Photo: Gustavo Garcia Villa
Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Omar Apollo On “Evergreen,” Growth & The Art Of Longing
Omar Apollo sings, raps and dances. No matter what the Best New Artist nominee does, he does it with soul.
Omar Apollo’s career began with a stolen guitar. It almost ended with one, too.
The self-taught musician, then 14, had been playing for two or three years when robbers took his beloved instrument from the family car after a gig. With no money to replace it, Apollo took up dancing and worked various jobs while in high school. He had let his music-making days go — until one day he couldn’t anymore.
"The feeling overwhelmed me," he tells GRAMMY.com. "Music had taken over the part in my brain that needed to be creative." He went to a pawn shop and bought another guitar.
Following that feeling served him well. Apollo uploaded his song "Ugotme" to Spotify in 2017 and it was quickly blew up after being placed on a Fresh Finds playlist. Over the next three years, he released two EPs and a mixtape — Stereo (2018), Friends (2019) and Apolonio (2020) — which showcased his wide range of sounds including funk, pop, disco, R&B and Spanish corridos. Apollo’s dreamy croons and wistful lyrics about love (or lack of it) were a raw new voice to the youth experience of putting words to yet-unplumbed feelings. The son of Mexican immigrants, he also became a relatable figure for fellow first-generation Latinos.
This past year has been especially momentous. In April 2022, Apollo released his debut album, Ivory, which features Kali Uchis ("Bad Life"), Daniel Caesar ("Invincible") and production by the Neptunes ("Tamagotchi"). Another single from the LP, "Evergreen," went viral on TikTok, earned him his first placement on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and currently boasts over 118 million Spotify streams. It’s all culminated in a Best New Artist nomination for the 65th GRAMMY Awards.
Of course, these achievements didn’t all come easily. Behind the scenes, he reckoned with scrapped albums, tight deadlines and the type of overthinking that can crumble any artist’s career. Yet these hurdles only helped Apollo sharpen his vision — and he’s just only getting started.
How did your parents react to your nomination?
My dad was like, "Congratulations." My dad’s thought every single award was a GRAMMY nomination. So like, I won an award recently and he's like, "I heard you got another GRAMMY, mijo." And I was like, it wasn’t a GRAMMY [laughs]. It was so fun. My mom instantly was like, "What are we wearing?"
Are you bringing them to the GRAMMYs?
As a fellow child of immigrants, I think we're very aware of the sacrifices that our parents made to build the life that we have now. How does that impact you?
With my parents being from Mexico, then coming here so their kids could have a better life, there's that pressure of needing to be successful or wanting to be — not so much in a creative way; more like, no, you go to college and get a job, that kind of thing.
But honestly, the feeling to make music was far greater than the pressure. I didn't think of it as a career; it just kind of snowballed into one. It was tough for them at first to understand. If I was living in Mexico and crossed the border illegally so my kids could have a better life, and then my kid wakes up one day and is like, oh, I wanna be a singer, I would be stressed out too. So I never blamed them for it. Now I have a great relationship with them.
How do you feel about the general Best New Artist category?
I'm happy to be recognized as new [laughs]. I wake up every day and just think about the future, and wanting to keep making music and progressing. Some people are like, you've been touring for a while, but I honestly feel like I'm barely getting started. It's just wonderful to be recognized, and with other great talented artists that I've known about and really like their music, too.
Ivory almost didn't happen in its current state. Why did you scrap the first version of the album, and how did you know you were on the right track for this one?
I scrapped the first album because I hated it. I wasn't excited to perform it. Everything was post-rationalized; it didn't have any theme. It was just me linking up with a bunch of producers and then putting whatever happened in those two months all together. It didn't feel like me by any means. It wasn't made on my laptop while I've been making music; it was on everyone else's computers. It was just weird.
I learned so much from working with other people that I don't regret that at all. It also led me to making an album that I was proud of. So after I realized that it was an album that I didn't like, I made a new one in like three months. I booked houses in Idyllwild and Greenpoint in New York and just isolated myself, just took everything I learned. Very few people were involved in that process. I didn't even play it for my manager or nobody until it was done. I think that boundary really made all those songs into what they are.
Three months to make a new album sounds incredibly stressful. Do you find that you thrive in periods of crunch time?
That was definitely my most stressful time with music for sure. It was very dark. I felt like I was gonna burn a bridge with my label. But I got so much done. I made a hundred songs in three months and cut it down. Now I don't think I need to do that.
Now it's not so much discovery, it's more execution. Discovery can take years, you know? I think that the process of Ivory and me releasing it gave me so much to learn from next time I'm in the process of writing.
Themes, tones, overall cohesiveness and making an album. I could be like, this album is about this as opposed to doing 10 different genres. At the heart of everything that I do, I feel like there's soul even when I'm rapping. I think that's when I realized it's the type of music that I wanna make and play forever.
