From the time he first appeared on the Minnesota music scene as Jay Smart, the artist now known as J.S. Ondara has captivated listeners both here and, increasingly, around the world. A native of Kenya, Ondara’s always had a global view — but his musical sights were set on the United States, and the Recording Academy has now honored him with a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album for his debut LP Tales of America.
Shortly after he played a homecoming show in Minneapolis this month, he sat down with The Current’s Andrea Swensson for a conversation about his remarkable career.
Andrea Swensson: I had a chance to see you at First Avenue a couple weeks back, and you sold out the Mainroom. I want to know all about this journey that you’ve been on this year and what it was like to return to that space. I see it as almost like a victory lap at the end of your 2019.
J.S. Ondara: It was a very spiritual experience, really, to be back in that room where it all began for me when I played that first show there a few years ago — which, I think, was a birthday party. Right after that show is when I got sent a booking agency. It was the very start of everything, so being back there was sort of this full-circle thing that was a very spiritual experience for me. I’m so glad to have been able to share it with these people who’ve been there with me from the very beginning on this journey.
What has it been like for you to be the headliner, to have people coming out to see what you’re all about?
It’s crazy, surreal, to go out and…people show up! My first headlining stint was my latest tour in Europe; I played some small shows in Paris and London and Berlin. The record wasn’t out at the time; it was just a few songs, but we just had to test the waters. I was there and…the shows are sold out! I was like, where did you come from? It’s been that kind of experience where every night people just show up. It’s what I wanted to do, when I left home it’s what I was longing for, but when it’s happening it still feels quite dream-like.
We talked at the beginning of this year about this dream that you had to come to America and be a musician, and you’ve done that. What do you dream about now?
What I wanted to do is make records. I loved records so much; they changed my life. As a kid they showed me a different world. They taught me how to speak. They taught me so much. So I just want to continue that tradition, I want to keep on making records. I made my first record, and now I’m going to make another record. I’m just going to keep making records until I die. So I suppose I’m dreaming up new records every day, is what I’m dreaming of.
What did you take away from touring with Neil Young? What was that like?
It was such a mind trip for me. From being home in Nairobi a few years ago and being on the internet in a cafe watching videos of Neil Young and just going crazy over his records, being, “Oh my God, this is so good. I want to go to America and I want to do this!” It was such a mind-trip to come from that, from watching videos of him online every day after school to being on the same stage with him. I didn’t know how to handle myself, really. What I took out of that, which is sort of the same thing I took out of touring with Lindsey Buckingham, was…you know, after so many years of doing it, every time they’re on stage it’s just an epic show. They do it like it’s the first time they’re playing a show. Keeping that love and passion, after decades and decades of doing it, is something that I would like to take away.
Is that something you were able to talk to either of them about?
A little bit, just asking them where they get their fire. But they’re rock stars, just, “Well, we love it.”
Where do you find your fire?
Looking at my journey and my trajectory, where I’m from is just so far that there’s just no way…I can’t go back. Forward is the only place to go. That fires me up pretty well, usually. When I moved here, it was extremely difficult. I was trying to start this impossible career. If it was convenient to just give up, “Oh, okay, I’ll just go back home to Virginia” or something like that, then I would totally do it. But it was not convenient at all to give up. Home is too far away. There’s no way to go back…really, there’s not much to go back to. So the only way is forward. There’s nothing else you can do, so that’ll keep you going.
You’re constructing your own reality as you go.
Yeah, you are. It’s a mission, really. You’re on a mission, and it’s just, what’s the next mission? You keep going. There’s nothing else to do.
I always wonder when a person who is connected to the Twin Cities experiences the world in the way that you have and gets to tour around and really get into the music industry: what’s your relationship to Minneapolis now? What’s it like for you to come back to this area?
It is still and, I think, always will be a very spiritual place for me. There’s this sort of mindspace that I’m in here…I’ve been here the last two weeks, recording for my next record. I’ve done some of it in different places around the world, but I wanted to do the finishing part of it here because there’s a certain creative space that I get when I’m in Minneapolis. That’s where I feel comfortable to be crazy and be creative without people whispering in my ear, “This is what you’ve got to do, this is what you’ve got to do.”
In those early days, Minneapolis was for me like a perfect incubation place where I could get lost in my head, in my path, have a community that can support me but not impose anything on my artistic path. That’s something you can’t get if you’re in New York or L.A., because in a place like that there’s just too many voices trying to “guide” you. So this place offered me a perfect incubation that I don’t think I could have got anywhere else. The way the city is set up, the community around it. That fondness that I have for it will remain for the entirety of my career.