in? Or are you at capacity? Will you set me free? Are you holding onto history? Will you be sincere?

KELLY: Do you think the American Dream is intact? I'm asking in the context of the current debate over immigration and the border.

ONDARA: I think there's definitely reasons to be concerned. I wonder if, you know, my experiences and, you know, my journey so far is a testament to what the American dream is - you know, having moved here just - and gotten this path just out of nothing and being here where I'm making this record and having this conversation with you. So I think there's something to be said about that - but also being conscious of the fact that the country is going through some things and that notion - that very great idea can be lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD BLESS AMERICA")

ONDARA: (Singing) Oh, God bless America, the heartache of mine. Oh, God bless America, the heartache of mine.

KELLY: One song to ask you about - Lebanon, which is about love and taking risks and that life is short.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEBANON")

ONDARA: (Singing) Hey, love.

KELLY: Those words right there...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEBANON")

ONDARA: (Singing) I'm ready now.

KELLY: ...Begins, hey, love, I'm ready now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEBANON")

ONDARA: (Singing) Can't you see this riot inside of my veins?

KELLY: Can't you see this riot inside my veins? What are you writing about?

ONDARA: I have no clue.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: Well, you're honest.

ONDARA: I have absolutely no clue. I think all these songs, their words - I just put words down. And it's just a stream of consciousness. It's - like, it's very subconscious. And sometimes I think what happens is over time, once I've put some kind of melody over these words...

KELLY: But I'm going to challenge you here because you told me you're a storyteller.

ONDARA: Right.

KELLY: So what's the story?

ONDARA: The story is taking shape gradually, as we speak and as time moves forward. I think it's - what happens most of the time is once I've put these words down - and I'm talking about them to people, and maybe I'm revisiting them, or maybe I'm singing them over and over again - their meanings gradually bring themselves to life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEBANON")

ONDARA: (Singing) In the water, the fire, I'll go wherever you go. In the valley, in the canyons, I'll go wherever you go.

That's happened in a few different songs here and there - where I sort of figure them out over time.

KELLY: I guess that's one way of thinking about it - is that your songs can mean a different story to the different people listening. They can impose their own stories on them.

ONDARA: And I'd prefer if they do because I'm very fond of stories, I think. I think stories - I mean, it's the only way you can teach a kid anything. You just - you tell them a story. It's all they've got. And these stories, they help us learn. They help us reflect on ourselves. They help us grow. And so I will write down some kind of story. It will mean some kind of thing to me, but I would love for it to mean something different for someone else. If it's the same thing - if it's just something that ties us together as, you know, people going through the human experience together, then that's great. But I don't impose what they mean to other people - not even to me, not even to themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF J.S. ONDARA SONG "SAYING GOODBYE")

KELLY: J.S. Ondara, thank you.

ONDARA: Thank you.

KELLY: His new album is "Tales Of America."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAYING GOODBYE")

ONDARA: (Singing) Bitterness... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.