West Virginia—it conjures images of beauty, of mist-engulfed mountains and of hard-working people. It also evokes images that aren’t always so positive, but Huntington-based five-piece band Ona loves and is quick to defend their home state. “There are a lot of creative people here. A lot of people don’t know there’s music scene here. We’re definitely not creating it, but we’re a part of it, and we’re building a nice hub here for people to finally realize there’s good stuff here, and not just music. Our drummer Max does film production and directs; there’s art everywhere. It’s the new Athens!” says co-frontman Bradley Jenkins. “West Virginia gets a bad rap, we’re on the worst part of every list. We love it though. It’s a beautiful place. People really come out and support music here. There are some great bands coming out of West Virginia, they’re just killing it.”
With just a cursory listen to American Fiction, their debut LP released in the fall via Twin Cousins Records, one can easily conclude that Ona is definitely killing it.
The band began when Owens and Jenkins met at a jam session in old movie theater practice space in their town; the group was playing songs from Jenkins’ catalog, songs which were having a profound effect on Owens. “I just remember saying to him ‘Dude, I really like your stuff; we should get weird, let’s dive into these and get away from the singer/songwriter stuff,’” says Owens. The pair bonded and cultivated their musical relationship. “We’d sit on the porch and drink and write songs together all night,” Owens recalls. Eventually, Owens’ roommate, Zach Johnston (a.k.a. Jeter) joined the party and added his touch on bass. Shortly thereafter, they acquired drummer Max Nolte, and began recording music. “It was all uphill from there,” says Jenkins.
Ona’s dynamic of chemistry and close friendship comes through in their easy-going sound, which they make sound virtually effortless. “We’re just lots of good-looking guys in denim” says Owens with a laugh. “Everyone has their own personality. I talk a lot, obviously. We all come from different backgrounds. Bradley was a singer/songwriter. I went to Berklee and was into jazz and Radiohead-style rock. Jeter has the best taste in music, and Max has it all together. And sarcasm.”
The band has gotten Sirius attention (see what I did there?), and spent some time in Washington, D.C. doing a guest DJ segment for XM channel The Loft. “They asked us to be their Artist in Residence. It was really organic, a Sirius DJ hit us up on Bandcamp, and told us she loved our music. A couple weeks later she invited us up,” says Owens, with a smile in his voice.
Their attention-getting debut, American Fiction, was recorded at producer and friend Bud Carroll’s studio; “It was a great experience, we’re all best friends, and it wasn’t like we took a harsh business approach. Once, we were tracking and the power went out; there was a crazy rainstorm and me and Bud had to go climb on the roof to patch it up, then we went back in and just kept recording. Zack seemed to like to run his car into ditches during the recording process too,” says Jenkins of their time in the studio. “Nothing else too crazy, happened, though. We’re just suburban white guys,” says Owens with a laugh.
The band couldn’t be happier with the finished product; “When the album came out, we listened to it as a whole, and we tried to decide what the official single was going to be. It was hard to choose; we felt like the songs were all really strong, there’s really not a dull moment in the record,” says Jenkins. One song in particular seems to have a special significance for Owens; “‘Killing Hymn’, stylistically is really different from the other songs, it’s really folky. I said to Bradley that the lyrics might mean something entirely different to him, but to me now, the lyrics are like us kind of saying goodbye to that time and that style of writing. That’s totally not what the song is about, but to me, it’s like us moving forward. Especially, us being from West Virginia, it’s like everything is country around us, it’s like a goodbye to that style of writing,” he says of their movement to a more Americana-centric sound. “The scene here is very folk/Americana-oriented. We try to put an edge on that.”