Nairobi-born singer-songwriter Ondara has what may be the best origin story of any artist in the rock era. A fan of American music from his youngest days, he grew to be such an ardent follower of Bob Dylan that he moved from Kenya to Dylan’s home state of Minnesota. In February. After two albums that stuck close to his folk roots, Ondara’s latest record, Spanish Villager NO: 3, takes on more of a rock-ish tone while also posing questions of his adopted home that not every musician might be brave enough to ask. Before the release of the album, Ondara chatted with Americana Highways about why it’s important to ask those questions, just who the “Spanish Villager” is, and how he communicates with his audience through…stick figures.
Americana Highways: The album, Spanish Villager NO: 3, the name of it comes from a character you came up with during the pandemic. Can you tell me a little about where he came from?
Ondara: The process of creating a character wasn’t extremely conscious, and I was just sort of following cues from my body and my subconscious. Only after the character was created have I been able to look back retrospectively and try to sort of articulate what it is that he was doing. I think the character was meant to be something like a repository for my anxieties, things I was going through at difficult times, and my body felt the need to, in a way, disassociate itself and store my anxieties in a different entity outside of myself in a way. But that wasn’t something I was very conscious of at the time. I think my body was only trying to save me without consulting me! If he had consulted me, I would have forced back, and so he decided to be somewhat tyrannical about it.
AH: The lead track on the album, “An Alien in Minneapolis,” seems to be a pretty straightforward autobiographical recall of your first days here in America. Was there a time when you were questioning the move to America, to Minneapolis?
O: There have been times when my path has…where I have been in doubt, you could say, of just the journey in general, of where I’m supposed to go and what I’m supposed to do. I think that’s the nature of every big calling. Every once in a while, you have moments of doubt. That’s just kind of ingrained in the hero’s journey in general. And I’ve had to wrestle a lot of those doubts every so often. Occasionally, I still have doubts, but I think I’m at the point where I feel I’ve created so much distance from where I came from that looking back is just not an option anymore. I can only move forward, regardless of whether I know where I’m going or not.
AH: Your last album, 2020’s Folk n’ Roll VOL: 1: Tales of Isolation, about the pandemic, kind of dealt with staying home. Spanish Villager travels all over the place – Berlin, Paris, Tokyo, Mexico City. Did it feel good to travel again, at least via song?
O: Yeah, that’s an interesting question! It is, in a way. Part of what I did during the pandemic was travel around, just drive around the country, the US, in a way to sort of give myself the illusion that time hadn’t stopped and I could have no way of moving. So, I think in some way, you could think of the journey that SV takes as a way of sort of traveling in my head, and giving myself the illusion that, you know, I haven’t been able to leave the country for the last three years.
AH: What were some of the places you went, some of the experiences you had on those trips?
O: My first trip was from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. I drove down to Arizona. I drove to New Mexico, drove to Austin, then to Kansas City, then to Asheville. I just felt the need to be in motion, because I felt like I was losing my mind at some point, and my brain just needed to…I had to give myself the illusion that I can still move, I’m still touring somewhat, in a way.
AH: Were these places you were familiar with, or were they just big surprises, stuff you never experienced, that you never thought you’d see?
O: They were places I’d been on my tours, and sort of have made friends there. There’s an element of revisiting places where I had been, but I’d never spent enough time to get to know the places better.
AH: Another difference between this album and the previous albums [Tales of Isolation and 2019’s Tales of America] – there’s definitely more of a full band sound. What made you decide to make that change?
O: I think that just felt like the natural evolution of my career. I started writing a lot of the songs after touring with Lindsey Buckingham, and I got into Fleetwood Mac a lot after that, and was listening to Rumours a lot, so a lot of that, I think, definitely informed how I was approaching this record. I listened to Rumours most days before the studio sessions, and I was trying to create a groovy, upbeat record, but still integrate that with the way I’ve written my songs before, in the sort of storytelling, poetic fashion. It’s a marriage of the folk tradition and the ways of writing folk music, but with a sort of sonic environment that is more upbeat.
AH: I know you’ve delayed the tour for a bit, but are you planning, once you get back out on the road, to do the full band thing?
O: That’s definitely the plan, yeah, and part of why I delayed the tour is because I needed time to prepare that show and do it properly and present the show that I want to present and play these songs the way you’re hearing them on the record and evolve somewhat. I feel like what I’m being called to as present in the evolution of me as a human and also as an artist is to become more of a performer, to put down the guitar for a moment and to just move around the stage. That’s what I feel called to do at the moment, so that’s the show I’m preparing. It’s taking a bit of time to get it ready, but I’m excited to show that to the people.
