Ondara Embodies the American Dream

Ondara | Folk & Roll Vol. 1: Tales of Isolation  | (Verve Forecast)
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It’s one thing to aspire to the American dream. Countless immigrants have risked their lives and fortunes to share in the American ideal and embrace what the Declaration of Independence called a more perfect union. Granted, there have been divides and difficulty along the way, but the premise still holds, an ideal that’s encouraged millions of people from across the globe world to pursue that promise for themselves and their descendants. 

Ondara is one example of an individual who made it his mission to come to this country and find success by following a musical mantra. A native of Kenya, he grew up wholly infatuated by a broad array of iconic musical heroes, from Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley and Death Cab For Cutie, to Radiohead, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Guns N’ Roses. Dylan was a particularly strong influence, one reason Ondara chose to settle in Minneapolis, the birthplace of the Bobster and the environment where he first established his own musical identity. Once there, Odara taught himself to play guitar and proceeded to practice his craft at local open mic nights. Although his original intention was to study music therapy, he eventually abandoned that idea in order to perform full-time.

His first significant public exposure came when Minneapolis radio station  KCMP happened to pick up on one of his YouTube videos and give it heavy exposure on its airwaves. And much like the proverbial saga of overnight success, he was discovered by Verve Forecast and promptly offered a recording contract. Ondara reportedly had over 100 songs written for his first album, but the eleven tracks that were selected for it eventually morphed into his critically acclaimed debut, 2018’s descriptively dubbed Tales of America. It was a remarkably emotive and expressive effort, one that relayed an autobiographical tale of an immigrant’s adjustment to his new country and all he came to realize through his dedication and determination.

Indeed, whatever dreams he had fully came to fruition when the album, produced by Mike Viola of the Candy Butchers, was greeted with immediate critical acclaim. It climbed the heights of Billboard’s Emerging Artist charts and, in turn, its Heatseekers, Americana and Album charts as well. The favorable notice eventually resulted in his nomination for Best Emerging Artist at the 2019 Americana Music Honors & Awards ceremonies. It also led to him acquiring opening slots on tours by Neil Young, the Milk Carton Kids and Lindsey Buckingham, among the many. 

While the outside observer may marvel at the way Ondara accumulated those kudos in such a seemingly short time, Ondara himself says it wasn’t as instant as it may seem. “It feels like it’s taken a lot of time,” he demures.

That said, he’s still proving his proficiency. He recently recorded a new album, tellingly titled Folk N’ Roll Vol 1: Takes of Isolation, which, like its predecessor, offers a timely commentary on real life circumstances. Recorded spontaneously at the home of a friend with whom he’s been living, its music is stripped down to bare essentials — vocals, guitar, harmonica, and in the case of one song, the oddly descriptive “Shower Song,” simply handclaps. Not surprisingly, it’s a stark but sensitive rumination about life in a time where the so-called “new normal” reigns, when seclusion and social distancing force both physical and mental disconnection. The titles tell it all — “Lockdown on Date Night,” “From Six Feet Away” and “Isolation Depression Syndrome” (one of three songs that have the word “Isolation” in the title) — but it’s Ondara’s   haunting and harrowing delivery, particularly on the riveting “Pulled Out of the Market,” the nagging “Isolation Blues” and the decidedly Dylanesque “Mr. Landlord,” that find a common bond between tone and tenacity.  

“It just evolved over a couple of weeks,” Ondara says of the album’s evolution. “I found myself in this mental rut because of the isolation. I woke up one morning and basically started vomiting songs compulsively for three days. That’s really how it felt. I didn’t have any control over what was coming out. I wasn’t trying to make a record, but just trying to get through the situation.”

He says his advisors — “his team,” as he refers to them —encouraged him to turn his songs into an album. “It was one of the quickest turnarounds ever,” he suggests. The album was released digitally on May 29, with a physical release scheduled for the fall. So too, why the title ,entions Vol. 1, Ondara hasn’t committed to a Vol. 2.

“Perhaps, perhaps,” he concedes. “I named it Folk N’ Roll because the concept came to me so fast. How it sounded very demo-like and intimate. A second volume may become something different.”

Whether that follow-up materializes or not, it does boast the distinction of being the first full album to address the full effect of the pandemic in personal and plaintive terms. 

For all his notoriety, Ondara still doesn’t take his success in stride.

“I think about it all the time,” he concedes. “When I actually sit back and think about how astounding it all is, and think about where I was a few years ago back home in Nairobi and now living in Minnesota and being on tour with Neil Young, thinking about that is extremely overwhelming. So I try not to think about it. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it’s just my way of trying to cope with it.”

Photo credit: Ian Flomer 

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