(Everybody's crazy about a sharp dressed man - J.S. Ondara)
“IT’S A NICE TIME TO BE in Minneapolis. it’s is not always this nice, but this is a nice time of the year.”
Folk/rock troubadour J. S. Ondara, who grew up in the warmer, stickier, close-quarters environs of Nairobi is almost convincing, the pleasant light coming in the window over his shoulder helping his argument.
However, it still it hard to explain why someone from Kenya would choose to move to Minneapolis. Even if they are a Bob Dylan fan (or for that matter a Prince, Husker Du, Lizzo or Replacements fan; a devotee of Tammy Faye Bakker; or someone who can’t get enough of Juicy Lucy cheeseburgers). It’s bitterly cold in winter, hot with no promise of a sea breeze in summer, the Vikings are a middling football team and its most famous food is pickled herring and lefse.
“The people are really kind and inviting,” says Ondara. “I think that energy is what keeps people around. It’s not the weather.”
Maybe he enjoys being the most stylish man there since Prince Rogers Nelson relocated from this temporal plane. Sharp in retro or beyond-trend clothing, keenly involved in pattern and accoutrements, a man who can rock a hat with nonchalance, Ondara has style.
“I think I’ve always had an interest in fashion since I was a kid. I’m not sure exactly where it came from. My grandfather, the original Ondara loved hats, so maybe there’s something there,” he says. “But I think I was drawn to arts in general and in some ways fashion is just another way of expressing myself. My artistic well is really full inside my head and I need to constantly find different ways to put it out into the world, to express myself, or us I’m just stifled in there.”
Hmm, “my artistic well is full and it needs somewhere to go” … damn, that’s good. We should all use that next time someone questions our fashion choices. Or maybe our musical choices, which has been happening with Ondara this past year as his Grammy-nominated earlier recordings of socially/politically-aware, spare mostly voice-and-guitar folk – nearer, yes, early B. Dylan – shifted on the most recent album, Spanish Villager No. 3, to a beefier, occasionally rockier, electric-plus-band sound.
(Read Ondara talking about the broader themes of the joys and perils of migration, displacement and anger.)
One song, A Seminar In Tokyo, sounds very much in the Fleetwood Mac ballpark, not the sunshine harmony side of them but the moody rhythmic side. Then A Shakedown In Berlin fleshes that out. Like many songwriters and guitarists it looks like Ondara has had his Lindsey Buckingham moment.
“Oh, for sure, I had my Lindsey Buckingham moment: I got to tour with him for a long time. After I did that tour I find myself listening to Rumours a lot, really all the time,” he says “That record was definitely the back of my head I was making SV3, using it as a point of inspiration.”
These songs though suggest a familiarity with later albums than Fleetwood Mac’s mid-70s behemoth, possibly beginning with Tusk, and a growing exploration of the rhythmic element of Buckingham’s writing and playing.
“I definitely agree,” Ondara says. “I probably love Tusk more than Rumours if you put a gun to my head.”
Which does remind that in 2019 Ondara said what he was playing was old troubadour style, which should find a welcoming home, at least “until I go electric and make everyone upset”, as happened with the aforementioned B. Dylan.
So, while his tour of Australia will be solo, and therefore quieter, how upset has he made people with the new sound in the past year?
“Not too upset,” he laughs. “There’s been a few people who have frowned upon my evolution from the troubadour acoustic sound to this more expansive sound, and I was prepared for that and I’m okay with it. I think the relationship I have with my audience, that I want to have, isn’t of me appeasing them, it’s more me creating what feels real and true to me at the time, what’s coming out of my soul. Then the right people for that will come to that, and the people that’s not for them, will not. And that’s okay. I probably lost a few fans, but I’m okay with it.”
What would he do if someone went full Dylan-in-‘66 at him and yelled out “traitor”?
“I would just laugh about it.”
Turn to the band and say play louder?
“Yeah, basically. I’ll lean into it,” Ondara laughs. “As a fan of Dylan I understand the need for evolution. That song where Dylan says the man who is not busy being born, is busy dying – being an artist is a process of reinventing yourself and evolving, finding new areas within you to explore. If you don’t do that you die out, and your muse withers. And that’s not fun.”
After all, we know that his creative well is full and ….
“… needs to go somewhere,” he laughs.
Careful folks, there may be an Ondara flood coming.
“There is, and I should warn them. The next record is going to be a whole other thing. I’m going to try and empty at least half of my well!”
Looks like we’re going to need a bigger boat.
“Yes, an ark.”
Ondara plays: Mary’s Underground, Sydney – September 28; Dashville Skyline Festival, Hunter Valley – September 30; Brunswick Ballroom, Melbourne – October 1
IT TAKES A VILLAGER: Read the first part of this interview with Ondara.
A version of this story was originally published by The Sydney Morning Herald