Singer-songwriter Ondara pictured for his new album release, "Spanish Villager No. 3." Credit: Nate Ryan

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The musician known as Ondara has died many deaths.

He has shed multiple stage names—Jay Smart, J.S. Ondara—and departed several homes. In fact, one of his most popular songs is called “Saying Goodbye.” But these days, by realigning his priorities and birthing an alter ego, he says he has drafted a new lease on life.

Ondara was supposed to tour the United States this fall, performing music from his new album, “Spanish Villager: No. 3,” which was released on September 16. But in August, he postponed all but one of the 24 shows, announcing the need to redesign his show.

“The same voice that called me to the guitar is now calling me to put it down for a moment, and just dance,” he wrote in a statement.

Instead of playing guitar during live performances, he planned to wear a headset mic and move around the stage, in the tradition of Britney Spears. And while Ondara didn’t feel comfortable dancing in public, he realized he could foist that responsibility onto a new persona: the Spanish Villager. Fans lauded his bravery on social media. But to a record label executive or venue booker, a momentum lapse like this could have also looked like a lapse in judgment.

“I think it’s still generally foreign to people who don’t really get it,” Ondara said in a recent interview with Sahan Journal. “It was a big battle to even try to get it out of the gate. But it was a kind of battle that I didn’t have the luxury to lose.”

Time and time again, Ondara’s decisions have puzzled those around him, but he has had little choice but to follow his muse.

“My desire to make art is tied to my desire to be alive,” he said.

Amid so much death, his is a story of survival.

Birth of an alter ego

Ondara, who has never publicly disclosed his government name, grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, in what he calls “abject poverty.” His mother and two sisters raised him, and he would have loved to stay in Kenya with his family and friends. But neither an artistic career nor an escape from poverty seemed realistic there, so he entered a U.S. green card lottery and won. By February 2013, he was living in Maple Grove, Minnesota, with an aunt. In 2014, he bought his first guitar and learned how to play.

Ondara rose to fame as a troubadour, following in the footsteps of fellow Minnesotan Bob Dylan, who had helped inspire his move. Thanks to his incredible falsetto and low-maintenance stage configuration, he landed gigs opening for Neil Young and Lindsey Buckingham, among others.

After signing to the respected folk/pop label Verve Forecast in 2018, he strummed through a Tiny Desk Concert for NPR Music and received a 2020 Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album. By the early spring of 2020, he was opening 20,000-capacity shows for the Lumineers (of “Ho Hey” fame) and preparing to release his third album.

But as his platform grew, Ondara suffered a spiritual crisis, he said in a recent interview outside a Manhattan cafe. “I was thinking, ‘Who am I on that big stage?’” he said. “It’s not a very natural thing for the personhood of a human to partake in the sport of capitalism … where you’re commodified.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, which ended the Lumineers/Ondara tour just before their Xcel Energy Center show in St. Paul, first seemed like a terrible halt to Ondara’s career. And in a way, it was. But it quickly became clear that the pandemic was presenting him with an opportunity: to “terminate the lease” he’d signed with the universe, as he put it, and instead, to set new terms.

As the pandemic wore on, he postponed the album release indefinitely and burrowed into Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” and U2’s “The Joshua Tree.” He had been spending significant time on tour and in various home bases around the country, but during this period, he returned to Minneapolis, where he trusted his old friends and collaborators to care for his spirit. 

Ondara created his alter ego, the Spanish Villager, after learning about a small Spanish town called Ondara. He marveled at the coincidence—Ondara is his grandfather and mother’s surname—and soon changed his social handles to @spanishvillager. During his pandemic respite, he dreamed up an entire persona he calls “SV” for short.

“This character was created to allow me to move—to not have to be me,” Ondara said. “To be a path towards healing, because if I’m on stage and I’m channeling SV, I don’t have to be me. I can get into something else and be like, ‘I don’t care if you don’t care—if you see me or not.’ I’m not me. I can just dance.” 

Amber Doyle, a New York-based tailor, created the suit of Ondara’s dreams—literally—for SV. The fabric is a very light brown, covered with a newsprint pattern that blares “Spanish Villager” in all caps, mirroring the album cover. Song titles and newspaper columns line its sleeves and legs.

“This is a very weird suit,” Ondara said at a music video screening at Icehouse last month. “[Amber] is a good therapist for my style.”