Did you expect "Evergreen" to take off the way that it did?
I don't think any of us did. It's so funny 'cause I always hear people talk about, when the song goes big, they're like, "we never knew." But we genuinely never knew. We even had a conversation when we were doing the splits of the song. It was me, Manny [Barajas], and Teo [Halm], and something came up along the lines of like, yeah, this isn't gonna be like, the song [laughs]. It’s just funny that it was.
Why do you think it resonated with so many people?
There was a giant release on that song and it almost didn't happen. The bridge is the release, the thing that ties the whole song together. Otherwise, it would just be a very sad song. I think that the part where [I sing] "You didn't deserve me at all" — just the way that it was set up and done — people could relate to it.
It's a feeling that we've all felt in a relationship where it's just like, you tell yourself things to get over it and move on. One of those things is like, you didn't deserve me and the love I had to give.
I personally love "En El Olvido." Have you thought about making an album entirely of corridos or an all Spanish language record?
I totally have. I don't know how I would do it though. Right now I'm focused on writing. I'm going to the studio every day; I'm probably gonna go after this. There's just things I have to get out first, but who knows, they might develop or change. I just try to honor the inspiration that I feel and get it out as much as I can.
What's inspiring you now?
I've become obsessed with synthesizers; I just got one that I've been making every song on. And analog, '70s stuff. The atmospheric tones from that era have been inspiring me. I've been listening to a lot of Brian Eno, a lot of ambient [music].
I made a playlist, it's four hours long, that I spent like eight hours making one day in the green room. I was doing a show and just made like a whole… all of my knowledge of ambient music and even new stuff, just altogether in one thing. I don't know why, I've just been really drawn to that ambient feeling. I want to be able to sing over it because I love how it makes me feel. I want to amplify that feeling, that atmosphere, that world. Just be engulfed in it.
Tell me more about that world.
It slows everything down for me. I feel like when you're on the road and you have to constantly be perceived, it gets kind of heavy and then you start overthinking every interaction. Even the ones that aren't being recorded. That music puts me to sleep at night and makes me feel like everything's okay.
Longing has been a major theme in your work. What is longing to you and why is it so dominant in your music?
Living in a state of longing is probably some of the most intense moments that I've had and the ones that I remember. Always traveling and not being able to have a conventional relationship as much as I'd like to. I've accepted longing as a feeling and, instead of being sad about it, I just like to live in it, I like to bask in it. It’s like a Freudian slip. Whenever I talk about longing, it's just there, like a sadness that I love to carry.
I feel that. When you talked about how Pedro Infante’s "Cien Años" was foundational to your understanding and love of corridos, as soon as I read that I had to listen to it. It's still stuck in my head.
It's so good, man. Especially when you're longing for somebody but you know you’ll see them again. The longing of someone unrequited is what sucks. That one I don't like [laughs]. But the longing of somebody's presence, wanting to see them, be around them, see how they react to the simplest things. You get joy from it. That's the part I miss.
You're big on manifestation. In the last few years you've manifested two "Tonight Show" appearances, a Coachella gig and possibly this Best New Artist win. So let's put it out there: What else do you want to manifest?
What I want to manifest ultimately is being able to say what I wanna say in the most poetic way. That's all I really think about, is just being able to put words to these feelings that I get, and make something that I'm proud of.
Photo: Kristy Sparow/Getty Images, Kevin Winter/Getty Images for LARAS, Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy, Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for The Recording Academy, Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images, Gustavo Garcia Villa
Listen To GRAMMY.com's LGBTQIA+ Pride Month 2023 Playlist Featuring Demi Lovato, Sam Smith, Kim Petras, Frank Ocean, Omar Apollo & More
Celebrate LGBTQIA+ Pride Month 2023 with a 50-song playlist that spans genres and generations, honoring trailblazing artists and allies including George Michael, Miley Cyrus, Orville Peck, Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande and many more.
In the past year, artists in the LGBTQIA+ community have continued to create change and make history — specifically, GRAMMY history. Last November, Liniker became the first trans artist to win a Latin GRAMMY Award when she took home Best MPB Album for Indigo Borboleta Anil; three months later, Sam Smith and Kim Petras became the first nonbinary and trans artists, respectively, to win the GRAMMY Award for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for their sinful collab "Unholy."
Just those two feats alone prove that the LGBTQIA+ community is making more and more of an impact every year. So this Pride Month, GRAMMY.com celebrates those strides with a playlist of hits and timeless classics that are driving conversations around equality and fairness for the LGBTQIA+ community.
Below, take a listen to 50 songs by artists across the LGBTQIA+ spectrum — including "Unholy" and Liniker's "Baby 95" — on Amazon Music, Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora.
Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
Meet Tobias Jesso Jr., The First-Ever GRAMMY Winner For Songwriter Of The Year
"I felt the weight of what it meant," the man behind the curtain of massive songs by Adele, Harry Styles, Marcus Mumford and more says about his win in the brand-new GRAMMY category.
Tobias Jesso Jr. wanted to know how to write a hit song, so he read How to Write a Hit Song. Not that he needed to figure out how to break into the mainstream: he had already written a tune with Sia and Adele that cracked the Billboard Hot 100. But in an effort to take his young career seriously — that of writing behind the curtain for the stars — he cracked open the book at a café.
Just then, a voice: "What the hell are you doing?" He glanced up. It was Sia.
"She was like, 'Why are you reading that?' and I was like, 'I honestly don't know,'" Jesso remembers with a laugh. "I think I just put the book away from that point on and was like, OK, I don't need the books. And I just felt like there's been a different one of those lessons at every step of the way where I'm just like, Man, I think this is what I got to do, and then I just figure it out."
Since that exchange, Jesso has written with a litany of contemporary stars: John Legend, Shawn Mendes, Pink, Haim, Harry Styles — the list goes on. (As per the latter, he co-wrote "Boyfriends" on Harry's House, which was crowned Album Of The Year at the 2023 GRAMMYs.)
And at said ceremony, he received a historic honor — the first-ever golden gramophone for Songwriter Of The Year. As Evan Bogart, Chair of the Songwriters & Composers Wing, recently toldput it to GRAMMY.com: "We're looking for which songwriters have demonstrated, first and foremost, that they're considered a songwriter first by the music community. We want to recognize the professional, hardworking songwriters who do this for a living."
Read More: Why The New Songwriter Of The Year GRAMMY Category Matters For The Music Industry And Creator Community
Clearly, Jesso fits the mold, and possesses technical chops worthy of How to Write a Hit Song. But his realization — that he can literally throw out the rulebook — speaks volumes as to his flexible, collaborator-first and fun-first process.
"I get into a room and I really want to enjoy the people, and the songs will come if we're all just being honest," he tells GRAMMY.com. "If you take a few days or weeks to get to know somebody, all of a sudden, your songs are deeper."
And while working his interpersonal and collaborative magic, he keeps his ears and imagination open — a momentary trifle can become the heart of a song. It happened with Cautious Clay's "Whoa," which came from messing with some, well, whoas.
"It was a little silly at first," says Jesso,the songwriter whose first output was "inappropriate" high-school joke songs. "But now it wasn't silly anymore."
GRAMMY.com sat down with Jesso about his creative beginnings, the experience of working alongside pop titans, and how his inaugural GRAMMY win for Songwriter Of The Year happened during the happiest, most creatively fruitful period of his burgeoning career.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How did it feel to take home the golden gramophone — the first ever in this category?
It felt tremendous. It felt amazing. It's such an honor to have received it, and I felt the weight of what it meant. I get really stage frightened, and so I kept telling myself there's no way I was going to win, just so I wouldn't be nervous or anything like that.
But weirdly, when I did win, I was very not nervous. I don't know how to put it, but it was the opposite of what I thought I would feel. I don't know if I've never been awarded something so prestigious. My elementary school did a piece on me after I won the GRAMMY, and it was sort of largely a "We didn't see any talent at all" kind of thing.
So, I'd say "tremendous" would be probably the one word I would feel most aptly describes it. I'm just really, really proud of the category and its creation, and super lucky to have been a part of it at all. Especially in the year that it comes out. I was baffled that I was nominated.
I had already felt like that rush of whoa, this amazing thing happened when I was nominated. And then winning was the next level of completely beyond what I could have ever expected.
How does the win help chart the next stage of your career?
As a songwriter, your job is to serve the artist. Your job is to serve the artist — the person who the song's for. And I think because of that, most songwriters have a very serve mentality, which generally doesn't work out well on the business side of things for you.
I think if you took all the producers in the world and took all the songwriters in the world and tried to look at which ones are more business savvy, I'd say nine times out of 10, it's probably the producers.
I think a lot of people — artists or songwriters among them — have imposter syndrome, feeling like they don't really know whether they belong there or they're just lucky or they have what it takes for the next one, even. If they know they had a good run or whatever, they're always going back to the well and praying that there's something in there.
And I think this GRAMMY is almost like having a symbol of a really good run — a really good, fertile time of creativity or something. TI think the way I see it is sort of a symbol of this period of time where I had a lot of ideas, and worked really hard, and managed to somehow win this thing, which is, for me, is huge. It means a lot.
For the songwriting community to have the award to look forward to, to have this symbol of Hey, you can be creative as a songwriter and just be a songwriter who doesn't sing and doesn't produce, and [the fact] you can get this prestigious symbol of your gifts that the world will now recognize — I think that's a wonderful thing for songwriters to have.
