Ondara is Healing Through New Songs

Photo via Sacks Co.

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

We all have an inner voice. That silent whisper that offers advice, a sense of morality, and ambition. It can push us to great heights or keep us from making poor decisions. It can even direct us toward healthier choices that keep us alive or thriving. For Kenyan-born artist, Ondara, that voice pushed him to leave the, at times, claustrophobic confines of his homeland and native culture to become the poet, songwriter, and performer he’d felt destined to be. As a kid growing up in Nairobi, Ondara found music first via the radio, late-night broadcasts he’d listen to via crackling BBC broadcasts. He’d wait until everyone went to sleep to take his chance. Later, walking around local markets in the early 2000s, he came across pirated CDs. That’s where he discovered the artist who would change his life: Bob Dylan. Today, Ondara lives in the United States, arriving here after winning an immigration lottery. He’s now a Grammy-nominated songwriter. But his latest project, he says, is both the easiest and hardest thing he’s ever done. His new album, Spanish Villager No: 3, which is out September 16, may end up saving his life. 

“I think part of it is just finding something to do with your life that isn’t nothing,” Ondara tells American Songwriter. “You know?”

As a teenager, he says, he was just trying to figure out where his place was in the larger world. What was he going to do with his time on the planet? As he saw it, there wasn’t a clear path forward to achieve what he wanted to achieve: artistry. From where he was in Kenya, he couldn’t determine the next steps, couldn’t see them in his head. But finding Dylan one day was like starting a fire. He’d always loved words and writing. But he never much considered himself a singer. So, hearing Dylan’s songs, Ondara thought he could pen poetry and recite them to music as he realized Dylan often did. 

“I thought he was just a poet who was narrating poems,” Ondara says. “If there’s a chance I can find myself in the West, then maybe I could be accepted by being a narrator of poems, too.”

He sang in private some, but not in public. His earlier discovery of Jeff Buckley inspired him to at least sing a little bit. Today, he still doesn’t feel like a singer (though he very much is one). As far as songwriting goes, he says, it’s an “extrapolation” of his love for literature and poetry. He thinks of it in a beautiful manner: his voice, he says, is what “publishes” his poems. Ondara lucked out and won a lottery that allowed him to come to the U.S. He chose Minneapolis, Minnesota because he knew Dylan was from the nearby area. There, he began going to open mics every week for two years, honing his skills and self-confidence. 

“I desperately wanted to come to America,” he says. “I wanted more. And I knew that the place for more was America. So, I tried all kinds of things. I tried applying to school, for jobs. I thought if I can sneak in there, I could try to be a rock star. I just needed to find my way somehow.”

Then, after discovering Dylan, he received news of his immigration lottery victory, which he calls “absolute luck.” Maybe others would call it fate. Either way, he’s now “manifesting destiny.” The opportunity has allowed him to get out of the poverty he grew up. He’s not inspired by fame or popularity, just opportunity, and artistic refinement. He wants to live a meaningful life, to wake up and be happy about what’s ahead. It just so happened music was that thing that would help. Since his arrival Stateside, Ondara has opened for groups like the Lumineers, First Aid Kit, The Head and the Heart, and even Neil Young. He earned a Grammy nomination for his 2019 album, Tales of America. He followed that up with a 2020 LP, Folk N’ Roll, Vol 1: Tales of Isolation. He calls his time spent doing all this “very dreamlike” when he thinks about it now in retrospect. 

“At the time,” he says, “it didn’t feel particularly special. Just putting one foot in front of the other, doing what I was meant to be doing in the universe.” 

While he’s grateful people care, accolades are not the driving force. In fact, at this particular moment in time, health is what’s pushing him. Though that decision, he says, came almost subconsciously. His newest record is something of a dichotomous one, in that it came to him effortlessly but it’s proven difficult to understand in full. “It came out of me,” he says. He calls the process “tyrannical” in that he doesn’t feel as if he has “too much control of the process.” In fact, he says “it’s very violent, almost aggressive” in how it manifested. 

“In that sense,” Ondara says, “it’s very difficult but also easy. I’m sort of just yielding to the will of my body and subconscious.” 

There are lots of layers to the album, and to the singles and accompanying music videos. Visual themes for the release include Ondara wearing clothes and playing an acoustic guitar covered in newsprint. An immigrant, he has played with and marvelously subverted the idea of an “alien” on the record’s lead single. With each passing day, the themes and makeup of the LP come clearer to him. The songs were born of the past years, from the pandemic to the murder of George Floyd to the ensuing social unrest. As he thinks about the songs, he realizes he’s in a process, in pursuit of healing. 

“I think I’m trying to be healthier and to heal from what the last several years have been,” Ondara says. “I think there’s probably been a lot of built-up trauma inside of me that has so many layers within it. Maybe that’s why the record has a lot of layers.” 

The main character of the album, Ondara says, is a “conduit” of his own healing. That’s what he’s learning and he processes the creative acts that led him to make the new album. Coming from a country where he felt stifled to landing in one where people who look like him are often in social peril, it’s a lot to endure. Art helps. Poetry and songs buoy. He’d been in a perpetual state of dissonance. Now, though, with three LPs under his belt, he has a chance to breathe and set a new, healthier course. And starting on his album release date, Ondara will undergo a lengthy tour, putting the next foot forward. Listening to himself. In an age when logic often rules, it’s his connection to (his) art, he says, that keeps him connected to what is most important. 

“I think music,” Ondara says, “has this function of gathering people together and creating a spiritual element to the world that the world desperately needs at the moment. That’s what I appreciate most about it.”

Photo via Sacks Co.

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