Omar Apollo taught himself how to sing from YouTube. Now he's up for a Grammy.
This is part of a series of features from All Things Considered on first-time Grammy nominees, ahead of the February 5 awards. Profiles on Molly Tuttle and Muni Long will be published in the coming days.
Rain had been pouring down relentlessly on Los Angeles for much of January. But the clouds parted on a recent weekend, and the sun shone down on the Hollywood Hills, as if only to allow musician Omar Apollo to sit atop a peak and take in the view.
"I just come here to, you know, alleviate the pressure of the world that has been weighing on me, as a young Mexican-American," he says, before bursting into a laugh and admitting he's never actually been to this public park before.
The 25-year-old is sitting on a large wooden bench, overlooking the San Fernando Valley. His long legs are dangling, which is notable because he is 6'5, despite having parents he describes as short. His explanation? "I don't know, I'm the milkman's son."
Apollo has a glint of mischief in his eyes and a nihilism about him that is trademark Gen Z. But eventually, the playful expression on his face fades, and he says in all seriousness that nature really does make his anxiety "a little more manageable."
Growing up in Hobart, Ind., Apollo says he'd be outside from morning to midnight, skateboarding, meeting up with cousins or friends. "I broke both my arms. Got a concussion. It was all skating, so then I stopped," he says.
He bends down and reveals a scar on the back of his head that is now a bald patch underneath his otherwise lustrous, brown curls, speckled with gray strands.
Apollo says he's exhausted after being on tour for months, but he's excited to head back on the road after the Grammys ceremony this weekend. He has been nominated in the best new artist category, an accolade that takes most artists years to achieve. For Apollo, the journey has been relatively quick.
"Does it blow me away? Yes it does, actually," he says. "Because I know what it was like in 2017." That's when he uploaded his first song to Spotify and started gaining traction online. "I really made it out of my hometown," he says, reflecting on his early days of making music.
In fact, he remembers the very moment he knew he wanted to make music: It was a winter night when he was 17. He had just seen an advertisement for a microphone at a big-box store that read something to the effect of "Make Music!" He got in the back of his mom's van and knew what he had to do.
"I got a job at McDonald's and saved up for like a year to get a laptop. And then saved up to get a microphone," he says. And off he went to record music in his parents' garage. "I didn't want to sing in the house 'cause I was so embarrassed."
Apollo says he didn't necessarily have any early influences or idols. He didn't even know what kind of artist he dreamed of becoming, he just knew he had to make music and perform. He had played guitar in church as a kid but didn't dare sing publicly.
"I always knew I wanted to sing, I just wasn't good yet," he says. So, he logged on to YouTube to study singers with natural vibrato until he nailed it. He did the same with guitar players, pausing videos to mimic their fingerwork. "That's literally what I do, start from zero. Nobody wants to start from zero," he says.
He says his parents were terrified when he told them of his ambitions. "If I was an immigrant from Mexico, lived in poverty my whole life, and then came to the United States for a better life for my kids, and my kid comes back and tells me they want to be a singer, I would hate [me] too," he said with a laugh.
Apollo's parents urged him to go to college, so he applied and went to one near his home. But he found himself distracted by music, and he said having ADHD didn't help his focus in the classroom. So, after two weeks, he dropped out and began pursuing music full time. Now, less than a decade later, Apollo is selling out stadiums worldwide and is set to go on tour with SZA.
For his live performances, Apollo has primarily been playing music from his first full-length album, Ivory, which came out last year. The album draws heavily on R&B and soul influences, but the tracks have range, jumping from traditional corridos like "En El Olvido" to dancey, hip-hop inspired numbers like "Tamagotchi." Apollo says part of the genre-traveling on the album is a product of his ADHD — something he's able to channel to shape his work. "I guess it's a reflection of how I feel," he says.
He also attributes the range in sound to something simpler: "I just really love music. Every genre has something to offer." He draws from mariachis performing at restaurants, "super-conservative romantic songs" his mother listens to, soulful singers like Lauryn Hill, and "expressive bravado rap" he grew up loving, all at once.
As his career has progressed, Apollo says he's remained the same person, but he has observed changes in the way he is received. "This last tour something was different," he says. The crowds are getting bigger and bigger with each show. And that audience isn't just taking note of the music; they're also absorbing what he says online.
Apollo has had an active Twitter account for many years, and it's often funny, sometimes blunt, and even crass. He says he's noticed the way in which his online presence is more easily "digitally immortalized" as he becomes more recognized. But he doesn't like to give perceptions too much power, including his identity.
"Being queer, Mexican, having immigrant parents is inherently political in itself," he says, and he understands that it allows young people to relate to him. At the same time, "It doesn't feel like responsibility, which is good, because it's so effortlessly me. ... It's not like I have to work towards being gay," he jokes.
Despite how far his reach has come, and how many expectations he exceeded, Apollo has evidently avoided an "I told you so" attitude about his success. The day he found out about his nomination, he quickly ushered his friends out of his hotel room and called his parents. "My dad was at work, he had his little cook hat on, and he's like, 'Congratulations,'" says Apollo, imitating his father. "So cute." His mom already has her dress picked out for the ceremony.
With a giddy excitement, he says the day he learned about his nomination, everything he did felt "Grammy nominated." "I got my nails done. I was like, 'Oh, these are Grammy nominated nails right here,'" he says.
He went for a sheer pink. "I've been simple lately, you know?"
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