JS Ondare

Musician JS Ondare

A rising star was in Birmingham to support a musical legend on Veteran’s Day. The wind whipped fierce rain across the entire state the holiday weekend and the sky was dark and moody. Inside the Lyric Theater, J.S. Ondara strode to the stage in a resplendent white suit carrying an acoustic guitar. He was there to warm up the crowd for Lindsey Buckingham, and he did just that. 
Ondara was given the customary opener’s share of stage space, which often isn’t nearly enough. The space he was given was spacious enough to open his guitar case adorned with his name and a solitary microphone. Bathed in royal purple light, he won the crowd over with his amiable personality and repertoire. 
He joked between each number and told amusing stories, but it was his songs that won over the crowd. His singing voice on record can be quite low but it is his falsetto that is truly astonishing live. He ran through tunes from his upcoming album (out Feb. 15) and left Birmingham as a new contender for further songwriting riches.
I spoke with him on the phone and asked him a few questions about his career thus far: 

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your native country and what made you move to the U.S.?

A: I was pursuing a career in music so I left my native country of Kenya.

Q: I think I read in a press release that when you came here you wanted to move to Minneapolis and I wanted to know if that had any significance for you. Why Minneapolis?

A: I was drawn to Minnesota because of my fascination with Bob Dylan, and he was from there so it was a natural move for me at the time.

Q: Are you a Prince fan at all?

A: I became one after moving there really. Previously, I wasn’t too familiar with Prince, but after I moved there, his presence was quite inescapable.

Q: I understand, now when you were growing up, were you really, like, a musical child? What way did you listen to music?

A: I was. We had a tiny little radio that you had to put batteries in it and that’s how I would do it. We listened to a big rock station and that’s how I started listening to bands when I started growing up.

Q: Who were some of the musicians that you heard on the radio?

A: It was a Rock radio station, so there was a lot of Nirvana and Radiohead playing. 

Q: You’re getting some national attention as an NPR featured artist out there and getting some press with Rolling Stone. What are some of the things that have been exciting for you recently?

A: The tours that I have been able to do. I went on tour with some bands that I have been a fan of for a long time like Head and the Heart and the Milk Carton Kids.

Q: Are there any special people that have helped you so far in your rise to being a musician?

A: I suppose the public radio in Minnesota has been plenty helpful. When I moved here, I had no way of going about putting out music, and playing shows and public radio has helped me do that.

Q: Have you set any music or career milestones that you want to hit?

A: I just finished working on my first record so I’d have to say that would be a pretty significant one for me.

Q: What are some of the ways your life has changed since your career has started to take off?

A: I think the day-to-day changes of being able to travel around the country and see a lot more people. I’m grateful music has given me this opportunity to do this and travel over there to your city. 

Q: You mentioned touring with Lindsey Buckingham; that’s pretty impressive. How did you pull that one off?

A: I believe my manager sent in my music and they sent me the offer to do it. 

Q: Let’s talk about Revolution Blues. When I hear that song, you mentioned Bob Dylan, I think that is a very Dylan-esque song. Can you tell me about the song?

A: When I was writing the chorus, I was at the Women’s March in Indianapolis and you’re just walking around the march and the words just kind of came out of me, really. I didn’t anticipate it but when I sat down to write, it just came out of me and I turned it into a song. I was very much inspired by that march and what it stood for.

Q: My wife really likes the song Lebanon. Can you tell me a little bit about the inspiration for writing that song?

A: Lebanon is a mysterious song to me to think about the writing process. I am just grasping all the things in the air and putting it into words, and sometimes songs like Lebanon happen mysteriously. I leave it all up to interpretation.

Q: You’re going to be on the road for a while. Are you going to try and write, record, or are you just waiting on the new album to come out?

A: I’m always writing all the time because it is just kind of a part of myself I can’t control. The record is going to come out and there are going to be a couple more songs for a different record when it does.

Q: I feel like this is the most important part of the interview. What should listeners, who aren’t familiar with your work, know about your music and about you?

A: I think of myself mostly as a storyteller, so expect to come and listen to some interesting stories.

Q: I’ve been listening to your music on Spotify and your sound really fits Birmingham, Alabama, that acoustic sound that you’ve got going. Have you been to Alabama before?

A: I have actually. I played there in March of this year with Anderson East, and it was one of my favorite shows of the tour.

Larry May owns CD Cellar record store on Noble Street in downtown Anniston.