Ondara, now 30, eventually emerged with “Spanish Villager No. 3,” a warm, well-crafted rock album as approachable as Ondara is enigmatic. Five of its songs, including the mournful “An Alien in Minneapolis,” date back to previous sessions with Mike Viola, who produced Ondara’s debut album, “Tales of America.” The other tracks were produced by Ondara himself, and it’s these six songs that reach toward “The Joshua Tree” and “Rumours.” “A Suspicious Deliverance” recreates Fleetwood Mac’s high-energy, high-stakes pop, and the narrator of “A Prophet Of Doom” is a wiser messiah than Bono.

‘My body was telling me to find a way to move on’

Ondara, who immigrated to Minnesota from Kenya almost a decade ago, has felt like an outlier in both of his home countries. It’s not that he’s unwilling to connect—he risks oversharing on social media—it’s that he has found himself in conflict with both cultures.

Of Kenya, he said, “Home was hard, because life was hard, but also because there was a lot of conflict between my desire to make art and my family and culture’s lack of understanding of what that meant … It’s one of the earliest wounds, you could say, of my life, that brought about all these sad folk songs.”

In the United States, he sought the archetypal American Dream, even as popular culture regarded it with increasing skepticism. As he scaled the music industry, he experienced side effects including cognitive dissonance and a ball of physical pain that formed in the back of his head. 

“Dealing with all those myriads of conflicts in my mental state, the solution that my body was telling me to find a way to move on from this is to move—to stay in motion. I don’t call it dancing … It’s just movement,” he said.

Singer-songwriter Ondara pictured for his new album release, “Spanish Villager No. 3.” Credit: Nate Ryan

In December 2021, Ondara and a crew filmed an album-length music video at Acme Studio in Minneapolis. It’s an approximately 50-minute performance video, filmed in one shot without edits or breaks—the gutsy sort of project that ends up on prestige streaming services. In the video, Ondara sings and dances around a cavernous gray space. He moves like someone scratching a mosquito bite—tense, single-minded, and barely in control. Yet he also looks joyful. While his song “A Blackout in Paris” plays, he opens his arms wide, embracing the space.

Ondara says he did not preplan his movements. Instead, he kept in touch with the video’s director, Nate Ryan, through an earpiece. A few times, Ryan provided blocking cues—“get to spot X within X seconds”—but Ondara mostly followed his intuition.

“I would describe him as very much a capital-A artist who thinks about what’s possible and never thinks about the pragmatic logistics,” Ryan said. “In some ways, that’s really refreshing.”

In such a large space as Acme Studio, Ondara could have appeared to float across the stark floor. But a followspot—a spotlight that can move to follow its subject—cast a grounding shadow.

“The video opens with the followspot swirling around and giving little glimpses of him before settling on him,” Ryan said. “Later on, it’s creating this long shadow when he’s sitting in the chair or standing with the guitar.” 

So far, Ondara has been releasing the film piecemeal—song by song—but he screened the entire visual album at Icehouse in Minneapolis last month for a crowd of about 50 people. Industry staffers, local musicians, and other guests bobbed their heads or tapped their feet to the music. Ondara, sitting in a booth, smiled and threw his head and shoulders to the beat as he watched the video.

Investigating ‘The American Dream’

“I haven’t found a way to successfully ignore my body,” Ondara said. “I’ve really tried—like, really hard. And when I was making SV [Spanish Villager], I did not want to do it at all. I feel like I had something cool going on. But … when I’m fighting myself, I’m fighting my will to be around. To live, you know? And my body sometimes vetoes me and it’s like, ‘You’re going to die if I don’t take over.’”

As Ondara navigates his new lease on life, he says, part of his work is to reframe the American Dream for future immigrants as well as people who already live in the United States.

He explained, “You’re born, and you get plugged into an OS [operating system], and [you follow] what the system says. And I’m unplugging. I’m like, ‘This isn’t what I’m about.’ And I want to talk about it more and write books about it and create a different path of still investigating the American Dream, but in a totally different kind of frame.”

But even Ondara may not stay in the United States for good. He’d like to move to Paris, perhaps, or another European city–somewhere, he said, a “person of my pigmentation” performing folk-rock might not stick out quite so much. In the meantime, he’s heralding the Spanish Villager, prioritizing his spirituality, and trying to make the best art he possibly can.

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Cecilia Johnson is an arts journalist and copy editor from Minneapolis. Find more of her work at ceciliajohnson.com.