AH: And I think I saw that you want to do a little more dancing on stage, right?
O: Exactly, yeah. I want to dance. I call it ‘dance,’ but it’s just movement, it’s just motion. I feel like it’s part of the message I’m getting from my subconscious and my body is that I need to do more of that to, essentially, heal from all the traumas that I’ve acquired in the last two years. The last two years have been difficult for a lot of people, and I think how my body is dealing with that is by getting uncomfortable and putting the guitar down and just moving and staying in motion. So I want to bring that to the audience and share this moment of healing with them. I’m excited about it.
AH: You have a unique way of communicating with your fans on social media with the series of stick figure cartoons, some of them featuring your mom. Has she seen them, and what does she think?
O: Yeah, she has! She thinks it’s funny. She is going to be more of a recurring figure in my social media, certainly, and in my life in general. She’s been such an important part of my life from a kid, and I want to, in a way, introduce my audience to her. I think there is also an element of levity to this new tenure as the Spanish Villager. I’m doing things that I wouldn’t have done before, in my previous trajectory. I think having this character be something of a de facto public persona, being a wall between the art and the artist, gives me some personal space where my personality as an individual can be more present, and so there’s a bit of levity in how I’m presenting myself more, which feels very healthy. And I think those stick figures are part of that.
AH: Is your mom here in the U.S. with you?
O: No, she’s not. She’s back home. I’m hoping to see her. My tentative plan is to go back home, because she’s never seen me play. So I want to go and play a private show for her and potentially film it and share it with the audience as the process of introducing them to her.
AH: More serious note here – the latest release from the album, “A Prophet of Doom,” deals with some of the disillusionment you’ve had over our messy U.S. politics. What surprised you the most and led you to write the song?
O: I think just the general instability of the political processes. That kind of instability is sadly commonplace back home – every time there’s an election, there’s almost certainly going to be some turmoil. I didn’t expect that at all from the West. I thought America would certainly have a way more stable democratic process. There’s some kind of veneer, some kind of wall, that was broken down there after living in America for a while and experiencing the political turmoil, which made me start to question a lot where the problems lie. If the processes are problematic, back home in the Third World and in what we call the First World here, is the problem the human condition, or is the problem the system that humans occupy? That led me to start thinking about democracy itself – if the problem we’re having is just that we need to refine our systems so that the systems themselves are more stable and are immune to bringing in bad leadership, so to speak.
AH: Unfortunately, there’s the type of person here who might hear that song and say something along the lines of, ‘You don’t like it? Go back to Kenya.’ Instead, you stayed here, and you wrote the song. What keeps you here, and what maybe gives you a little bit of hope?
O: Yeah, I’ve gotten that several times, actually, and my response is always, ‘I don’t like to give up when things get hard.’ I do still believe in the idea of America. That romance that I have with America has been tried. A lot. But I just think there is something special about the experiment, and I suppose I haven’t given up hope yet. But it has been difficult to stay hopeful, certainly.
AH: On a little bit lighter note – I know Bob Dylan’s been a large part of the reason you came here. Have you met him yet?
O: I have not met him, and I don’t know if I would want to, either, because I don’t know if I would behave properly if I did. I don’t know if I would handle myself in the most classy way.
AH: What are you listening to today? What or who has grabbed your ears out there in music right now?
O: I still mostly listen to old music – a lot of instrumental things. I think my relationship with music has changed, unfortunately, as a result of doing it professionally. Sometimes I find myself more cautious of what I’m listening to, because I’m trying to sort of keep the channel of my creativity somewhat pure, if that makes sense. I’ve been listening to a lot of Coltrane in the last two weeks. But as far as new stuff, I’ve been enjoying the band called Big Thief.
AH: Oh, I love them! Anything else you want to say about the album or the upcoming tour or anything else on your mind?
O: If I could summarize my new path, I think I feel like I have a new lease with the universe on this new trajectory. I think I had an existing lease with the universe when I was doing my previous trajectory and I made the last two records. And I think that lease was interrupted by the pandemic, and it was essentially torched by the pandemic. And now I have a new lease, and I think I have the opportunity to consciously put down the conditions of this lease in a way that I didn’t before. I think, initially, I was just riding the momentum, I wasn’t consciously thinking about what are the conditions to this lease. I was just riding the next wave. I have the opportunity to do that now, and I’m sort of consciously making the decision to prioritize health and healing on this new trajectory. And the character, Spanish Villager, has a lot to do with that.
Go here to order Spanish Villager NO: 3 (out September 16): https://shop.spanishvillager.org/
For details on Ondara’s album release show in New York and future tour dates: https://www.spanishvillager.com/