Preternaturally gifted, singing, dancing artists with effortless charisma who seem destined for pop stardom simply do not just come around every day. And ones who don’t feel corny, canned or prepackaged? Ones who defy genres and deftly maneuver between R&B and hip-hop, funk and acoustic pop-rock? Ones who haven’t come up with the promotional force of a giant corporation (e.g. Disney) or a network talent competition behind them, but rather emerged organically through Soundcloud connections, from a truly hardscrabble, blue collar, midwestern, immigrant background? Well, now we’re talking about something that happens with the frequency of a total solar eclipse.
But that’s all a fair description of what we’ve witnessed for the better part of two years in Omar Apollo, the first generation Mexican-American showman from small-town Indiana who through great, often remarkably vulnerable songs featuring irresistible melodies and earworm beats; electric live performances; affecting if largely modest videos and no-bullshit charm, has only seen his profile rise. The buzz began as far back as 2017, but with the April release of his second EP Friends and a sold-out tour to go along with it, it’s turned into a low roar.
By all rights, Omar should have canceled lunch on me. In the latter days of his just-concluded Voyager tour of North America, he was hurting. His whole band, in fact—bassist Manny Barajas, guitarist Oscar Emilio and drummer Joey Medrano—had been sick, and when we first meet up at New York’s East Village mainstay B Bar & Grill, it’s clear he’d rather be anywhere but doing another interview. Fortunately, he still has an appetite, and as he picks at a mezze platter and tears into the guac and chips—“Is this vegan?” he asks, having recently given up animal products. “Actually I don’t give a fuck right now”—he warms to the conversation.
Two nights earlier you’d never have known he was ailing, commanding a stage with ease at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg, powering through songs from his two EP’s and a handful of singles, perpetually moving, flashing a million-dollar smile, and in fine voice – despite having warned fans earlier that afternoon on Twitter that he might not be singing at his best. I thought he sounded great, I tell him. “Thanks man,” he replies. “I was medicating the whole day, and I had like this singer’s shit that you pick up along the way, all these weird remedies. So I was able to do the show, but like after the show I had no voice. I could barely talk.”
The Voyager trek lasted 32 dates—substantially longer than last year’s drolly titled We Are Niños Timidos [they’re not shy, really] tour, and in substantially bigger rooms, playing multiple nights in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. Only a month before the tour began, Apollo had gotten so sick at South By Southwest that it was all he could do to make a Fader Fort appearance, where by all accounts, once again, he killed it. He’s a pro, but he’s also learning not to take the voice for granted.
“I always overuse it. It’s like a muscle,” he explains. “You just have to take care of it, like an athlete, if you’ve got to do it every night. The reason my voice hasn’t been working right lately is just over-use, and then like touring is like, kinda gross. It’s like, disgusting.”
Living healthier and getting in shape began to be a priority for Omar last year, while he was still living in his native Hobart, Indiana, but it really kicked into overdrive once he moved in January to buff-requisite L.A., where he became vegan and began to hit the gym daily. He’s gone from slightly hefty Hoosier to a fit dude who fans increasingly see as a snack. “I probably lost 30 pounds—probably 20 of it in Indiana,” he says. Apollo’s manager, Dylan Shanks, has joined us at the table, and I wonder whether he’s the one who pushed his artist to shape up physically. In fact, Omar says, it was quite the opposite. “No, he was telling me not to work out!” he recalls. “He told me I was gonna get too buff! He was like, ‘Bro, you’re gonna look like, weird buff.” And I was like, ‘Just chill!’ But Dylan didn’t care, he always told me I looked cute, even when I was pudgy.”
