Rising alternative R&B-pop artist Omar Apollo strives to make the kind of timeless albums that inspired him: Minnie Riperton’s Perfect Angel, Whitney Houston’s self-titled project, Nirvana’s Nevermind, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and, of course, Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill.
“That album did so much for me,” he says of the lattermost. “There’s an interlude on the album that you can tell [the inspiration].”
He’s speaking of his highly anticipated full-length debut, IVORY, out Friday (April 8) on Warner. On the project, the Hobart, Ind. native — who has since relocated to Los Angeles — skips across melodies and moods, showing off his stunning range and poignant songwriting chops. And even gifting fans a Mexican ballad sung in Spanish (“[My parents] had been telling me I need to sing like that more so I was excited for them to hear it,” he says).
Ahead of the album’s release, the 24-year-old spoke with Billboard about how he got his start in music, scrapping his debut’s first draft and why he’s thought about its release “every single day.”
Prior to picking up a guitar for the first time as a 12-year-old, Apollo grew up in the Midwest listening to “old, romantic songs from the ’50s” by Mexican artists like Pedro Infante and Juan Gabriel while cleaning with his family on Sunday mornings. By 2017, without much training or guidance, he put his first song on Spotify, thanks to a $30 loan from a friend for the upload fee. Apollo’s parents thought pursuing music as a career was “a terrible idea,” and he admits that he had no idea what was to come. As for his friend, multimedia artist Matthew Brown, Apollo never got around to paying him back, though he says they now work together often.
Apollo started playing shows in his hometown and Chicago for free: “Any time anybody was having an event, I’d pack up the car with my friends, a drum set and a 10-watt amp that was not loud, and we’d just play.” As demand grew, he tweeted about needing a manager, to which Dylan Shanks — then a student at New York University — eagerly replied. He suggested flying Apollo out to perform at a university event, after which Shanks made his formal pitch. By 2019, Apollo had signed a global deal with AWAL, and by early 2020, he was “talking to a bunch of labels” before signing with Warner Records that April and releasing his label debut mixtape, Apolonio, in October. “They were hitting us back super quick,” he says of the Warner team. “They were always available — and still are. That’s the thing: I wanted to be around people who were just as hungry as I was.”
As Apollo finished recording what he thought would be his debut full-length, he decided to scrap it. “[Warner Records] wasn’t too happy about that,” he says with a laugh, “but they understood … and were so happy afterward.” By early last November, Apollo handed in a new project, IVORY, now due April 8. “It’s all I think about every single day,” he says of the nearing release date. Compared with past projects, Apollo believes that this rollout is “way more rationalized,” adding how he has enjoyed being more involved and intentional with the creative direction and timing — which is why he’s already eager to make his next album. “I always find myself going back to old albums, and I’m just like, ‘This really stood the test of time,’ and I want to do that. I can’t control that, but as long as it feels like that for me, I’m cool.”