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Watch J.S. Ondara perform ‘Mother Christmas’ in a former monastery in Appleton, Wisconsin

J.S. Ondara (Photo by Nate Ryan/MPR)
J.S. Ondara (Photo by Nate Ryan/MPR)

by Andrea Swensson

December 15, 2017

Although the artist formerly known as Jay Smart, J.S. Ondara, has self-released a handful of home recordings via Soundcloud — notably, covers of HALEY's "Kismet Kill" and Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," both of which received steady airplay on the Current — it wasn't until this winter that he released his first official single, "Mother Christmas," with the backing of powerhouse management company C3 and a high-profile placement on Roc Nation's holiday compilation.

"It's kind of strange that the first piece of music I'm putting out is a Christmas song. I thought, that's very bizarre, I love that! I want to do that," Ondara says. "Mother Christmas" was first released as a single and video last month , and today he's sharing a new live performance of the song that he recorded at the Refuge in Appleton, Wisconsin, a former monastery-turned-artist space that has been brought to life by the musician Cory Chisel.

The booming openness of the old monastery provides a dreamy space for Ondara's voice, which stretches and soars up toward the arched rafters of the sanctuary. Ondara says he's found a creative spark in this unusual yet beautiful space, which was once a retreat for members of the Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Joseph Order. These days, the bedrooms that once housed visiting monks are instead used by indie folk musicians with acoustic guitars and notebooks, some coming from hundreds of miles away hoping to find a calm moment of reflection.

"I've been back there a couple times, it's kind of where I've been writing this album that I'm working on at the moment, and spending time there to be inspired," he says. With a smile, he adds that he's pretty sure it's haunted, which has only added to its mystique.

Ondara promises that there is more new music on the horizon, perhaps as soon as the beginning of next month. He's antsy to finally put more of his ideas out into the world, especially after scrapping a full record that he'd planned to release at the beginning of 2017.

“By the time I was supposed to put out these songs, the songs were already overtaken by the times," he says, alluding to the 2016 election and ensuing political and social tension. "So I had to go back to the drawing board and write a completely new record. It felt as though there's more important things to sing about than just wolves and whimsical lovers. It just felt like there's other things that are more important to address at the moment, and then, later on, I can sing about these other things." His debut album will be a protest record.

The stand-alone single, "Mother Christmas," isn't explicitly political, but it is a deeply personal song that humanizes an experience shared by many immigrants when they move to a new country. Ondara came to Minnesota from Nairobi, Kenya, four years ago to pursue music and "find his footing," as he sings, but that journey has come with a cost: he hasn't seen his mother since he left home.

"I actually wrote it in Winona," Ondara recalls. "I was there and it was around Christmastime, I was missing my mother, and I just plugged my guitar in and wrote a song about that."

Hear more from J.S. Ondara on The Local Show this Sunday night, December 17, when many artists from the community will reflect on making art in a year of intense news and politics. And see him live at Icehouse on Wednesday, January 3, for the first night of jeremy messersmith's "Four Nights at Icehouse" residency.


Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.