There’s cute and then there’s hot, and the latter version of Apollo is on full display in “So Good”. Released last month, the club-set video could not suit the disco-fied track more perfectly, and Omar, front and center, works it, stripping down from studded retro jacket to leather vest to tank top. For those who knew him from his previous, sweet but comparatively unassuming visuals, this was a jaw-dropper. He’s never been more loose on-camera (“I was drunk as fuc in that So Good video lmao,” he recently tweeted) and it put him squarely in Nick Jonas-Justin Timberlake territory, though when I make that comparison, he seems less than thrilled. The song, too, is a revelation. While he’d already proven himself equally skilled with dreamy soul (“Unbothered”, “Erase”, “Trouble”) hip-hop tinged funk (“Hijo De Su Madre”, “Ashamed”) and mellow, reflective acoustics (“Friends”), “So Good” is a first, as Omar takes a page from Off The Wall-era Michael Jackson. “It’s got a little ‘Rock With You’ thing,” he admits. “Same tempo, same bpm. It’s just a falsetto, fun song—a very Seventies thing, to me.”
The Seventies—1979, to be exact, nearly twenty years before Omar was born—was when the artist’s father emigrated to the US from Mexico. He ended up in tiny South Haven, Indiana, and was eventually joined by his wife. They had a family-run restaurant and three kids, and eventually moved to slightly larger Hobart (only a 20 minute drive from Gary, childhood home of the aforementioned King of Pop) and had a fourth child, Omar Apollion Velasco. It’s precisely the sort of self-made story that has enriched this country beyond measure, and can’t be told enough in these days of otherizing and vilification of immigrants from the highest reached of government. Brown America is America.
Omar taught himself rudimentary guitar at 11, and one day encountered a like-minded, slightly older kid who to this day is his bass player and best friend. “I met Manny at church, we connected because of guitar,” he says. “I was playing a Metallica song at church – I mean, they didn’t know it was Metallica. It was that ‘Nothing Else Matters’ song, it’s really pretty, and they were like, ‘Oh my God it sounds pretty!’ But I was like, 11, and shredding. And Manny was really high, in church, at like 14. Just like, stoned, and he was just staring at me. I got really scared of him cause I thought he was like 25! Cause he’s looked the same since he was like 14. He looks the same, he doesn’t age!”
The two started a short-lived band, September Skies, that included a violin and – wait for it – a clarinet. But Apollo put music aside when his guitar was stolen at 15, spent a couple of years doing more skating than playing, which is where he met Joey Medrano, who would later pick up the sticks to play drums when Apollo “got serious” about music with a new band, at age 18. Guitarist Oscar Emilio, was something of an internet star in his own right before Apollo’s music began to get traction on Soundcloud, then Spotify. “I was actually a fan of his,” Omar recalls. “He was in Houston, and we would just talk all the time, and I would tell him to teach me chords and shit. And then, before I put out Stereo I was like, ‘We’re about to go on tour, do you wanna come?’ And he did.”
The band hasn’t yet made the move to L.A., where Omar currently shares a place in Echo Park with his brother, a graphic artist. The boho neighborhood with its signature lake is the setting for “Ashamed”, an absolute blast of a video that preceded “So Good”. Set to the nasty funk of the Prince-iest track on Friends, the video was done on the cheap and features Apollo and his friends clowning around on land and water. “We were gonna shoot a lyric video and then put out a real video,” he explains. “But then we were like, ‘We’ll just do this as the video, whatever.’
But they’re all my homies. I literally just texted them and was like, ‘Yo come over to my house and help me shoot a video.’”
His metrics are all way up from a year ago: streams, video plays solidly in six figures, bigger venues. But the best way to gauge the passion Omar Apollo inspires is to go to a show, where he really sets himself apart. His disciples are not casual fans: the 500-strong at Music Hall of Williamsburg didn’t miss a lyric, and “frenzied” would not be overstating the room. Given his natural gifts as a performer and new-and-improved physique—when he feels comfortable and gets sweaty enough, he’s even performed shirtless at some shows, something his mom “got mad” about—he’s unsurprisingly got an enthusiastic female following. But as for really living the part of sexy pop idol? Unlikely. Apollo is more hopeless romantic than sex dog.
