Sometimes, when Ilonka closes her eyes, she sees images of her native South Africa. She sees an armed man throw open her car door, place an AK-47 at her head and threaten to pull the trigger if she doesn’t get out. She sees people breaking into her home—doors crashing, glass breaking. She remembers huddling upstairs, praying the intruders would not rob or rape her, or worse.
But those memories are distant now. A Nashville transplant as of five years ago, the striking dark-eyed singer-songwriter has released Listen Closely, a record that attempts to cover the musical waterfront, from bouncy ska-inflected pop (“Rain, Rain, Rain”) to piano balladry (“Live”), with a style that aims for the back of the arena.
Like countless immigrants before her, Ilonka sought escape to America—specifically to Nashville, where she hoped to become a singer. Possessed of a prodigious singing voice, she launched a music career in her homeland, signing with Global Resort Casinos at age 12 and performing “The Mike and Ilonka Show” (with South African singer Mike DuRant) for four years.
It was in March 2001 that she received official word that she could emigrate to America. “I cried my eyes out when I heard,” Ilonka says. “It was everything I’d longed for.” Even so, her journey with her mother to Nashville proved arduous and frightening.
“It was terribly scary,” the singer recalls. When her plane landed in New York, she and her mother realized they didn’t have enough money to get to Nashville, and all efforts to contact the bank in South Africa failed. Her journey might have ended there, if not for a mysterious twist.
“Suddenly the most amazing thing happened,” Ilonka says. “A short, Hispanic-looking woman with a thick Brooklyn accent approached us. She asked, ‘Can I help?’ We explained our situation and in response, she, unbelievably, drove us to Penn Station and gave us $400 for bus tickets to Nashville.” After arriving, Ilonka and her mother attempted to contact the woman to reimburse her. Neither the phone number nor the email she gave
The two stayed in cheap motels, living for months just a few dollars away from homelessness. She considered herself lucky when she was offered a job at a downtown hotdog stand. One of her customers was a tall, blond rock guitarist named Ian Duthie, whom she married in August 2001. The two played virtually every writer’s night that would have them. They put a band together, writing songs crafted for her smoky, R&B-edged vocals, which have brought her comparisons to Sheryl Crow and Janis Joplin.
Yet looking back on her harrowing experiences, Ilonka sees a musical silver lining. “Those experiences still have a direct impact on my songwriting,” she says. “Nearly all my songs start dark, with something bad having happened. Then, the lyric moves to inspire people, to see the positive within that situation. If you can find beauty within bad things, it makes you a better person. I want my music to touch people in that way.” —David Carew