After years of early success, Omar Apollo releases his first full album “Ivory”

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Omar Apollo wears his heart on his sleeve.

The singer-songwriter, who grew up in Indiana and learned to sing and play guitar via YouTube, began handing out heartbroken anthems and making confessions to SoundCloud as a teenager.

In 2017, Apollo uploaded the song “Ugotme” to Spotify, earning him loyal listeners after racking up tens of thousands of streams overnight. Since then he has released two EPs and a mini-album, all with increasingly polished production, and has worked alongside artists such as 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 recently released feature debut – finds Apollo at its most experimental yet, moving from psych-pop dance songs to stripped-down soul and bilingual hip-hop in the span of nearly 40 minutes. But this feeling of inescapable desire is always in the foreground.

On the road to Seattle, he spoke to NPR’s Ayesha Rascoe about his ties to Pharrell, honoring his Mexican roots on the record and being 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.

About the scrapping of the original version of the album in the fall and the return to the studio

Once he had time to put [the album] released, I felt like 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 sound like me. I just made the decision to say, “Okay, I’m just going to do a brand new album instead, and then shoot that one.” It sucked because I had to push my tour back and cancel and reschedule dates, and it was really hard because we had already spent a lot of money on the tour. It was definitely like an L, but it was worth it.

Work with the Neptunes on the song “Tamagotchi” and produce with Pharrell Williams

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I’ve always loved rapping. Since my first project, I rap. I kind of knew when I went to work with Pharrell that I wanted to rap and bring that back. I worked with [the Neptunes producer] Before Chad Hugo, we wrote a bunch of songs together. Then I got a call like, “Oh, Pharrell’s at work. Let’s fly to Miami this weekend.” I was like, okay, cool. My first day there, I was super nervous. It is [a] really polite, very kind.

So he made a beat and he said, “Do you like that?” and I’m like, “Yeah I like that.” And then he said, “Okay, I’ll be right back” because there was another session in the house, so he went to work with them. I’m like, “Okay, I gotta do this song.” Thirty minutes later he comes back and I’m done. I play it and he ended up loving it. Then instantly, [the] the energy has changed – there is chemistry now.

And then he came down and got everybody up like, ‘Y’all gotta listen to this shit, y’all gotta listen to this.’ It wasn’t “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 have to extend your flight.” I extended my flight instantly. I was so excited.

By including a bullfight (Mexican ballad) “En El Olvido”, on the album

On this album, I really wanted to sing more than ever – something that will really translate live. Because I really like this kind of softer, warmer tenor voice that I do, but I also want to project. I had this in mind: I really want to sing. I grew up with Juan Gabriel [and] it was very inspired by Juan Gabriel.

If he prefers to express his homosexuality through his lyrics rather than putting labels on them

I do not care. I feel like at first I was trying to be mysterious and everything, but now I’m just like – I’m very gay, so I’m just like, whatever. It’s funny, every time I do an interview, they’re like, “You don’t like…” I’m like, “Damn, do I really feel like that?” [laughs] But no, I’m totally on this. Maybe I was trying to keep the mystique, you know? But I don’t even care anymore [laughs].

Earning comparisons to icons like Prince on his full debut and if that adds pressure

Oh man, I’m just Prince’s biggest fan. I have a playlist that’s probably four hours of Prince songs. I liked singing in falsetto more than my usual voice when I started, so when I heard Prince sing all those songs in full falsetto, I was like, “Oh, that’s me, that’s me. is what I want to do.” He has a huge – major influence. And the people I listen to are also influenced by Prince, so it shows from every angle. But I mean, is it pressure? No, I’m just having fun with it.

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