Meet the Kenya-born, Minneapolis based songwriter harnessing creativity in isolation.
History’s most turbulent times have inspired some of the world’s greatest music, from Marvin Gaye critiqing the Vietnam War with What’s Going On, to James Brown’s rallying cry for the civil rights movement, Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud. Bob Dylan’s iconic The Times Are A’ Changing represented a blistering reaction to social injustices of the 1960s, delivered through his powerfully delicate songwriting.
With Folk n’ Roll Vol 1: Tales Of Isolation, Minneapolis-based Ondara reinterprets these emotive, socially charged anthems for a modern era. Tales of vast injustice are intertwined in his exploration of both the inward and outward impact of the global coronavirus pandemic. Pulled Out Of The Market tackles ever-present job insecurity in a changeable political climate, with Mr Landlord unfolding as a plea to retain his home. This sits alongside personal reflections of loneliness and relationships. “If I have to, I’ll love you from six feet away,” Ondara commands on the song of the same name, later offering a trio of tracks that follow a downward emotional spiral, from boredom to depression to blues.
Ondara’s second full-length – following last year’s Tales Of America – is peppered with relatable anecdotes specific to the state of the world. He sings of dressing up for a date night at the dinner table, repeated viewings of Tiger King, increased alcohol consumption, and a desperate need to find productivity in lockdown. Yet under the surface, …Tales Of Isolation battles with universal themes that reach far further than the pandemic. Ballad Of Nana Doline addresses the fallacies of war, testament to the record’s exploration of how we, as humans, deal with uncertainty and adversity.
Ondara (then referred to as J.S. Ondara) released his Tales Of America debut in February 2019, six years after moving to the United States from his native Kenya. Documenting his journey, his observations of the country, and his interpretation of the American Dream, the record secured Ondara an early Grammy Award nomination for Best Americana Album. Inspired by the works of Bob Dylan, his acoustically driven sound has seen Ondara perform on stateside television, as well as celebrate acclaim by the likes of Rolling Stone, and NPR – performing one of the iconic Tiny Desk Concerts for the latter.
Having opened for The Lumineers, First Aid Kit, Neil Young and more, Ondara has grown in the Minneapolis music scene – one that has allowed him to nurture his sound at his own pace. “If I had moved to a place like Los Angeles, or New York, then it probably would have been a little frustrating with all the people saying, ‘this is what you should do’,” Ondara reflected on the city, currently at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement. “I think it offered me this security of a place to grow at my own speed.”
Quickly finding his own voice, …Tales Of Isolation carries this mesmerising blend of power and subtlety, underpinned by Ondara’s articulate lyricism. Written and recorded in the space of a week – “a kind of vomit of words and melodies” by Ondara’s own admission – his sophomore album is clear evidence that adversity can often lead to creative growth.
Ondara songs you need to hear
Isolation Boredom Syndrome (IBS)
Lockdown On Date Night Tuesday
For any current and future Ondara dates head to Ticketmaster.co.uk.
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Photo by Ian Flomer