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Known for his emotive singing and literate narratives, Nairobi-born singer/songwriter Ondara emerged in his adopted home of Minneapolis in 2016. Inspired by Bob Dylan, the largely self-taught Ondara paid his dues on the Minneapolis folk scene before issuing his Verve debut, the Grammy-nominated Tales of America, in 2018. Following tours with Neil Young and Lindsey Buckingham, he delivered a set of raw pandemic recordings with 2020's Folk n' Roll, Vol. 1: Tales of Isolation. In 2022, Ondara further explored the themes of immigration and American identity that marked his debut with the ambitious, character-driven concept album Spanish Villager No.3. Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Ondara first became interested in pop and rock music at a young age listening to his parents' radio. Although he could not afford an instrument or lessons, he developed a keen love of songwriting, and by his teens had discovered classic folk artists like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, as well as contemporary performers like Damien Rice and Ray LaMontagne. In 2013, looking to expand his opportunities, and inspired by his love of Dylan, he moved to Minneapolis for college. There he began teaching himself to play guitar, and put his lyrics to music. He started attending open-mike nights, and posted several cover songs online. He also issued an independent EP that caught the attention of the local public radio program The Current, which put his songs into rotation. Gigs followed, including a break-out performance at The Current's birthday party at First Avenue in 2016. Signing with Verve Forecast, Ondara released his debut album, Tales of America, in 2018. Produced by Mike Viola of the Candy Butchers, the record also included contributions from Andrew Bird, Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith of Dawes, and Joey Ryan of the Milk Carton Kids. The album was nominated in the Best Americana category of the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards. Ondara had completed a more expansive sophomore album when the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 put the LP's release and further touring plans on hold. After a few weeks of uncomfortable seclusion, Ondara began writing songs that directly addressed the practical and emotional issues brought on by the pandemic, and recorded them in a simple fashion at home. Verve released the results, Folk n' Roll, Vol. 1: Tales of Isolation, in August 2020. Over the next few years, Ondara also began to expand his approach, drawing inspiration from the arty pop and character-driven work of artists like Peter Gabriel, David Bowie, and David Byrne. In September 2022, he returned with his third album, The Spanish Villager No. 3, a concept album about the titular character and centered on themes of immigration, Democracy, and the American Dream. Produced by longtime collaborator Mike Viola, the album also featured contributions by Dawes' Taylor Goldsmith and Griffin Goldsmith, as well as Sebastian Steinberg, Tim Kuhl, and Jeremy Stacey.
© Matt Collar /TiVo
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