Take me back to the beginning of your career writing songs, either for yourself or others. The first time you really embraced this magical act of creation.
I was such a lazy songwriter for so many years because I always loved writing songs, writing songs with my friends in high school and stuff like that. But I never really wanted to play an instrument, and I never really wanted to sing them myself.
I think probably back in high school, in 1998 or '99, it was because they were joke songs. So I probably didn't want to sing them because they were inappropriate or something. I always wanted to. The beginning for me was definitely a sort of moment of hearing Tracy Chapman when I was like, Oh, this is what I'm going to do. Not be Tracy Chapman, but write songs.
From there I was really lazy and I just tried to do as little as possible, but I had this sort of confidence that I was somehow good at it. So, I would sometimes have my friends who played guitar or my friends who played piano, or whoever was around, do the music part for me, and I could just kind of pipe in and direct where I felt like my skillset was.
I started writing on piano for the first time when I was 27. That was a big moment for me where I was. I feel like I finally figured it out. It took me a long time: I still don't know how to play the piano, but I know I'm going to figure this out now.
I made a lot of mistakes along the way with bands and with albums or whatever. Things that just didn't exactly go the way [I planned them]; my gut was eventually telling me it just wasn't right. And then, when I started playing piano, it just finally all felt right, and I didn't think too much about it. I just sort of started doing it.
During that time, I unfortunately had to sing to get my album out, which was sort of a means to an end. But as soon as I was able to, I ducked away from that and started writing. Then I just had a new job. I was like I got promoted or something.
As you honed your ability and developed your craft, how did you follow that chain of connections to be able to write for who you've written for?
It's funny because Adele was the first person I worked with — [but] not in a professional way where managers and stuff like that are involved, and it's not just a friend of mine from high school or something. She was sort of my blueprint for how those things went.
I couldn't have gotten any luckier than with Adele, because her blueprint for how to do a writing session is the most pure in the game. There's nothing to hide behind. There's no producer in the room. She came to my friend's grandparents' where there are no mics; there's no studio equipment at all. There's a piano. And she just goes, "Great, let's write a song."
I don't know that that even exists much anymore. There's not even a microphone to capture what's going on, let alone one of the biggest players in the entire world doing it — just showing up, being like, "Let's write a song." And there's nothing to record her. I thought that was really cool. I'm like, "That's how I write songs. I just sit in front of a piano and just do what I think I like." And she was like, "And me too."
So, that's how we got along real great off the bat. And then from there, I would say it was just the most epic amount of failures and trial and error to figure out what the hell I was doing in every different session. I mean, I was treading water at times, and I felt like I was smoking crack sometimes, because I was so creative in a certain scenario I didn't expect to be creative in or something like that.
I think it's just this kind of learning process. There are a lot of people who are typically geared towards one style of writing. You're the country guy or you're the pop guy, or you're the ballad guy. And I could see that I was getting typecast. I was starting to get typecast, especially early on in my career because ballads, that's just the tempo that's naturally within me. It's sort of my soul tempo to just slow things down. I can write much easier in that tempo. I'll always sort of naturally progress there.
But I wanted to push the limits of that, and I wanted to figure out a way to get out of that typecast. And so I tried as quickly as I could to pick people who would be like, "Please don't play a ballad."
And when I started doing that, it was, again, trial and error. I think Niall [Horan of One Direction] was the first person I worked with who was in the pop world, and he was very much an acoustic singer. So I think that I was going into that session thinking I wanted to do upbeat pop. So I don't know — you get in the door and then you just try to acclimate yourself to the environment and help out as much as you can.
I think that's the best way to put it, because you never know what you're going to be doing. You never know what the artist is going to want from you or not want from you. A lot of the job is just figuring all that stuff out and then trying to just have fun while you're doing it. I think it's just that good energy, good attitude, and good people tend to sort of gravitate together.
How would you characterize the state of your artistic journey at this point?
I would say it feels the richest, in the sense that I'm the happiest I've been working.
I've found my rhythm — my perfect work-life balance kind of thing — so I can spend time with my son. And I think because of all of the time I've spent writing songs and how many songs come out, which is not a lot compared to how much you spend writing, you kind of learn that the relationships you make in the room are really the things that you really take out of it. It can be a lot more than, "I'm just a songwriter here to serve this artist" or whatever.
Lately, probably because of all the time I've spent doing it, I get into a room and I really want to enjoy the people. And the songs will come if we're all just being honest. We all know why we're here. We don't need that pressure in the room, and we don't need the A&R sitting in the room. We can get a song, but let's just be honest and really enjoy each other's company for a while.
And I think once that starts happening, it's way, way more fruitful in the long run. Because if you take a few days or weeks to get to know somebody, all of a sudden, your songs are deeper.
