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watch folk-blues singer J.S. Ondara’s powerful “Revolution Blues” live session

J.S. Ondara
photo by Nate Ryan

J.S. Ondara was born and raised in Nairobi but moved to Minneaopolis, where he’s currently located, and he developed a strong love for American folk and blues. He started out recording music as Jay Smart, and was known for cover songs like his folk-blues rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and now-deleted covers of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” and Haley Bonar’s “Kismet Kill.” He released his first original single as J.S. Ondara, “Mother Christmas,” this past December, and he followed it in January with another new J.S. Ondara song, “Revolution Blues.” J.S. had written an album that he intended to release in 2017, but he scrapped it in light of the increasingly volatile political climate. “Things had changed drastically since I had written those songs. Suddenly they felt old and inaccessible; overtaken by the times.” He decided to make an entirely different album, and “Revolution Blues” was one of the first songs written for it. It’s a powerful song, with hints of early blues like Mississippi John Hurt as well as popular folk like Bob Dylan, and J.S. Ondara’s beautiful, high-range vocals really take it to the next level.

We’re premiering a live-session video for the song, filmed and recorded at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (directed by Nate Ryan). Here’s what J.S. tells us about his choice of location:

The Mia [Minneapolis Institute of Art] is one of my favorite places in America, whenever I’m home in Minneapolis I always try to pop in for a moment. There is a certain peace and tranquility that I get when I’m roaming about the enormous museum taking in the incredible works of art. About a year ago I got the opportunity to play a show in the museum, inside a room known as the Baroque Court. I was blown away by the acoustics and the art in that room and vowed to be back there for a live recording of one of my songs. A few weeks ago, the people from the museum were so kind as to allow me to realize this dream.

Watch the new live-session video, as well as a live-session video for “Mother Christmas” (recorded live at The Refuge in Appleton, WI), and the official music videos for both songs, here:

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Here’s more of the interesting backstory on J.S. Ondara’s upcoming album, in his own words:

2017 was a tumultuous year, and a lot of the music that came out was representative of that. Similarly, there was just as much music that steered away from the sensitive issues. Albums like Jason Isbell’s ‘The Nashville Sound’ and ‘Hurray for the Riff Raff’s ‘The Navigator’ had moments of poignant deliberations on the times. Other albums like Beck’s ‘Colors’ and Spoon’s ‘Hot Thoughts’, were mostly cheerful albums that offered a much needed escapism. Some would argue that with so much tumult and uncertainty, maybe such albums that offer a distraction are what people need to stay sane. Others would contend that sanity is but a luxury in the face of injustice. As a fan, I enjoyed all these facets of music. I enjoyed contemplating about gender and racial equality in songs like ‘White man’s world’, but conversely I also enjoyed being distracted from the steady bombardment of worrisome news by songs like ‘Wow’. As a songwriter however, I found myself conflicted about what direction to take. Being a foreigner in America presented another layer of internal discord as I struggled to find where my place was amidst all the chaos.

Whilst pondering about this, I was finishing up my first album which I had planned to release in the spring of 2017. At the time, I had spent over a year working on it but just weeks away from release, I became unsure of whether I wanted to share it with the world. Things had changed drastically since I had written those songs. Suddenly they felt old and inaccessible; overtaken by the times. After many nights of deliberation, I decided to abandon that album as it was and start the process anew. This was a difficult decision that left a lot of people, myself included, in dismay. As an enthusiast of folk music, and given the growing unrest in the country, I felt compelled to write different songs that were more pertinent to the times. One of the first songs that I completed for the new album was a song titled ‘Revolution Blues’. The song’s chorus took form in my head as I partook in the women’s march in St.Paul. It’s a song that was meant to capture both the frustration that ran rife following the 2016 elections and the sentiments of solidarity and empowerment that were exemplified at the march.

J.S. Ondara has upcoming tour dates with Anderson East, and he plays Bonnaroo after that. No upcoming NYC show for him at the moment (but perhaps you caught him when he opened for First Aid Kit at Town Hall last year).

J.S. Ondara — 2018 Tour Dates
Feb 23 George Latimer Central LIbrary St Paul, MN
Mar 01 El Rey Theatre (supporting Anderson East) Los Angeles, CA
Mar 02 The Fillmore (supporting Anderson East) San Francisco, CA
Mar 03 Belly Up (supporting Anderson East) Solana Beach, CA
Mar 06 Crystal Bay Club Casino (supporting Anderson East) Crystal Bay, NV
Mar 07 Harlow’s (supporting Anderson East) Sacramento, CA
Mar 09 Revolution Hall (supporting Anderson East) Portland, OR
Mar 10 Neumos (supporting Anderson East) Seattle, WA
Mar 11 Imperial (supporting Anderson East) Vancouver, Canada
Mar 13 The Olympic (supporting Anderson East) Boise, ID
Mar 14 The State Room (supporting Anderson East) Salt Lake City, UT
Mar 16 Gothic Theater (supporting Anderson East) Englewood, CO
Mar 18 Club Red (supporting Anderson East) Telluride, CO
Mar 20 The Madrid Theatre (supporting Anderson East) Kansas City, MO
Mar 21 Blue Note (supporting Anderson East) Columbia, MO
Jun 10 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival Manchester, TN

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