Courtesy of Jason Gilmer for Blue Ridge Now / Go Upstate:
Words like “surreal,” “amazing,” and “great honor” are how Americana singer-songwriter J.S. Ondara described his recent opening slot for Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Neil Young.
“I spent most of my formative years of folk music listening listening to his music. Just (opening for him) by itself is a great honor. If I’m able to make some fans on top of that, it’s a plus,” said the Kenya-raised singer who moved to America in 2013 and has become a rising star.
Ondara released his debut, “Tales Of America,” earlier this year and it garnered high critical praise and led Ondara to his opening slot with Young and sold-out solo shows.
Ondara will be a part of this year’s Cold Mountain Festival, which runs on Friday and Saturday at the Lake Logan Conference Center and Camp Henry in Canton. The event is headlined on Friday by Milk Carton Kids and on Saturday by Yonder Mountain String Band and Calexico.
Ondara plays the family-friendly festival at 4:15 p.m. on Saturday.
It won’t be his first trip to perform in North Carolina, he said. On Friday he will play a sold out show at The Evening Muse in Charlotte and he opened for former Fleetwood Mac frontman Lindsey Buckingham last year during a concert in Charlotte.
Ondara’s life has changed a bit since “Tales Of America” was released, he said.
“I’ve traveled a lot and seen far away places in the world that I haven’t seen before. It’s been amazing to have this thing that I’ve had in my brain for a long time and to have it out in the world and have people react to it in real time,” he said. “That’s quite an amazing thing to see, really, and I feel very grateful for that.
“I feel like every day brings a surprise of its own,” he added, “like setting up my tour and being on tour with Neil Young. Every step brings its own surprise with it. I just really wanted to make a record and I’m glad that people are fond of it.”
The Kenya native arrived in Minnesota (the birth state of Bob Dylan, one of Ondara’s first folk music heroes) without much skills in terms of guitar playing or speaking English. He had written songs since he was a kid and quickly developed his guitar-playing and language skills.
When it was time for Ondara to choose songs for his first record, he had to wade through more than 100 of his self-penned songs to fill out the 11-song album.
“I already had the title of the record so that helped me a lot to narrow down songs,” Ondara said. “I would try to find the songs that, in most cases, fit with the title I’d already come up with.”
When it’s time for Ondara to release another record, he doesn’t plan on going back to the songs he didn’t choose for “Tales Of America.”
“I’m writing new songs for the record. I’m constantly writing,” he said. “I’ll just write a new batch and pick from those.”