As a songwriter, your job is to point out metaphors or parallels — and things that could spark some interest in an artist's mind. And the better you get to know somebody, the more amazing the writing process can be.
That's been happening a lot in my recent sessions with Dua [Lipa] and Harry, another just amazing person. He is a great guy, but we haven't done that much writing together, but we know each other mostly through Kid Harpoon — Tom [Hull], who's the best.
I'm getting to know the people, and that's the most important part for me — I'm working with the people I want to work with. That's my journey now. I'll always work with new people, but I don't need to work with people I don't really vibe with or listen to. That's not really my interest anymore, especially if I'm in it for the right reasons. I'd say it's just more intentional, and I'm being more honest.
When you walk into a room to write with somebody, what are the first steps, or operating principles?
My operating principle is: Do I want to get to know this person, and do they want to get to know me at all, or do they just want to write a song and not want to open up?
If it's somebody who seems very open to talk, that's usually a good sign. And if not, then you just do what they want. You start writing a song and that's fine too. Sometimes there's great, catchy stuff. It's not always the deepest stuff.
Maybe they're the ones writing the lyrics, so maybe it is. But my operating principle is kind of, if I'm having a good time and everyone's having a good time, we're doing something good. We're not writing a bad song. We're just not. If we were writing a bad song in this room of professionals, we wouldn't be having a good time.
And when you're having a good time, good ideas do come. Even if they are silly at first and they're more openly accepted, and everything in the room is flowing better when those channels of enjoyment are sort of open, and everyone's laughing and having fun and dancing and being silly, that's how you get creative.
I don't know of many songwriters who are just dead serious. I've maybe met a couple. So I think my operating principle is to have a good time. That's going to be the funnest day, no matter what. It's probably going to be a better song for it if you're having fun and you like the people and they like you, and everything's going well.
Why is it crucial that the Recording Academy honor not only public-facing creators, but those behind the curtain?
I won't speak for myself as much as just the amazing people who I've worked with. You can't understand what kind of work has to go into a song. It's so funny, because it's a three-minute thing that sounds like most people can do it in an hour or something, but some of these things take months of work to get right.
I think it's really important to acknowledge everyone involved in each of the processes, because to give credit to just producers and artists, and then it's like, "Yeah, but the storytellers aren't even in the room," is like the congratulating a director and an actor, and then being like, the writer is s—. It's like, what? The movie wouldn't exist without them!
That just wouldn't happen. So, it feels like the right thing. I'm a bit overwhelmed and still a bit in disbelief, but it's snowing in LA, so miracles do happen.
What would you tell a young songwriter who wants to roll up their sleeves and do this?
I would say just be a good person and keep learning. Everyone's not perfect at the start. But if I had to give one piece of advice that was super, super important to me, is the good guys are winning in the end sometimes.
Like I said, the friendships and the artists, you don't want to come in being a d—. And I don't mean that strictly for men. I just mean whoever's coming in, you want to be a nice person. I think there's a lot of good people, and there's a lot of bad people too. You find your crew — energy finds energy.
Meet Stephanie Economou, The First-Ever GRAMMY Winner For Best Score Soundtrack For Video Games And Other Interactive Media
Photo courtesy of the artist
Bobby McFerrin Honored With Recording Academy Special Merit Award
After racking up 10 GRAMMY Awards and worldwide acclaim, McFerrin said this when the National Endowment for the Arts inducted him into its 2020 Jazz Masters class: “My pursuit of music has always been about freedom and joy.”
Whenever Bobby McFerrin sings, freedom reigns. It twists and shouts; caresses and soothes; howls and coruscates.
After racking up 10 GRAMMY Awards and worldwide acclaim, McFerrin said this when the National Endowment for the Arts inducted him into its 2020 Jazz Masters class: “My pursuit of music has always been about freedom and joy.”
The son of two incredible singers, Sara Cooper (a former vocal professor at Fullerton College) and Robert McFerrin (an operatic baritone who was the first Black American man to sing at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera), McFerrin seemed destined to become a star. He sang in church choirs while growing up in Los Angeles. He studied music at California State University at Sacramento and Cerritos College in Norwalk, California. Afterward, he played piano and organ with the Ice Follies and in pop bands. And in 1980, he toured with the iconic jazz singer, Jon Hendricks.
McFerrin was 31 years old when he released his debut LP in 1982. But his artistry sounded fresh and fully developed. He contorted his four-octave voice in an array of colors, textures and improvisational shapes, liberating the role of a jazz singer.
McFerrin’s reputation as an ingenious and fearless virtuoso grew. His 1984 sophomore LP, The Voice, marked the first time a jazz singer recorded an entire album without any accompaniment or overdubbing. In addition to showcasing marvelous interpretations of songs by James Brown and Billy Strayhorn, it also revealed McFerrin to be an engaging composer through such infectious songs as “The Jump,” and “I’m My Own Walkman.”
