It seems counterintuitive that someone raised in Nairobi, Kenya could tell such compelling stories of the American experience through song. And yet J.S. Ondara does so with such skill on his first album Tales of America, released this February, that he’s seen high praise from the likes of NPR, Rolling Stone and Billboard. Raised on 90s alt-rock like Nirvana and Radiohead, the 27-year-old musician discovered great storytellers like Bob Dylan and Neil Young in high school, forever altering his musical style. In 2013, Ondara moved from Kenya to Minneapolis where he taught himself guitar and was eventually picked up by a label. We had the chance to ask Ondara about his roots, moving to the U.S. and why he never gave up on his goals before he plays Sixth & I on October 30.
On Tap: What was it like to move to the U.S. and pursue a career as a musician?
J.S. Ondara: It certainly wasn’t easy, but really, I was just too far from home. There was no looking back. If home was a bus fare away, perhaps I would have given up at some point. I never really had a choice.
OT: Who influences your sound?
JSO: I am mostly influenced by music from the 60s and 70s – songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison and Tim Buckley.
OT: What was it about Minneapolis’s music scene that drew you to that city, and how has it affected your music?
JSO: I was initially drawn to Minnesota after learning it was [Bob] Dylan’s home but the scene and the people of Minneapolis are why I chose to stay. The city has a lively music scene, but it also has a certain quietness about it that is essential for writing and growing without too much distraction.
OT: Why were you able to tell such a compelling American story with Tales of America despite having grown up in another country?
JSO: I suspect it is because I was making observations about America as an outsider with no bias other than to draw a portrait of the America that I saw.
OT: What lead you to the Americana genre and why did you decide to make the album entirely acoustic?
JSO: As an avid fan of stories, I was drawn to the storytelling nature of folk music and I believe that’s why I found myself drawn to that kind of music. That said, the journey has just begun, and I most certainly intend to experiment with more sounds and arrangements as I make more records.
OT: What do you hope people will get out of listening to Tales of America?
JSO: I think art at its best is a mirror through which a society can observe itself and hence change course whenever necessary. I hope that people will see a mirror in Tales of America and gain insight into themselves.
OT: What can people expect from your DC show?
JSO: I am looking forward to playing some new songs live for the first time.
OT: Where do you go from here? What are some of your goals for the future?
JSO: I am currently working on my next record so the next step for me is to finish that and share it with the world. My goals change all the time, but this year my goal is to try to make it through 27 without dying unceremoniously.
Catch J.S. Ondara at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on Wednesday, October 30. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $20. For more information on Ondara, go to www.jsondara.com.
Sixth & I: 600 I St. NW; 202-408-3100; www.sixthandi.org