The last time Omar Apollo and I spoke, it was in New York’s East Village, as he was winding down a US tour and looking ahead to his first trip to Europe with his band. Seventeen months, one pandemic, and for Omar, at least four hair colors later, we met again this week, via Zoom, even though the Hoosier-turned-Angeleno was back in the East Village and I was in nearby Brooklyn. The coronavirus has meant that the soulful singer, songwriter and dancer has been unable to tour since February, a disappointment for one of the most electric live performers of his generation, but he’s kept plenty busy. The first thing I notice when Omar appears on my screen is that the hair, having passed through blond, lime green, and bright blue – even a brief two-tone look – is back to its natural dark brown. The second is that he’s in great spirits.
And why shouldn’t he be? He’s spent more than a week in a certified NYC landmark, Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios, crafting songs for his next project, due out in the spring of 2021. He’ll soon head to another iconic musical space, Prince’s Paisley Park, where on October 28th Apollo and his band will play a rare pandemic-year indoor show for a Covid-protocoled crowd, streamed globally. But most immediately, Omar is stoked to share with the world Apolonio. Out today, the nine-track record is being billed as Apollo’s debut project, following two EP’s, 2018’s Stereo and 2019’s Friends, as well as a string of singles dating back to 2017 (three of them crafted by in-demand rap producer Kenny Beats). Each release helped grow a devoted fanbase, captured more tastemaking eyes and ears, and made an improbable dream come true for the youngest of four children born to immigrant parents from Guadalajara, Mexico by way of blue collar Hobart, Indiana. Omar Apolonio Velasco is now a 23-year old bona fide indie pop star.
The new release mines familiar territory for Omar – neo soul, funk and pop, along with curve balls like Young Thug-inspired upbeat hip-hop and Omar’s own take on a Mexican corrido song. The common thread though, as ever, is heartache. On stage, on his consistently entertaining IG, and in person, he’s funny, charming, goofy and confident. But in song? It’s one broken heart after another, love unrequited, unspoken, or hidden, and our romantic hero generally left rejected, dreaming of what was or what could have been. On Apolonio it comes in the form of “Stayback”, “Hey Boy,” with his friend and R&B queen Kali Uchis, “Want U Around,” with Aussie heartthrob Ruel, and two especially moving and personal tracks, “Bi Fren” and “Kamikaze,” the latter arguably his finest single to date.
Omar also, it should be noted, likes to play with speculation about his sexuality. Not that he owes anyone any explanations, but the bread crumbs he’s been dropping for years (2017’s “Beauty Boy”, 2019’s “Friends”) have now turned into full loaves. “Kamikaze” and “Bi Fren” go there, poignantly, and the video for “Stayback” couldn’t be more clear: a boy he’s noticed from across a motel pool ends up in his doorway – just as the clip ends. GQ covered all that terrain and more with Omar.
**GQ: It’s pretty crazy that you’re going from Electric Lady to Paisley Park. That’s a couple of iconic places. There’ll be a live audience for that? Indoors? **
Omar Apollo: Yeah, so basically it’s a live audience, and it’s a 1500-person venue, but with 100 people, everyone with masks on and they’re gonna be super far from each other! So it’s kind of similar to a drive-in. You’re in your little cubicle, no one links up! I know they’re gonna do other shows too. But it’s super strict, hand sanitizers, thermometers, all that. I lowkey was uncomfortable with it, I felt like we shouldn’t do it.” But I guess they already organized it.
You’ve got an amazing new record to play there. Apolonio is nine tracks, but you originally envisioned it as a full length?
It was gonna be way longer. I had a bunch of other songs that I wanted to put on it, but I cut it down to that, because, I don’t know, putting out a full-length without a tour? That’s asking a lot. People can call this an album, but this is like 30 minutes and to me an album is 45 to an hour, and thematic top to bottom.
As it stands now, is there a theme to the project? And if so, what would you say that is?
I don’t like to say “this is the theme,” because I think then it kind of stifles the listener, and they might be like, “Oh this is what you mean? I thought you meant this.” I just want things to be less specific, so that people can do whatever they want with the song, and make their own [conclusions].
For me, the most affecting songs on this record are “Kamikaze” and “Bi Fren,” which read like pages from a journal and are so rich in detail from these personal and bittersweet moments from your past.
I agree. But there are some things that you just want to do, and then leave it at that. When I wrote “Kamikaze” and “Bi Fren”, I was kind of looking back, writing-wise. But then – I don’t like to explain my songs.
“Kamikaze” is so specific. Driving nineteen hours, “raindrop December”, an “ass round like Cheerios...” Don’t you feel like when you open up these little windows into your life, people are going to want to have a look inside?