One listen to his lyrics is evidence of that. From “Erase” to “Unbothered” to “Friends” “Ignorin” and “Brakelights,” which asks “Why would you want me?” nearly all of Apollo’s songs are steeped in heartache, conflicted feelings and relationship disappointment. “Even the funk ones are!” he adds, rightly: “Ashamed” wonders, “What are we supposed to do with our hearts?” while “So Good” asks, “When did you get so sensitive?” So why does a talented charmer have such a tortured history? He declines to get specific, but says the bottom line is, “I am extremely romantic, like—extremely. So, I can also get extremely heartbroken.” He adds, somewhat stunningly, that although he recently turned 22, he’s “never been in a relationship.” “It’s just always unrequited,” he says, adding, “You forget I was Indiana. I wasn’t in New York or LA, dude.” When I point out that he could probably get it in the very restaurant we’re sitting in, he laughs and says the casual thing has no appeal to him. “I’m not like that,” he explains. “I’m not a lustful, a super sexual dude. I mean, I’ve done the hook up thing, and I don’t like it. It’s not cool, I just feel empty.” And when someone does approach him that way? “I hate it. I’m like, ‘Don’t touch me…’ It’s like, I need to know someone to do stuff like that. I’m still stuck in Indiana. My brain is still there.” Not necessarily a bad thing.
This year, Friends has taken Omar to new levels of awareness and opened new and more lucrative doors. His first European tour with the band launches in days, and in August he’ll play Lollapalooza—a huge moment for a Chicago-area boy. And, with the sort of buzz he’s generated, it’s a given that the major labels are circling. In fact, says his manager, Shanks, “They’ve been somewhat interested since the beginning. But back then it was more just like, ‘Well let’s see what’s happening with this.’ But now, it’s like very intense.” Adds Omar, “I had a guy come up to the other day, and he was like, ‘I want to sign you. And I’m gonna sign you.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, shit. Alright, cool. See ya later.’” Shanks, who’s the same age as Apollo, is already an industry vet. The son of journeyman musician, writer and producer John Shanks (Melissa Etheridge, Michelle Branch), he had his first record company internship at 16, and, looking to get into management, reached out to Omar a couple of years ago when he discovered his music online. “I just found his music really randomly on Soundcloud, and I was like, ‘Holy shit!’ like in my apartment, on my bed. I was just like, ‘I need to talk to this kid.’” An NYU student at the time, Shanks booked Apollo for a show through the university’s student-run Program Board, and the bond was formed.
While a full album project is on the way—it might be later than sooner, according to Shanks. “I think we have some time,” he explains. “This [Friends] project has woken a lot of people up who just hadn’t know him before. And so now we can do all the festivals and stuff like that, and obviously, before the album, put out some new songs just to keep momentum going. There will be music ready whenever it’s ready, and we feel like he’s saying what he wants to say. And, Omar assures us, what he says will continue to be eclectic. His influences are as varied as his own songs—he’s as quick to name check Neil Young, Paul Simon and John Mayer as inspirations as he is Prince, Bootsy Collins, Rick James, and The Internet. “I love dancing, and I love funk,” he says. “But I don’t think it will ever be just one thing.” He adds that he’d still like to incorporate rap verses and Spanish lyrics, something he’s done sporadically in the past. “I think the album will have a lot of elements, and be really diverse.”
What Apollo has, yes as a songwriter and musician, but especially as a live performer, can’t be taught. You have it or you don’t, and he’s got it in spades. What he doesn’t have, refreshingly, is phoniness, not something you can say about every potential major star. An hour spent at a lunch table is enough to know that however under the weather he’s feeling on this afternoon, what he’s really allergic to is doing anything inauthentic or predictable. Music can never have too much of that impulse. God knows the music business is uncertain, but if full-blown pop star status is in Omar Apollo’s future, and it sure feels that way, he’d be a welcome addition to the fold.
Omar Apollo’s Friends EP is out now. A European tour begins in Oslo on June 12th, and Omar plays Lollapalooza on August 2nd.