Music Troubadour Ondara on Rebooting His Artistic Identity

Poetry, music, dance, and creative writing. If one thing is for sure about Minnesota-based artist, Ondara, it’s that he dabbles in a bit of everything. September 16 marked the arrival of his new album, Spanish Villager N:3, with a preview of the record’s folk rooted songs, “An Alien in Minneapolis,” “A Prophet of Doom,” and “A Nocturnal Heresy’s,” released with music videos in July.

Ondara’s mesmerizing sounds—from his distinct accent to his easy hearted and hard-hitting lyrics—pair with a mysterious, newspaper suit-wearing, face-covered character that walks listeners through the stories told in Ondara’s new album. 

Just days after his album release party in New York City, Ondara sat down to walk us through a little bit of everything—his album, how he got here, and the character paired with his new music.

Why the change in name from J.S. Ondara to Ondara? 

I suppose the easiest answer, or at least the most conscious answer, is that it’s an attempt at simplifying things for people. It makes it easier to remember one name. But, I believe a more subconscious thing happening may be that it’s a sort of process of evolution, and death and resurrection, that has been a part of my life until this moment.  

Evolution, death, and resurrection. That’s an interesting path to follow as an artist. Would you say that compared to when you released Tales of America in 2019, have you as an artist evolved into this new album? How have you changed? 

As an artist or as a person?

How about both? 

Much of what I’m trying to do with this new record, or at least what part of the growth is, is there is a sort of deliberate partition of where the art is and where the artist is, right? That’s why I’m not on the cover of the record this time. And I created this character called the “Spanish Villager,” who is sort of my de facto public figure and I’m trying to create this demarcation between art and artist. I’m trying to create some space for me to grow as an individual spiritually, but also have this other entity that can also grow in itself as a commodity, as a thing that people gravitate towards. Because I was having a hard time reconciling who I was as me and who I was as an artist. As my career was growing, it was becoming very confusing. I couldn’t figure it out and it was getting very unhealthy mentally, and I think, you know, part of what the aesthetic of this presentation is to preserve my mental health by creating this demarcation between “this is the art, this is the artist.” So, to answer your question, there’s two paths of growth happening. There is the growth of being a person, and there is the growth of the art. The growth of the Spanish Villager that has begun now.  

The image of this character, the Spanish Villager that you created, is really intriguing. In the two music videos you’ve released, they’re both extremely minimal – either a spotlight or just an all-black or all-white background with the focus on this newspaper-suit, red-face character that barely shows his face to the camera. What message are you trying to send through the Spanish Villager? 

I don’t know if there’s a very conscious message that I’m particularly trying to convey. I didn’t want to create the Spanish Villager. I didn’t want to do that. Originally, I had something very cool going on and I didn’t want to do this. This character came out of me in a very tyrannical fashion, where my entire body needed to create against my will.

When I retrospectively try to intellectualize some of the things I was going through while my body was like, “actually, we need to create this character.” You know, I think about some of the conflicts I was going through at that time, this sort of cognitive dissonance of being in the search of an experiment that is actively being invalidated by an entire cultural narrative, right. And so, I think that put me in a very destabilizing state of mind.

You know, I think it’s like if you say you rearrange your entire life to move to Kenya to hunt, and you arrive there and come to find that hunting is now illegal. You’d at least have some sort of spiritual crisis. I was wrestling with that kind of crisis. And I was also wrestling with my career growing very radically, and trying to figure out who I was as this public figure that people admire. Is that who I am? I was asking myself “Where am I in this image of a famous person?” And that was also some kind of crisis. I think it was a crisis of maturation, in a way. I was in my late 20s, and I was feeling the need to mature as a person, but also concurrently, to mature as a celebrity and as a commodity, essentially. And so, that was a different kind of cognitive dissonance, because the process of maturation as a human requires you to optimize yourself for spirituality and integration and whatnot. And the process of maturation as a product requires you to optimize yourself for profit. And so, it’s ultimately difficult to sell for spirituality and for profit concurrently. And through that, I found a way to articulate it.

I think my body was expressing all of the things at the same time, and the solution I came up with is to dissociate. Because I came to a place where I realized that I couldn’t handle all of those things, it was too much for me. And so, my body created something else that helped me deal with everything I had been going through. So, my body created the Spanish Villager who ended up solving several problems. He solved the problem of determining who I am as a public figure by creating some kind of demarcation between me as a person and me as an artist. And he also became some sort of repository for my anxieties about my journey in America. He’s become the place where all of my anxieties have been held, and until he was created, I was too heavy to proceed with my life and my career. I think the reason why the process of his creation felt tyrannical was because my body just knew it needed to create this release in a character for me to continue to exist, even though I didn’t know that at the time. 

