Gustavo Garcia Villa / Courtesy of the artist
Omar Apollo carries his heart on his sleeve.
The singer-songwriter, who grew up in Indiana and taught himself to sing and play guitar via YouTube, began as a teenager handing out heartbreaking anthems and lamenting confessions to SoundCloud.
In 2017, Apollo uploaded the song “Ugotme” to Spotify, which earned him loyal listeners after garnering dozens of thousands of streams overnight. Since then, he has released two EPs and a mini-album, all with an increasingly polished production, and has worked with artists including Kali Uchis and C. Tangana, and his collaboration with the latter earned him his first pair of Latin Grammy- nominations in 2021.
ivory – the artist’s recently released full-length debut – finds Apollo at his most experimental to date, moving from psych-pop dance songs to stripped-down soul and bilingual hip-hop in just under 40 minutes. But the inevitable feeling of longing is still at the center.
From the road in Seattle, he spoke with NPR’s Ayesha Rascoe about forging ties to Pharrell, honoring his Mexican roots and being compared to his icons.
This interview has been edited and compressed. To hear the broadcast version of this story, use the audio player at the top of this page.
About scrapping the original version of the album this fall and going back to the studio
When it got time to put [the album] out, I had a feeling I did not want to promote or tour this music. I was not thrilled about it. It was good music – it was not bad music, but it did not feel like me. I just made the decision to say, “Okay, I’m just making a brand new album instead, and then I’ll be touring with it.” It was sour because I had to push my trip back and cancel and postpone the dates and it was really tough because we had already spent a lot of money on the trip. It was definitely like an L, but it was worth it.
About working with Neptunes on the song “Tamagotchi” and producing with Pharrell Williams
I have always loved to rap. Since my first project, I have been rapping. I kind of knew when I went to work with Pharrell that I wanted to rap and bring it back. I have worked with [the Neptunes producer] Chad Hugo before, we’ve done a lot of songs together. Then I got a call like, “Oh, Pharrell is going to work. Let’s fly to Miami this weekend.” I was like, okay, cool. My first day there I was super nervous. He is [a] really polite, very sweet guy.
So he made a beat and he said, “do you like it?” and I say, “Yes, I like it.” And then he says, “Okay, I’ll be right back,” because there was another session in the house, so he went to work with them. I say, “Okay, I have to make this song.” Thirty minutes later he comes up again and I’m done with it all. I play it and he ended up loving it. So right away, [the] energy changed – there is chemistry now.
And then he went down and brought everyone up like, “You have to listen to this shit, you have to listen to this.” It was not “Tamagotchi”, it was another song. He played it for everyone. Pusha T was up there. It was super sick. And then after that he says, “How many days do you have?” I said we had two days and he said, “You need to extend your flight.” I extended my flight immediately. I was so excited.
By including one race (Mexican ballad) “An El Olvido,” on the album
On this album, I really wanted to sing more than I ever did – something that is really going to be translated live. Because I really love the kind of softer, warmer tenor voice that I do, but I also want to project. I had that in mind: I really want to sing. I grew up on Juan Gabriel [and] it was very Juan Gabriel inspired.
Whether he prefers to express his queerness through his texts than to put labels on it
I do not care. I feel like in the beginning I tried to be mysterious and stuff like that, but now I’m like – I’m very gay, so I’m like, no matter what. It’s funny, every time I do an interview, they say, “You do not like that …” I say, “Damn, am I really getting out of this?” [laughs] But no, I totally know. Maybe I was trying to preserve the mystery, you know? But I do not care anymore [laughs].
About earning comparisons with icons like Prince on his full-length debut, and whether it adds pressure
Oh, man, I’m just the biggest Prince fan. I have a playlist that is probably four hours with only Prince songs. I loved singing in the falsetto more than my regular voice when I first started, so when I heard Prince do all these songs throughout the falsetto, I thought, “Oh, that’s me, that’s what I want to do.” He’s a big influence – major. And the people I listen to are also influenced by Prince, so you get it from all angles. But I mean, is it pressure? No, I’m just having fun with it.