A year later, his guest appearance on “Another Night In Tunisia” from the Manhattan Transfer’s LP, Vocalese, earned McFerrin his first two GRAMMY Awards. The following year, he won a GRAMMY for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Male for his stunning rendition of “Round Midnight,” featuring pianist Herbie Hancock from the movie soundtrack, Round Midnight. His collaboration with Hancock also garnered McFerrin another GRAMMY win in 1987 for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Male for “What Is This Thing Called Love?” from the LP, The Other Side Of Round Midnight.
For all of McFerrin’s exhilarating virtuosity, he imbues it with vast emotional range, especially humor. He can infuse his improvisations with the madcap kinetic energy of a Tom and Jerry cartoon chase scene, then pull the amorous heartstrings with a tender ballad.
Of course, the lyrics that McFerrin became most famous for are from his sanguine 1988 hit, “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” which catapulted him into superstardom. The song won three
GRAMMY Awards — Song Of The Year, Record Of The Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male.
That enormous success didn’t impede McFerrin’s flair for adventure. He brought a quixotic spark to his records and projects that broke the conventions of jazz singing. He collaborated with classical music heavyweights such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist W.A. Mathieu and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra; he has created elaborate vocal choirs such as 2010’s VOCAbuLarieS with composer Roger Treece; and delved deep into the Negro spiritual canon on his enthralling 2013 album, spirityoual.
Nearly 40 years after winning his first GRAMMY, McFerrin’s continued boundless musicality is a true embodiment of artistic freedom.
Here's What Happened At The Recording Academy's 2023 Special Merit Awards Ceremony Honoring Heart, Nirvana, Nile Rodgers, The Supremes & More
Photo courtesy of the artist
Meet Stephanie Economou, The First-Ever GRAMMY Winner For Best Score Soundtrack For Video Games And Other Interactive Media
In a victory for the video game music community, Stephanie Economou took home the first-ever GRAMMY in that brand-new category for her soundtrack to 'Assassin's Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök.'
Stephanie Economou was so certain she wouldn't win a GRAMMY, that she sat near the back of the auditorium.
The video game soundtrack composer was nominated for the inaugural Best Score Soundtrack For Video Games And Other Interactive Media award for her score to "Assassin's Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök" — a lavish expansion of the latest entry in Ubisoft's series of historically inspired action role-playing games.
"I was up against titans in the video game composing industry, so I was just happy to be nominated and happy to be there," Economou tells GRAMMY.com. But despite the heavy competition — Austin Wintory for "Aliens: Fireteam Elite," Bear McCreary for "Call of Duty Vanguard," other industry juggernauts — the golden gramophone was hers.
From rows and rows deep, Economou dashed to the stage feeling more than a little conflicted. "I was experiencing a lot of impostor syndrome," she says. "I'm still pretty new to this, and I was like, Did I earn this? Do I deserve this?"
It was Wintory, who Economou characterizes as "very, very, very well-known," who set her self-doubting mind at ease: "It's absurd to even question why you're here," he told her, from her recollection. "The music is great, and what you represent is something important."
The soundtrack to "Assassin's Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök" isn't just high-quality; it's immersive, evocative and boundary-pushing. Taking cues from neofolk, Nordic folk and black metal, Economou employed a diverse palette of instruments — synthesizers, lap harp, viola da gamba, et al — to make the open-world RPG evermore captivating and transportive.
Economou opened up to GRAMMY.com about her creative journey through the worlds of film and TV, the manifold inspirations behind the "Dawn of Ragnarök" score, and her hope that this new GRAMMY Award will grant the video game music community the esteem it deserves.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
I imagine there's a degree of aristocracy in the video game scoring community, as there is in many subcultures. If so, was there a feeling upon receiving this GRAMMY that it's giving way a tad?
Yeah, I think there was. Truly, whoever won this category, it was going to be a huge celebration, because it's such a win to even have the validation from the Recording Academy to have video games as their own thing. So, regardless of who won, it was always going to be somebody who I think has earned a level of respect in the industry.
But I do think there is something to be said potentially for the fact that: yes, I am younger, and I am slightly newer to games. Maybe that balance is shifting where people are connecting with creators who are coming at this with a different lens and have something slightly different to say.
I just think that as a composer, I represent something different from what much of this industry can be — which is not better or worse, it’s just another perspective. And sometimes people can be attracted to what that diversity can bring.
Tell me about your early inspirations and what drew you to this medium.
I grew up playing violin and piano, and I pursued in college specifically concert music. So, I didn't score my first short film until I was in college at New England Conservatory, which is a music-only school.
