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After years of early success, Omar Apollo releases full debut album 'Ivory'

<em>Ivory</em> — the artist's newly-released, full-length debut — finds Omar Apollo at his most experimental yet.
Gustavo Garcia Villa
Courtesy of the artist
Ivory — the artist's newly-released, full-length debut — finds Omar Apollo at his most experimental yet.

Omar Apollo wears his heart on his sleeve.

The singer-songwriter, who grew up in Indiana and taught himself to sing and play guitar via YouTube, started doling out heartbroken anthems and pining confessions to SoundCloud as a teenager.

In 2017 Apollo uploaded the song "Ugotme" to Spotify, which earned him loyal listeners after racking up dozens of thousands of streams overnight. Since then, he's released two EPs and a mini-album, all featuring increasingly polished production, and has worked alongside artists including Kali Uchis and C. Tangana, his collaboration with the latter earning him his first pair of Latin Grammy nominations in 2021.

Ivory — the artist's newly-released, full-length debut — finds Apollo at his most experimental yet, coasting from psych-pop dance songs to stripped-down soul and bilingual hip-hop in the span of nearly 40 minutes. But that inescapable feeling of yearning is still front and center.

From the road in Seattle, he spoke to NPR's Ayesha Rascoe about bonding with Pharrell, honoring his Mexican roots on the record and getting compared to his icons.

This interview has been edited and condensed. To hear the broadcast version of this story, use the audio player at the top of this page.

On scrapping the original version of the album in the fall and going back to the studio

Once it got time to put [the album] out, I had this feeling that I didn't want to promote or tour this music. I wasn't excited about it. It was good music — it wasn't bad music, but it didn't feel like me. I just made the decision to say, "Okay, I'm just going to make a whole new album instead, and then tour that one." It sucked because I had to push back my tour and cancel and postpone the dates, and it was really rough because we had already spent a lot of money on the tour. It definitely was like an L, but it was worth it.

On working with the Neptunes on the song "Tamagotchi" and producing with Pharrell Williams

I've always loved rapping. Since my first project, I've been rapping. I kind of knew when I went to work with Pharrell that I wanted to rap and bring that back. I've worked with [the Neptunes producer] Chad Hugo before, we've made a bunch of songs together. Then I got the call like, "Oh, Pharrell's down to work. Let's fly to Miami this weekend." I was like, okay, cool. My first day there, I was super nervous. He's [a] really polite, very sweet guy.

So he made a beat and he's like, "You like it?" and I'm like, "Yeah I like it." And then he's like, "Alright, I'll be right back" because there was another session in the house, so he went to go work with them. I'm like, "All right, I've got to make this song." Thirty minutes later, he comes back up and I've finished the whole thing. I play it and he ended up loving it. Then instantly, [the] energy changed — there's chemistry now.

And then he went downstairs and brought everyone up like, "Y'all gotta listen to this s***, y'all gotta listen to this." It wasn't "Tamagotchi," it was another song. He played it for everybody. Pusha T was up there. It was super sick. And then after that, he's like, "How many days you got?" I said that we had two days and he's like, "You gotta extend your flight." I extended my flight instantly. I was so excited.

On including a corrido (Mexican ballad) "En El Olvido," on the album

On this album I really wanted to sing more than I ever have — something that's going to really translate live. Because I really love this kind of softer, warmer, tenor kind of voice that I do, but I also want to project. I had that in the back of my head: I really want to sing. I grew up on Juan Gabriel [and] it was very much Juan Gabriel inspired.

On whether he prefers to express his queerness through his lyrics than put labels on it

I don't really care. I feel like in the beginning, I was trying to be mysterious and stuff, but now I'm just like — I'm very gay, so I'm just like, whatever. It's funny, every time I'm doing an interview, they're like, "You don't like to..." I'm like, "Damn, do I really come off like that?" [laughs] But no, I'm totally about it. Maybe I was trying to keep the mystique, you understand? But I don't even care anymore [laughs].

On earning comparisons to 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's probably four hours of just Prince songs. I loved singing in falsetto more than my regular voice when I first started, so when I heard Prince doing all these songs in entire falsetto, I'm like, "Oh, this is me, this is what I want to do." He's a huge influence — major. And the people that I listen to are also influenced by Prince, so you get it from all angles. But I mean, is it pressure? No, I just have fun with it.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a production assistant with Weekend Edition.