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'Tales Of America' Examines The Elusive American Dream


Earlier this year, my colleague, Mary Louise Kelly, spoke with the singer-songwriter J.S. Ondara about his new album, "Tales Of America." And we thought we'd revisit that conversation this Fourth of July week. Ondara grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. And his most prized possession was a tiny, battery-powered radio. He'd rock out to Guns N' Roses and Nirvana. And then he heard the voice of a man that would change his life forever.


BOB DYLAN: (Singing) And you better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone, for the times, they are a-changin'.

CORNISH: J.S. Ondara became obsessed with Bob Dylan, so much so that he hatched a plan to move to America to become a folk musician. And that first taste of Bob Dylan is where Mary Louise started when she spoke with Ondara earlier this year.


J S ONDARA: (Singing) It was just an American dream. It was just an American dream.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: So, I mean, this must have been quite the turning point for you because you ended up coming to the U.S. in 2013.

ONDARA: Right.

KELLY: You settled in Minnesota, which you picked because that's where Bob Dylan's from.

ONDARA: Right. You know, I had all these stories and poems that I was writing from, you know, from when I was a kid. And I mean, you could call them songs, but they weren't really songs to me. They were just stories, little snippets, just words. No one really ever told me as a kid, oh, you know, your voice is sort of pleasing in a way.


ONDARA: (Singing) But there's a beast on the clock, guarding against the folk. And the ghost from the river is watching. She won't let you get any close.

I love to write. And so when I found Dylan's music, I thought, oh, wait, so I could perhaps take all these words I've been writing and maybe I could put them into melody. And I suppose that's a folk song. And maybe I can have some kind of career. And so then I quickly realized as well I cannot do it from where I was. So I set my path on going to America and, you know, settling to Minnesota where he was from.

KELLY: You say this whole album is an examination of the American dream from an outsider's perspective.

ONDARA: Right.

KELLY: Do you still feel like an outsider after six years in the U.S.?

ONDARA: Yeah, I do very much so. I feel I still am learning new things about America every day.

KELLY: Like what?

ONDARA: About issues that are tied to, I think, politics - I think, you know, just the relationships between police and black people and what that entails and how, I suppose, that affects me as someone who doesn't necessarily - is from here. And so I'm perhaps looking at these experiences from a completely different perspective and educating myself on what the history of the country is because I think that adds a different perspective with how you interpret experiences, you know, if you lack the context of history.

KELLY: Yeah.


ONDARA: (Singing) Will you let me in? Or are you at capacity? Will you set me free? Are you holding onto history? Will you be sincere?

KELLY: Do you think the American dream is intact? I'm asking in the context of the current debate over immigration and the border.

ONDARA: I think there's definitely reasons to be concerned. I wonder if, you know, my experiences and, you know, my journey so far is a testament to what the American dream is - you know, having moved here just - and gotten this path just out of nothing and being here where I'm making this record and having this conversation with you. So I think there's something to be said about that - but also being conscious of the fact that the country is going through some things and that notion - that very great idea can be lost.


ONDARA: (Singing) Oh, God bless America, the heartache of mine. Oh, God bless America, the heartache of mine.

KELLY: One song to ask you about - "Lebanon," which is about love and taking risks and that life is short.


ONDARA: (Singing) Hey, love...

KELLY: Those words right there...


ONDARA: (Singing) I'm ready now.

KELLY: ...Begins, hey, love, I'm ready now.


ONDARA: (Singing) Can't you see this riot inside of my veins?

KELLY: Can't you see this riot inside my veins - what are you writing about?

ONDARA: I have no clue.


KELLY: Well, you're honest.

ONDARA: I have absolutely no clue. I think all these songs, they're words. I just put words down. And it's just a stream of consciousness. It's like - it's very subconscious. And sometimes I think what happens is over time, once I've put some kind of melody over these words...

KELLY: But I'm going to challenge you here because you've told me you're a storyteller.

ONDARA: Right. Well, I think...

KELLY: So what's the story?

ONDARA: The story is taking shape gradually, as we speak and as time moves forward. I think it's - what happens most of the time is once I've put these words down - and I'm talking about them to people, and maybe I'm revisiting them, or maybe I'm singing them over and over again - their meanings gradually bring themselves to life.


ONDARA: (Singing) In the water, the fire, I'll go wherever you go. In the valley, in the canyons, I'll go wherever you go.

That's happened in a few different songs here and there where I sort of figure them out over time.

KELLY: I guess that's one way of thinking about it, is that your songs can mean a different story to the different people listening. They can impose their own stories on them.

ONDARA: And I'd prefer if they do because I'm very fond of stories, I think. I think stories - I mean, it's the only way you can teach a kid anything. You just - you tell them a story. It's all they've got. And these stories, they help us learn. They help us reflect on ourselves. They help us grow. And so I will write down some kind of story. It will mean some kind of thing to me, but I would love for it to mean something different for someone else. If it's the same thing - if it's just something that ties us together as, you know, people going through the human experience together, then that's great. But I don't impose what they mean to other people - not even to me, not even to themselves.


KELLY: J.S. Ondara, thank you.

ONDARA: Thank you.


CORNISH: J.S. Ondara's album is called "Tales Of America." It came out in February. My colleague, Mary Louise Kelly, spoke with him earlier this year.


ONDARA: (Singing) Bitterness was right on her tongue with her legs painted like the drum. Loneliness couldn't do no harm. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.