Album of the Week: J.S. Ondara, 'Tales of America'


J.S. Ondara, 'Tales of America'
J.S. Ondara, 'Tales of America' (Verve Records)

Born in Nairobi, Kenya, J.S. Ondara arrived in Minnesota in 2013 with a big American dream: becoming a professional musician. Incredibly, he hadn't even picked up a guitar when he landed in the Midwest, but over the course of the last six years he trampolined from teaching himself to play to singing at open mics, catching the ear of tastemakers in the recording industry, and landing a major-label deal with Verve Records, who released his debut this year.

It's an incredible story, and it's the backbone of his spare, atmospheric, and gorgeous collection of songs. Leaving home wasn't easy for J.S. -- and being unable to return due to immigration policies hasn't helped, either -- but his decision to pursue what he calls "a foolish dream," and all of the heartache and triumphs of that ensuing journey, are rendered beautifully on this album.

What strikes me the most when listening is that I feel the same magical sense of yearning as I do when I watch J.S. sing live. There are a few ways to create a sense of intimacy on a recording. You can place the microphone as close to the singer's lips as possible, creating the impression that they are whispering directly into the listener's ear. Or you can back up and try to capture the sound of a whole room with the hope that the listener be transported inside of it, mentally envisioning themselves cozied up next to the singer as their melodies unfold.

Tales of America takes the ambient approach. In the universe of this album, J.S.'s bottomless, booming voice is the sun, and his songwriting is the North Star. Everything else plays second fiddle -- including Andrew Bird, who can be detected quietly playing his violin in the background. The instrumentation on the album is spare and precise, contributed artfully by seasoned musicians like Bird and Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith of Dawes, and a sense of stillness and patience courses throughout.

Listening to these songs, it's easy to imagine J.S.'s voice filling up the spaces that have inspired him these past few years -- like the halls of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, or the haunted monastery in Wisconsin where he holed up for a summer furiously writing songs, or the sold-out First Avenue Mainroom that he stunned into silence.

On his album, he manages the difficult feat of transcending all the limitations of the recording studio, reaching through the headphones and out of the speakers with the same magnetic charisma that he projects in his concerts. It's an album to get lost in, sit with, recall in dreams, and play again. And it's a remarkable debut from an artist who is still at the very beginning of an awe-inspiring story.


J.S. Ondara - Official Site

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  • Listen to Looch: talking about J.S. Ondara 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 Party, and in February, his debut full-length album comes out on Verve Records.

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