Listening to Spanish Villager N:3 feels extremely personal, and with the Spanish Villager representing that for you, it feels almost like looking into your own life. From feeling outside of yourself in a new environment to political affiliations and mistrust in the government, can you walk me through some of the major themes in your new record? 

I mean, there’s a certain fear of a potential and of an empire, you could say. I think it’s probably more clear in songs like “A Prophet of Doom,” “Suspicious Deliverance,” and maybe “A Witch and A Saint” as well.  There’s sort of this looming fear of “Did I move to the empire when the empire is about to end?” What does that mean? What does that mean for me? And for my journey and my past? So, that’s certainly something that’s present in the record. And in connection to that, I think the other thing that I was wrestling with while making the record was my place in America at the moment and being an immigrant who rearranged their life entirely to move to this country, because I believed in the promise of this country. And also existing at a time when there is a sort of cultural decree that the same experiment that I came to validate is fundamentally invalid. So, there’s a sort of cognitive, sort of destabilizing dissonance  that comes with that, and I think that comes out in a way in the record. 

You seem to be an extremely multifaceted artist. You originally began with poetry, transitioned to music, and now are incorporating dance and writing into your new album. When you’re in the creative process, do you focus more on the end result and what you want to release to the world? Or do you focus on one element at a time? 

It’s definitely more of the lot, it’s not very planned out. It’s more like the conversations I have with my muse are kind of on a need-to-know basis. It’s sort of like she tells me what to do. And I ask her why, and she says “You don’t need to know that now because you can’t handle it.” So, it’s very much a one step at a time process, it’s very subconscious. For instance, the Spanish Villager, I didn’t really know I was creating the character. I was just following this subconscious instance. It’s almost like walking in the dark until I find out what I was doing all along. 

When I listened to Spanish Villager N:3, I noticed that there are four or five songs – “A Blackout in Paris,” “A Seminar in Tokyo,” “A Shakedown in Berlin,” “A Drowning in Mexico City,” and “An Alien in Minneapolis” – in a row that include cities in their titles. Is there a connection between these songs?

I wish I had a satisfactory answer for that question. And I think I probably will in a few months once I’m going back to the subconscious nature of my process, where I’m doing things and figuring out in the future why I did them as I did them. I think that’s just how those songs happened to come out. I did retroactively create a narrative around the Spanish Villager in the form of a graphic novel, and some of the scenes in the graphic novel are based in those cities – Minneapolis, Tokyo, Mexico City. But, that wasn’t a very conscious thing that I was trying to do, per se. I was just following cues from the subconscious.  

Because the subconscious plays such a large role for you as a creative, would you say that in your creative process, your inspiration comes in in random bursts? Or do you have specific muses that help you create? 

This might be somewhat unsavory, but sometimes it feels like vomit. Or, it’s like I’ll wake up one day and write the entire day and I won’t stop for 11 hours straight. It’s the sort of moment where you can’t stop; you just start and you keep going and you can’t stop. The more you do it, the more your subconscious won’t allow you to stop. And, at some point – I apologize because this analogy might be somewhat unsavory – I start looking through the vomit and I’ll find something interesting. But I think it is, whatever the heck that is, you know, maybe the exorcism of demons. 

Do you have any specific memories of having one of those moments when writing for Spanish Villager N:3?  

The second song, “A Blackout in Paris,” I love playing shows in Paris. And one of my last shows there, there was a blackout. It took the whole block. So, I had to play about 20 minutes of my set in just complete darkness. Which was actually very cool and it was very intimate and the crowd helped me sing songs. That night I tried out that song, “A Blackout in Paris,” actually. It was unreleased at the time, but I tried it out with the crowd and they helped me figure it out. 

If you were talking to someone who was interested in listening to Spanish Villager N:3 but needed reassurance on why they should listen to it, what would you tell them? 

I might ask them if they would like to find themselves by losing themselves first. If that sounded like an interesting journey, this album would be the first place to start. Because, this record for me has been a process of finding myself by losing myself. It’s been the most difficult thing I’ve had to do, to create this whole world around it. It’s a metaphor for my spiritual path. And I think anyone who’s interested in spiritual growth, who’s interested in self exploration, would find value in it. 

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