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Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Omar Apollo On “Evergreen,” Growth & The Art Of Longing
Omar Apollo

Photo: Gustavo Garcia Villa

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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.

GRAMMYs/Jan 13, 2023 - 04:00 pm

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?

Of course.

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.

Like what?

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.

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Check out the complete list of winners and nominees at the 2023 GRAMMYs.

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