With his debut studio album Ivory, Omar Apollo shows listeners exactly who he is.
The previously elusive singer from Indiana leaned into all aspects of his identity throughout the 16-track effort — from raw, genre-defying cuts like “Invincible,” alongside Daniel Caesar, to Spanglish trap banger “Tamagotchi,” which reveals a refreshingly playful Apollo. But it was “Evergreen,” a soulful, R&B-tinged deep cut, that captured the hearts of fans and catapulted Apollo onto the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time, through what every artists hopes for in 2022: a viral TikTok moment.
It took a few tries for the bridge to take off, with Apollo’s own trendsetting efforts on the platform with “Evergreen” proving futile. “I remember my day-to-day [manager] showed me a TikTok, and it was the same part that I had already been posting, but someone else did it,” explains Apollo from his sunny Los Angeles home. “And then it started going and going. I didn’t expect that at all.”
An influx of users began posting compilations of a hardship soon after — be it depression, body image issues or heartbreak — followed by their post-struggle glow up, to the track’s climactic bridge. To date, “Evergreen” has soundtracked more than 370,000 TikTok videos, also clocking in at over 65.8 million plays across streaming platforms.
It’s proof that the 25-year-old singer’s vulnerability paid off, showing that the longtime alt artist with a cult following is fully equipped for a mainstream breakthrough. The sonically cohesive Ivory‘s popularity on the charts prove as much: after debuting atop Billboard‘s Heatseekers Albums chart in April, it returns to No. 1 for a third week on the chart dated Oct. 15. (“Evergreen” also reaches a new No. 51 high on the Hot 100 this week, after debuting on the Oct. 1-dated chart.)
Below, Omar tells Billboard about the making of “Evergreen,” leaning into his cultural identity, what pushed him to get active on TikTok and more.
What were your intentions while making Ivory?
I knew that it was definitely gonna be something that I put all my effort into. I knew I was going to be proud of it. In terms of how it was received, honestly, I wasn’t really sure. But when I was done, I knew I gave it all that I had. That made me [secure] about what happened after.
The project wasn’t heavy on features, but the two you had, Kali Uchis and Daniel Caesar, fit so beautifully. Tell me a bit about “Invincible.”
That song has a special place with me because the structure is really weird. That’s why I really loved it. [Daniel] told me come to the studio, so I pulled up and started playing a guitar riff. And then we made an eight-minute demo of “Invincible” and it had all the parts in it, but they weren’t structured. Then three or four months later, I opened it back up, added drums, restructured it and sent it to him.
“Tamagotchi” is a Tyler, the Creator-approved hit. It also felt like the song more likely to go viral on TikTok — but it ended up being “Evergreen.” Did you expect that?
When I wrote it, definitely not. It was kind of like a post-rationalize thing. I was like, I”‘m on TikTok all the time. I feel like this would be something that would work.” I tried to make a few TikToks and they didn’t really go up. I was like, “I guess I was wrong, whatever.” Then I remember my day-to-day [manager] Jake showed me a TikTok, and it was the same part that I had already been posting, but someone else did it. And then it started going and going. I didn’t expect that at all.
Tell us about the process of writing “Evergreen.”
I rented a house in Idyllwild [Calif.] to make music with my engineer and my childhood best friend [Manuel Barajas] who plays bass in my band. It felt like how I [made] music in the beginning. I made “Evergreen” and “Endlessly” in the same day. It was so simple. Being far away from everybody, not having access to do things, things become clear.
[For] the part people use on TikTok, I had another song called “How Do You Live in Your Skin” — I was like, “I’ll take [those lyrics] and put [them] on my bridge.” Then I brought in my friend Tao Halm, we got a studio a couple months later — Larrabee Studios — and we hired a band. We focused on [the bridge] so much. There are so many textures — if you listen to background vocals, even Teo [Halm, producer] is singing on that part. It’s beautiful to see that all the effort I put in with Teo, Manny and my engineer Nathan [Phillips] is the part that’s blowing up. That literally makes me so happy.
When you earned your first Hot 100 entry, you tweeted out, “my first hot 100 entry, b–ch. Wow.”
[Laughs.] You already know that was a real reaction in real time, as soon as I got the news.
How did you find out about it?
Like four texts from my manager Jake, my A&R, everyone. I was with Manny. I’ve known him since I was 11. This is like my brother. He’s the one that wrote the chords on the bridge. He’s the one that told me “Evergreen” should have a bridge, and I don’t really do bridges. It was just so crazy being with him. It’s very surreal. It’s bizarre, the feeling of, “Oh, my God. I did this.” I worked with a lot of great people in my life, but it really mattered for my career when I did it with my best friend. That’s why it was so cool.
Before Ivory, you had a pretty low public profile, but it seems that has changed. What inspired you to be more active on socials?
These damn numbers got me over here making TikTok videos! Before the pandemic, I was just touring, I wouldn’t really be on the internet like that. I was like, “I want to make music, I don’t want to be on the internet.” And then it just started popping off. I’m like, “Let me let me get these TikToks together. What we doing? What’s the vibe today?”
Your Twitter followers are loving it.
Literally, please don’t ever take anything I say on my Twitter seriously. [Laughs.] My Twitter is a place for empty thoughts. There’s no there’s no backbone to the thought.
Did you ever consider that singing in Spanish would impede your mainstream growth?
When I was very young, I think so. I thought that people weren’t gonna take me seriously because I didn’t see any Mexican artists that were buzzing at the time [in the mainstream]. I also wasn’t around the music industry, I was in Indiana. And now it’s funny because it’s like, oh, “first-generation Mexican artist!” It’s like, “Well, I was wrong.”
Now, it’s clear you’re leaning into your cultural identity more. In your recent NPR Tiny Desk Concert, you had a mariachi of all women. What has inspired you to make the change?
I started off [making] traditional Mexican music. That’s how I started dancing — I was in ballet folklórico, which is like Mexican folk ballet. My culture was traditional Mexican, Juan Gabriel type of thing. You grew up on that, you take it for granted. And I lived in Indiana, so I really fell in love with R&B music: Aretha Franklin, Lauryn Hill, Sly and the Family Stone, Bootsy Collins. As I got older, I found a new love for the corridos. It was healing for me. Especially that all my songs are about longing, that’s what all that music is about. And I wanted to start the Tiny Desk like that because I love the Mariachi Lindas Mexicanas — I literally hired them to sing at my brother’s birthday. That is something you’re definitely going to hear [more] in the future. It just feels like home.