There was just something there that clicked with me. I loved the collaborative process, working with a filmmaker who was really challenging me to try things out of my comfort zone. I grew up loving a lot of music. I grew up loving orchestral music because it's what I was playing in school. Most of all, I grew up loving classic rock, and just the rock genre — punk, metal, things like that. So, I have a lot of different, very, very eclectic influences, which I think is what made it so exciting to write music that felt genuine to me.
But I thought that film music and scoring for media in particular offered this really rare opportunity to potentially harness all of those influences that I loved from growing up — just putting them in a blender and seeing what comes out.
Depending on the project you’re working on, too — you could be working on a period drama where you have to study baroque music, or you could be working on an Assassin’s Creed game and someone says they want to do a black metal score. That’s pretty much exactly what happened. So, I love the challenge that’s built into this work.
Stephanie Economou. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Tell me how your career ramped up to "Assassin's Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök." What games did you work on prior to this title?
I mainly just worked in film and TV. Video games are still a pretty new thing for me.
But when I moved out to LA to start working in the industry, I got pretty lucky and ended up working for a composer named Harry Gregson-Williams, who is very well-known and respected. He composed for Shrek and Chicken Run and The Equalizer and Mulan, and had a bunch of huge, really different films.
So, I cut my teeth with him for six years and was writing on his scores and just being a part of his team, and that's pretty much where I learned everything. I got my credits writing additional music on his projects.
And when I went out on my own, I was looking to get offered a Netflix TV series called "Jupiter's Legacy," which I think was a big catalyst for making an imprint with Netflix in particular, and with other people who really enjoyed that show.
From there, I've been doing lots of different work — documentary work, feature films, animations, a lot of different stuff. I instantly forget every single project I've ever done when anybody asks me this question, but there are lots of things that were propelled forward.
And then, Ubisoft called and said they were looking for a composer they hadn't worked with before — someone who didn't necessarily have game experience — and they asked someone to demo for this DLC [downloadable content] for "Assassin's Creed Valhalla" called "The Siege of Paris." That was my first intro to video game music.
So, I demoed for that, I got that job, and then the following expansion was "Dawn of Ragnarök," so they asked me if I could do that one.
What are some of the specific procedures involved in scoring a video game? What mental space do you need to occupy to write music for games as opposed to the other mediums you've worked in?
In film and TV, those stories are fixed. So, even though they might be editing throughout the time you're writing the music, they're still linear. Video games are nonlinear and interactive with the player, so the music is very alive. It's almost communicating with the player as they're going through the story.
When you're composing the music for something like that, you're kind of designing it as well. So, you need to have an awareness of: OK, even though this track is three minutes long, the player could be in this space for an hour.
Or they could happen upon a danger or tension area, and you need to design layers on top of a base layer that could be triggered at any moment, that can give them that rush or feeling of uneasiness. And then you could have a fight break out, and it's all sort of modular building blocks.
But the biggest challenge that comes with something like that where there are so many moving parts musically, is that you still need to make sure that it's not just the same thing looping over and over again.
The music needs to have shape and a theme, and it can have harmony and modulate, and each of the layers can play with the rudiments of tempo. You can play with double time and half time and triplets and subdivisions that can play into that intensity, but in a very carefully designed way.
So, there are a lot of levels of awareness that need to go into composing something that is interactive and nonlinear, which I think is a really fun challenge. But coming into games and being newer to it, there was a steeper learning curve.
I think that's the challenge with it — making a piece feel really musical and gripping, but being able to do all of those very specific technical things at the same time.
How would you characterize your personal stamp on whatever score you create?
I'm truly bad at recognizing what I think my signature is, because I think it's ever-evolving. But I do think that I try to bring an edge, or something a little bit risk-taking, into all of the music that I make.
I really don't like the idea of writing the same cue more than once, even though sometimes that's what we have to do for the job. I really like the idea that not one of my scores sounds like another one. That's not specific, but process-wise, I get excited by projects that can allow me to do something I haven't done before.
I feel like the space of video games is especially encouraging for taking those kinds of risks, and working with Ubisoft, that's definitely what they were doing. At every turn, they were like, Push it further, get more experimental, get less expected. And I love that. I love playing with the expectation of the listener and redefining what people consider to be game music.
Tell me more about how you incorporated the building blocks of black metal in the "Assassin's Creed Valhalla" score — grainy production, tremolo picking, a symphonic sweep.
The black-metal thing came as a suggestion from one of the game developers very, very early in the process. I love metal music, but I had never studied the black-metal subgenre in particular. So, I looked into that stuff.
My first protocol was finding musicians who were really well-versed in that. I found this band called Wilderun; Wayne Ingram is the lead guitarist. He was one of the biggest collaborators on this project, and he introduced me to Heilung and Wolves in the Throne Room and all these amazing black-metal and neo-folk bands.