No, you can ask me, I just won’t give up anything! [laughs] I’ll tell you this: yeah, that song is super specific, it’s a moment that happened to me.
And It feels really real, and beautiful. I mean, probably not a beautiful feeling at the time…
Yeah it fucking sucked. I was stressed. I remember I had just turned 18. And I don’t know – there’s a lot of things I was figuring out about myself at the time and uh, there were a lot of new faces on my phone!
This new video for it is just amazing.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do except I said I wanted to be on a motorcycle and I wanted to dance. And so there’s shots of me driving fast as fuck, right in my hometown. And then we drove down to Rensselaer, where there’s these hundreds of windmills, and then I’m dancing in the back of this pickup.
“Bi Fren” is the other one that kind of looks to your past with these specific memories of a fucked up relationship –
“I used to drive around your block without no license/ Separate you and your bitch I ain’t no hyphen/ I hate your bitch, so I dipped out and jumped the high fence”
That one is a change for you, musically.
It is very different from what I do, but I listen to a lot of [Young] Thug, and Playboi Carti, Gunna, –those feel-good, upbeat flows and cadences. So that’s where that came from.
As of the other day, the “Stayback” video had 613 comments on YouTube. Some were like, “This song is dope” but most were about that guy standing in your doorway at the end. The cliffhanger. And some fans are like, “Wait – is he actually saying he’s…?” But then the original Omar fans were like, “Where you been? Haven’t you heard ‘Beauty Boy’? Keep up!”
You have nothing to say about any of that?
Hell no! I just make shit, and it comes out. And that last scene was [director] Aiden’s [Cullen] idea. It was gonna be something else, but we changed it. I like that ending.
“Useless” is another different sound for you.
It has kind of a Strokes thing.
Even before I knew Albert Hammond, Jr. of the Strokes was on it, when I heard the verse I thought, “That’s a Julian Casablancas sound right there.” How did that come about, and how did Al become part of it?
I made the song in this apartment I was living in when I was listening to more punk, and originally it was just guitar. But then my homie [LA singer-songwriter] Mk.Gee played drums on it, Oscar [Santander, longtime collaborator and touring band mate] played bass. And then Albert had heard about me, and reached out through my manager. I talked to him and he was cool as fuck. So, I sent him “Useless” and he was like “This is crazy, I would love to do something with this!” So he sent something back and basically he’s playing these guitar melodies that go along with my singing.
Finally, let’s talk about “Dos Uno Nueve.” You’ve sung in Spanish before, but nothing like this sort of modern corrido sound, and it’s interesting that you named it after your old Indiana area code, 219. This is a place that you did not exactly love growing up. Right? A Latinx kid who was into dance and wanted to make music for a living. The last time we talked, I got the impression you couldn’t wait to get out of Hobart when you moved to LA.
I mean, where I’m from, it’s full of racists. It’s fucked up. You go downtown in Hobart and all you see is Blue Lives Matter flags or Trump flags. You don’t see one rainbow flag or Black Lives Matter flag. You might see ‘em now, but when I went it was mostly Trump flags. But – here’s my thing on it. All of my friends? We were all on the same page, in this town that’s totally the opposite of who we are and what we believe in. I grew up like that. I grew up in the church, and I was a kid who had all these questions. “You guys are telling me this, but I feel like this…” and I have so many lifelong friends there. So, I love Indiana. That’s home.
But you also know it’s the kind of place that can really repress people. And sometimes people can have dead-end lives there.
One hundred per cent. The main thing is that there’s a lot of Mexicans where I’m from and a lot of Black people, people of color. And I felt like I wanted them to start thinking differently. Because I know what it’s like. I’ve seen this. I’ve seen how your life can turn out if you do this, or do this, or do this. And so I didn’t want to be a role model, but I did want people to know that you can get the fuck out of here if you want.
“Dos Uno Nueve” also feels like a flex, you talking about how now you can have a four thousand dollar jacket and the chorus, “Quiero ganar mucho más zeros” – “I want to make many more zeros” – is that a middle finger to the doubters?
Pretty much, and about how so many people were always talking shit about me. Like everybody and they mama was just talking shit about me, saying, “Oh, are you still doing that music thing?” And you know sometimes when you’re 15, 16 you’ll freestyle with friends and you’ll be talking about “I got bands” and everybody’s talking about how they’re so rich, just lying. [laughs] But then when you get to the point where you’re actually making money and buying things – it’s not so much a flex as just showing the polarity of, once not having shit, and having to boil water on the stove just to take a shower, to now going to London and playing sold-out shows? And that’s what I wanted to say. You can make it out.
Originally Appeared on GQ