J.S. Ondara's American songwriting journey

Written by

J.S. Ondara Photo by Larry Hirshowitz

I first heard the name J.S. Ondara in early August 2017. Tom Windish, a renowned booking agent and trusted friend, sent me a simply made black and white video of a striking young man walking through a park at night singing about missing his mother at Christmastime. The video was deeply moving, largely due to Ondara’s piercing falsetto that shook my heart. That song was "Mother Christmas." His mother, as I later learned, was back in Kenya, and the cost of a ticket home was prohibitive. He found his cold comfort in the writing of the song.

At KCRW, we wake up every day looking to find the best new music in the world. It's what we do. And since we're combing through so many new things all day long, when something great comes along, it's obvious. This was obvious. I was now a fan.

Just over a month later on September 19, 2017, I was picking up Ondara at LAX for his first visit to Los Angeles. As if to show him how much of a fan I was, I made it very clear to him that he was the first artist I've ever picked up at the airport. Anyone who's ever lived in LA knows how much of a true measure of affection that is. I was clearly smitten. We didn’t have an official working relationship, I was simply a very vocal cheerleader - helping him set up meetings, taking him around town a bit, and really just hoping for a chance to get to know him.

J.S. Ondara recording at Village Studios (photo by Larry Hirshowitz)

The young musician is even more impressive once you get to know his story. Growing up in Nairobi, listening to American rock songs on the radio, he became a fan of the Guns N' Roses version of the song "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." A friend tried to tell him it was a song by Bob Dylan. But Ondara insisted, no, this was a Guns N’ Roses song. Humbled after losing a bet, he fell into the music of Dylan, and vowed to learn more. Unbeknownst to him, an aunt in Minneapolis had entered him and some other family members in the US Green Card lottery, and Ondara was selected. In 2013, he moved to Minnesota to live with his aunt, and to retrace the steps of his new hero.

After landing in the US, Ondara did some temp work, and taught himself how to play guitar, learned a few Dylan and Neil Young songs, and started putting his own words to melodies. Busking around town, and playing open mics under the name Jay Smart, he eventually made a few recordings, some of which ended up on the air at Minnesota's Public radio powerhouse The Current. A booker at a local music venue passed Ondara's music along to Windish, who sent it to me.

This past February, Tales From America, the debut album from J.S. Ondara was released on Verve Records. In March, we featured him as part of KCRW’s annual SXSW showcase and we’re thrilled to have him perform on Morning Becomes Eclectic.

During the MBE session, Ondara shared the story behind “Saying Goodbye”. He said that the affecting song is about weighing his new American life against his past and navigating what the best version of himself can be.

In short order, the musical version of J.S. Ondara is off to a fast and impressive start.