"Assassin's Creed Valhalla" also has this Nordic folk influence, which is something I wanted to tie into "Dawn of Ragnarok." There's actually a lot of musical overlap, I would say, between Nordic folk and black-metal. Even if it's coming from a rustic, primitive way, it's very cinematic. You can have these symphonic sorts of influences with distorted guitars and really punchy drums and blast beats and growly vocals and stuff.
So, it all ends up tying together, but getting the right temperature for each of the stylistic influences was a challenge. So, dialing in that black metal and some of those performances from the soloist… it wasn't hard, but it was definitely something that I had to pay very close attention to [in order] to make sure that I was really nailing it.
It was super fun. I never thought I was going to be able to write a black-metal influenced score, but the best part of it was being able to collaborate with these musicians. It was just a really amazing, fruitful experience.
Tell me about your other collaborators on this soundtrack.
Ari Mason is another one of the soloists. She was a vocalist and played viola da gamba on the score too. She put off this really fresh Nordic folk, neofolk energy to the whole score, which was really amazing.
I got a tagelharpa, which was really, really difficult to play, but cool to just gather. I tend to collect instruments based on the project that I'm working on. So, I recorded on that and experimented with a lap harp, which was really fun, and then recorded with a bunch of different string instruments.
And then, we put some synths in there, because, as you probably know too, black metal and neofolk, it's very uniquely ambient and textural as well, So even though there can be these big black-metal moments, there's a lot of heavily curated ambience and textural stuff going on in there too.
That's the most fun stuff for me. That's something that I feel like lives in most of my music, regardless of the style.
Prior to your black-metal immersion, what are some other formative influences that made their way into your work?
So, I grew up listening to System of a Down, and Toxicity is probably still one of my favorite albums of all time. I listen to it [chuckles] a lot. I do feel like there were some times when it was tipping more into System of a Down, and Ubisoft was like, "I think we're departing a little too far from black metal!"
Pink Floyd is probably my favorite band of all time, and Animals is my favorite album. There's things in that music where I can look back at my own music and say, "Oh wow, there's something in there that does remind me a bit of Animals," or a bit of this, a bit of that. I used to listen to Blink-182 and stuff from my childhood that brings me a lot of joy still. And then newer stuff like Patrick Watson and Father John Misty.
I try to just listen to new music whenever I can — which, truth be told, I struggled with for a long time, because working in music and doing music all day, sometimes you just feel really inundated and don't want to listen to anything else.
So, I sort of struggled with that for a while. But now, every morning, I come into the studio and go on YouTube and just listen to different things that I have never heard of before, and I think that's a really inspiring way to start the day.
Stephanie Economou. Photo: Claus Morgenstern
With this GRAMMY in hand, where do you want to creatively venture next?
I would just love to keep working with these amazing creators in the video game space and keep doing more film and TV projects. I always strive to work with storytellers who are saying something different and being innovative, and people who are going to want music that opens a different dimension for the viewer and the audience.
I do feel like games are the most direct way into that world for listeners. I think it's all art, really.
Can you talk about the subculture of video game scorers, positive or negative? What would you do to change it if you could?
I think we've all read about how some of these video game companies can be very toxic working environments, and in particular for women. I have to say that my experience as a woman composer in the video game music space is that I have only been supported by these game companies, and it's been a really lovely, encouraging space to make music. Then, I would say the video game composing community is really great too.
I really appreciate this community of composers. We're all just putting our heads down and doing the work. But ultimately, I think that the amount of diverse voices in video games is a bigger population as compared to film and TV. I think game companies are more apt to hire women composers, and video game composers are super-accepting and a generally diverse group of people.
I'm really lucky to be here, and I've only felt support from my fellow artists in this world. So, I would say all good stuff, but maybe ask me in 10 years and I'll have some more stories.
With the initiation of this GRAMMY category, do you feel like the video game music world might get more of the respect that it deserves?
I'd f—ing hope so, man. It's so crazy that it did take this long to recognize video game music on its own.
There are some people I talk to who aren't really even gamers or don't really understand how exciting the video game medium is. They're like, "Oh, wow, it's really a sign of the times that video game music is being recognized." It's like, we've been here for decades.
I think it's well overdue, especially because gamers really, really listen to this music. I grew up gaming and I still do now, and there's something about hearing those scores that I grew up with from these games; it elicits this very visceral memory. It sets you in a place and time and it's a very deep-seated thing.
I love film soundtracks too, but I don't get that same overwhelming thrill when I listen to the music for a film soundtrack as I do for a game soundtrack. If I hear the theme for "Halo," it's like I'm overcome, and I think there's something to be said for that.
I think people who live in these narratives in video games really want to listen to the music again and re-experience the excitement of that story just by listening to the soundtrack alone. It defines this little slice of time that they enjoyed this game and fought through it. It's just a really special experience.
So, I think it's well-timed that game music is recognized, because it really does offer this emotionally connecting experience for the audience.
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