Listen to Looch: talking about J.S. Ondara


Mary Lucia and Andrea Swensson talk about the career and music of J.S. Ondara. (Minju Kim | MPR)

This week on Listen to Looch, Mary Lucia is joined by Andrea Swensson for a conversation about the career and music of J.S. Ondara. Born in Kenya, Ondara moved to Minneapolis to launch his music career. This Saturday, J.S. Ondara plays at night two of The Current's 14th Birthday Parties, and in February, his debut full-length album comes out on Verve Records.


MARY: All right, so the 14th birthday party celebrating The Current's 14 years, at First Avenue, it's this weekend, and there's some amazing local bands that are playing.

ANDREA: Seven out of the eight!

MARY: We could talk about any one of them, but one I want to focus on is J.S. Ondara, because I think there's a really interesting backstory to him. He came onto our radar as Jay Smart, and he put out a couple covers: "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," and it was really intriguing, and now
as J.S. Ondara, neither of which …

ANDREA: … are his real names. Both are stage names.

MARY: I was just curious, because do you feel like there was a change between Jay Smart and J.S. Ondara sonically or artistically?

ANDREA: I don't necessarily think he changed so much as he's just kind of been honing who he is as an artist. He's been writing songs this whole time. I don't know if you remember, he came into the studio a couple years ago, and he played some original music that was absolutely beautiful that never got released anywhere. And I think he's still been in this process of not being content with those songs, and really wanting to craft his perfect debut album that captures what he's all about.

So a little bit about his backstory: he came here from Nairobi about four or five years ago now, and he landed in Minnesota, partly because he has relatives here but partly because he absolutely loves Bob Dylan!

MARY: Oh my god!

ANDREA: I love that part of his story.

MARY: I do, too.

ANDREA: And I think you can really hear that influence in his songwriting. And the album he's about to put out is just so beautiful. It's funny, like you mentioned those early Soundcloud recordings that were all covers, and they had this almost kind of like eerie, cavernous sound, like, did you record those in a big garage or something? And his album sounds like that, too. It's so great for his voice to just fill up this big, beautiful space.

MARY: On this album, does he use different parts of his voice? Because when I think of him, I think of that ethereal, very high—


MARY: So does he have a range in the record?

ANDREA: He does! Yeah, he goes from that beautiful falsetto — which I am obsessed with! — to just his normal singing voice in the mid-range, to almost kind of a spoken-word delivery at some points, which I love too, because then you get to hear his accent, which is gorgeous. So yeah, I think it really explores all of the different parts of his voice and really what he wants to say about being an immigrant in America — you know, we've been playing that song, "American Dream" — and just being an artist looking for your voice. He just has such a captivating story.

MARY: Do you think that he was holding out for a label to check him out?

ANDREA: I think he had really high goals for his debut record.

MARY: Which is smart!

ANDREA: He recorded it in the studio where they made the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds out in Los Angeles. OK — get this: his backing band is Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes, Andrew Bird, and Joey Ryan from the Milk Carton Kids.

MARY: What????

ANDREA: And he's like, "Yeah, those are the people I wanted on my record." He's very nonchalant about it. He's like, "Of course, I signed to Verve, this is my band."

Transcript by Luke Taylor.

External Link

J.S. Ondara

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