When a young, bright-eyed songwriter from Nairobi stepped out of the airport in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2013, the echoes of his yet written refrain must have flashed across his mind: He was just an American dream, he was just an American dream. As J.S. Ondara was about to learn, the next years of his life would be filled with all the excitement and hardship that comes with the immigrant experience in America. Tracing heartbreak, financial woes, the emptiness of being far from home, and the highs of touring the country as a folk singer, the impressions collected by this Kenyan born ramblin’ man coalesced into a powerful opening salvo. Tales from America, Ondara’s first album, regales us with stories of lovers and mourners, winners and losers, and the pursuit of happiness that pushes some to the top of the heap and leaves others in the gutter.
J.S.’s love of music was sparked while watching MTV in his boyhood home in Nairobi, where he recalls first hearing the beautiful Guns and Roses ballad “Knockin on Heaven’s Door.” “Later, I found out it was actually written by this man called Bob Dylan,” he jokes. Ondara’s unorthodox first acquaintance with Dylan’s music quickly turned into an obsession, which took him across the pond to his folk hero’s homeland of Minnesota in search of a new life. “I told my mom I was coming to America to go to med school,” J.S. laughs, “because if I told her I was trying to make it as a folk singer, she would think I was crazy!” J.S. naively arrived in the middle of winter where his first contact with the bitter cold left a deep impression: “I had felt cold before when I was in Canada in June, but this was not cold, this was like a fire; it was not made for a boy from the equator.”
J.S. eventually warmed to his new surroundings, kindling a flame of poetic inspiration to battle the fiery cold of those midwestern winters. Donning his colorful hipster suits and signature pork pie hat, J.S. strummed his guitar any place that had a stool and a microphone. The Minneapolis community took notice, and before long J.S. found himself touring with the likes of Anderson East, First Aid Kit, The Milk Carton Kids, Mt. Joy and The Head & The Heart. With his career in full swing, J.S. finally set to work on a debut record. Releasing Tales from America this year, Ondara is on a national headlining tour, which he kicked off last Thursday to a full house at Songbyrd.
J.S.’s voice harkens to the ramblin’ style of Bob Dylan. At times, he effects Dylanesque sighs on certain words that pay sly homage to his chief influence, but when he floats into the higher vocal register, any Dylan comparison fades away. The mellow strumming, contemplative lyrics, and melodramatic singing sends a hush across the crowd, each song bracketed by the retelling of a personal story. With his unique life perspective, Ondara takes traditional folk styles into new realms of experience, and even wows audiences with a soulful rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which Ondara learned to sing even before he could speak English.
An evening of Tales from America eventually came to a close, much to the consternation of an eager crowd. Ondara finished his set with “Saying Goodbye,” the closing track of his first release. As he wanders across the American continent, it’s easy to see why his haunting chorus of “I’m just getting good at saying goodbye” is so a pro po to his ramblin’ lifestyle. One thing is for sure: J.S. Ondara is destined to be much more than just an American Dream.