Omar Apollo is sitting at his parents home, remembering the time his mother watched him open the envelope for what would be the first big check he received for performing his own music. “I had played in New York and my mom didn't know I was making money at the time. She thought I was a bum,” he says with a smirk. “So I started opening it, and she's so nosy just standing behind me. She saw that it was a thousand dollars. It was for a 30-minute show when I was in New York, and she was like, ‘You got paid a thousand dollars for 30 minutes?!’ I was like, ‘Yeah. This is crazy to me too!’ I think she was crying, like ‘I can't believe it.’” One can only imagine her reaction now, as the recent Warner Records signee prepares to perform songs from his critically acclaimed, just-released EP Apolonio at Prince’s Paisley Park studio.
At the moment, though, Apollo chats with EW via Zoom from his hometown of Hobart, Indiana. The son of working-class Mexican immigrants, the 23-year-old singer spent his childhood listening to everyone from Estela Núñez to the Beatles to Alicia Keys. As he grew, so did his need to express himself artistically through dance and acoustic guitar, which he taught himself to play by watching YouTube videos.
As a teenager, Apollo began working odd jobs at Guitar Center, McDonald’s, and his brother-in-law's mechanic shop, while spending his free time playing music with his bassist Manny Barajas, a friend from church, and uploading original songs to SoundCloud. Apollo also used the platform to court more collaborators, like current guitarist Oscar Emilio (“I always would DM him, or try to get a follow back. But then he started hitting me up, and started noticing that, [after] he would listen to what I put out, I’d get better every time.”) Apollo’s big break happened soon after, when his friend loaned him 30 dollars to upload his song “Ugotme” to Spotify. It was then added to a popular playlist, bringing the Indiana native the national attention he needed to produce his first EPs, Stereo (2018) and Friends (2019) and eventually sign with Warner.
In advance of his new project Apolonio, the artist admits he “probably made like 200 songs, even if they were just ideas.” While none of them were included on the final version of the EP, the process of making them helped improve and expand Apollo’s songwriting skills. “I just love music so much that I would get really sad if I wouldn't meet my expectations,” he says. “So I just had to try harder because when you make a good song, that's a high that lasts like five days.”
Recalling how “Stayback,” the first single off Apolonio, came together, the musician says “I was listening to a lot of Bootsy Collins, and I was like, 'Man, I wish I could make a song like this — with the same elements, the same kind of polish.'" So he purchased a Mu-Tron pedal, which he knew musicians like Collins and Stevie Wonder relied on to make a lot of their music.
“I remember on my bike rides, I would listen to [“Stayback”] for like an hour and a half. Every time I was just like, I love this so much,” he says. “And it wasn't done yet. It was probably only the first verse and the hook. Then I had like a really long solo that I listened to all the time. And I [was] like, 'Man, I wanted to make something like this for so long.'”
Making Apolonio also helped Apollo find his individuality as an artist. “There were so many genres that I didn't really figure out what genre I wanted to do, and then I just realized maybe my genre is just a bunch of genres.” Apollo still attempts to describe the sound he’s going for, which he says is influenced by “funk, R&B, and soul, and also a lot of new, modern [rappers] like Lil Uzi Vert and Playboi Carti.” But in the next breath, he admits “I don't know how to really describe my music.”
Now working with a major label, one of the hardest adjustments for the singer-songwriter has been the expansion of his collaborators. “I wasn't used to it,” says Apollo, on what it was like to open himself up to outside producers after having a hand in producing the vast majority of his catalog. “I more [so] bring a demo in and then have them produce it out. Most of the time it doesn't work if I start something with somebody.” Part of that is him being strict with what he wants. “I work really well with people that I feel like I can talk to and give criticism to and not feel like I have to compromise.”
One instance where things nearly went south was when Apollo — who admits he’s not much of a planner — ended up with 20 people in a studio to work on one track. “I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, what'd I do?' And then I was about to leave because I was just sad that I didn't make anything and I wasted a whole day,” he says. But as everyone started to pack up and leave, producer and frequent Frank Ocean collaborator Michael “Uzi” Uzowuru began playing part of the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind score, which spurred another producer, Blake Slatkin, and Apollo to build on it. “I started singing a melody and then that's when Uzi put the drums on it and then, just like instantly I was like, ‘I'm done for the day, f— this,’” Apollo says.
The singer-songwriter describes that track, the project’s opener, “I’m Amazing,” as “something I've been wanting to make for a while, something that was fun and upbeat, and still pretty.” With lyrics that attempt to flex on an ex he still has feelings for, Apollo concedes that the song is representative of the confidence noticeably brought to the foreground on Apolonio — and may be a sign of what's to come. “Yeah, I'm talking mad sh--,” he cracks with a grin.
Omar Apollo will perform a concert at Paisley Park on Oct. 28 at 9 p.m. ET. Tickets to a livestream of the show are available here.