If You Go:
What-Ondara with Kiely Connell
Where-The Slowdown 729 N 14th Street
When-Saturday May 27th Doors 7PM Show 8PM
Tickets-Slowdown.com $25 advance $30 day of show
One of the best origin stories in modern music is that of Kenyan singer-songwriter Ondara. The story goes that Ondara grew up listening to rock songs on his sister’s battery-powered radio, and after a dispute with a friend over whether “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” was a Bob Dylan or Guns & Roses song, Ondara, being in the GNR camp, decided to travel to the United States to pursue music. He won a green card lottery and moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, because Bob Dylan would go on to become his musical hero. In Minneapolis, he would teach himself to play the guitar and begin performing around town.
His debut album, Tales of America, came out in 2019 to critical acclaim, including a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album. He followed up that album with an on-the-nose pandemic release entitled Folk n’ Roll Vol. 1: Tales of Isolation, released while many were still trying to make sense of what was happening and long before the pandemic would peak. Last year, he released the album Spanish Villager No. 3 and took on the persona of The Spanish Villager. A song off that album, “An Alien in Minneapolis”, recently beat out 15,000 other entries to win the top prize at the 22nd annual International Songwriting Competition. I spoke with him over the phone in anticipation of his performance at The Slowdown on Saturday, May 27th.
Ondara canceled shows last year as he was working on his new Spanish Villager stage show, listening to his body, and working on dancing and choreography. He tells me later that the show this weekend will be more traditional, like his first tour, but I asked him about the Spanish Villager persona. He stated, “While my career was growing, I was feeling this need to sort of create a demarcation between the art and the artist, because I was running into some mental health issues by trying to reconcile who I was as an individual and sort of a commodified public entity whose star was rising. So that was becoming difficult for me mentally, and I had to create a wall between me as a person and me the artist. That was the only way for me to continue with my career. I am happy I had the idea, because I would’ve quit if I hadn’t.”
On the song “A Prophet of Doom” off of Spanish Villager, he sings of “democracy being on the line” and seems to speak of a blasé attitude of people toward saving it. I asked Ondara about the song, and he said, “There is a song by The Who where one of the lines is ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’. I think part of A Prophet of Doom was inspired by that sentiment. Sometimes change is difficult to pinpoint because, if the system doesn’t fundamentally change, then it is the same as the old one. I have also been trying to calculate the difference between democracy here and democracy back home, where I am from. I think I expected things to be different here, but it seems that the human condition is the same wherever you go. People are just-people. There is greed, and when people get into power, they are just as human regardless of where in the world they are. Maybe, since it is difficult to fix the human condition, we can only try to fix the system within which we exist. I think that is what The Who was talking about, and I think that is what I was talking about as well.”
With the Tales of Isolation album being almost a snapshot of the pandemic in real time, I asked how Ondara thinks the album will hold up over time. “I don’t know”, he said, “I suppose time will tell. It’s really a specific portrait of that particular time. I made it in three days, you know. I have never made a record in three days. It felt like therapy at that time. I think I might maybe do a re-release on the ten-year anniversary and maybe play the songs with a band and collectively reflect on what a weird time that was.”
While “Saying Goodbye” off of his debut album Tales of America was the single off of that album, people gravitated towards the song “Lebanon,” which has a more traditional folk feel. I asked why people connected with that song. “I wish I had a good answer for it.”, he said, “I also thought “Saying Goodbye” would be the song, but it turned out I was surprised it was “Lebenon”, because “Lebenon” was a throwaway song that I didn’t want to put on the record, I was just playing with it in the studio, and the producer Mike (VIola) said, ‘What is that one? Let’s try that one’. So that is a song that I had thrown away, so I am surprised that turned out to be the song that people have become attached to, so I mean, I guess it goes to say, you never really know.”
After Tales of Isolation and with the pandemic raging, Ondara went radio silent on social media for close to a year. I inquired if he feels pressure to be on social media. He responded, “I do. I do feel the pressure, and I don’t like it. I am the kind of person who, if I wasn’t doing this for work, I wouldn’t have social media at all. I think I would have been more compatible with the rock and roll format of the 60’s where you make a record, do a bunch of press, and then make another record. The social media experiment that we are all partaking in is kind of a rabbit hole, I am not even sure it is a net positive for civilization. It is something I kind of have to do, but it is not something I look forward to. I am finding ways to do it in my own way and not become an algorithm. I am not an influencer; I am an artist, and I think that needs to be clear.”
I asked what Bob Dylan song he would record first if Ondara pulled the trigger on a Dylan covers album that he has mentioned online. “I think a lot of people would like me to start with “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” because that was my gateway drug. I thought it was a GNR song; I was very confident. That is how I found Dylan and fell into this rabbit hole of Dylan that I haven’t been able to get out of. I think at some point I will do a Dylan project, I don’t know if it is a record, some kind of special, or something. I think I have to; I feel like I need to; my soul feels the need to do that. I did recently play a tribute concert at Dylan’s old high school in Hibbing. I just played Dylan songs; it was really cool.”
He first played Europe when he did begin playing shows again, and I asked if things clicked back into place. “It really did.”, he said. “I think I discovered something; I think I had forgotten who I really was, just because when you spend so much time not doing the thing that makes you feel alive, you kind of lose that connection with your inner spirit. As soon as I started playing, I started recalling, and I realized something that I had completely forgotten or didn’t know, which is that folks coming to the show just wanted to see me. They didn’t care if I was playing with a band, playing solo, wearing a suit, or whatever; they just wanted to commune, and I am so glad that occurred and that gave me the momentum that I needed to come into the new year.”
The current tour is called The Rebirth Tour, and I asked what people can expect from these shows. He stated, “It is a recalibration of sorts, because I don’t feel like there is a straight continuity between my career pre-pandemic and post-pandemic, and it seems like we have to recalibrate in a way and go back to build that initial feeling I had, that initial connection with music and with the people. People can expect a very intimate show and stories about my journey to America. It is going to be very similar to what my first tour was.”