omar apollo is shaking up r&b with his soulful love songs
The 21-year-old Indiana boy reflects on his new EP 'Friends' and his fascination with growing old.
Photo by Aysia Marotta.
“Hellooooooo. Hey, what's up,” Omar Velasco says, picking up my phone from the table in a coffee shop downtown. “We're here doing the interview. This is Omar.” As he puts it back down, he laughs and smiles wide. Omar is not shy. He is, however, much cooler than me. And probably, most people. At only 21 years old, the first generation Mexican-American singer, better known as Omar Apollo, is one of the buzziest names in music right now. His unique blend of jazz, R&B, funk, alternative, soul, and pop music, has captivated audiences across the country and he’s even booked a headline tour before finishing his latest EP, Friends, out now. But it’s Omar’s authentic charm, tender heartbreak songs (“There's never a happy ending… doesn’t that suck?”), and the way he moves in and out of falsetto that liken him to Frank Ocean for the Instagram-loving Gen Z. And it doesn’t hurt that ladies love him, either.
Omar grew up in South Haven, Indiana, the youngest of three siblings born to Mexican parents, who settled in the small town after fleeing gang violence in Guadalajara in the 70s. In comparison, “[Indiana] was very chill, quiet, you know, apple orchards, farms, stuff like that,” he says. “We would wake up in the morning at like 9 a.m. and just skate the whole day.” Omar often felt like he stood out as “the only brown boy” there and remembers helping his parents study for their citizenship test. He danced in the Spanish ballet folklorico, but it wasn’t until he turned 11 that he started getting into music — teaching himself guitar and how to sing. Omar's 95-year-old Grandma would tell him stories about relatives that would go into the mountains of Mexico, late at night, to camp out and play guitar in the 20s or 30s. Music is not only in Omar’s blood, but in his heritage.
Omar attended college at Indiana University Northwest, but dropped out only two weeks in. “I would be in class just like, not focused, listening to music and stuff," he says. "It didn't feel right. It was like, ‘I think I'm supposed to do something else.’” Omar started to pursue music on his own, mostly just for fun, but when he put his first love song Ugotme on Spotify in 2017, he gained a following overnight. A year later, he released his debut EP Stereo, containing a collection of bilingual songs recorded and self-produced in an attic in Indiana where he was staying at the time. All of a sudden, Omar was playing house shows. Then bigger venues. A tour. He was flying back and forth to gigs, and the momentum was there, but his parents didn’t really get it at first.
“They were never like, don't do it. They were just worried because they knew I was going to do whatever I wanted. I've always done whatever I wanted from the beginning.” Omar explains. “Honestly, I didn't really tell them anything. I would just be like, 'I'm going to go play a show.' And [my Mom] would let me use the car. She noticed we started gigging a lot. Then I started getting flights and she started getting worried... They couldn't understand how someone from Indiana like me, could be successful in music. It was far-fetched.”
Omar now lives comfortably in LA, where he finished making Friends. “Music’s easier in LA. The weather’s nice.” he says. “I love New York though.” Omar’s only been on the West Coast for three months and he’s spent a good chunk of that time on tour and at SXSW, but this afternoon he’s ordered an acai bowl like he’s grown up on California sun. “I'm addicted to these,” he says, spooning the purple smoothie into his mouth between boyish grins. “I'll have like two a day. They didn't even give me that many goji berries! I'm pissed.” He’s joking. Mostly.
“I had two Spanish songs for the EP, but I just wasn't fucking with them,” Omar continues. “They weren't up to where I wanted them to be.” While writing Friends, Omar studied the work of songwriters like Paul Simon, Neil Young and James Brown, and looked to musical guideposts such as The Internet and Sly & the Family Stone. In a sense, he was just messing around on his first EP — having fun, freestyling. Omar never imagined it would blow up. “I’m having fun still. But I was more like, ‘Okay, I'm gonna try to show some growth on this one,’” he says.
Since he was young, Omar’s had a fascination with growing up. “I'm always talking about being older. I think because I know it's coming,” he says. On Hearing Your Voice he sings: “It don’t make sense to me/ but I’m fantasising about me being 40.” According to Omar, by the way, “You're old at 30. But 30 is when you start turning sexy. Right now we're cute. We're in our 20s,” he explains. “Thirty, you're grown. You got responsibilities. You go and play Billiards. I do that now, but you know what I mean. It's serious, you're betting money this time. Watching the game with your boys.” There’s a song about this too. It’s called Kickback, which is simply about “vibing with the homies” or “having fun with friends,” and it's catchy as hell.
Most of Omar’s songs are about heartbreak — something that he says comes naturally to him — though he admits to never falling fully in love. “I’ve had bits and pieces,” he elaborates. “I’m way too romantic. It’s dumb.” He is, however, familiar with unrequited love. The song Friends is about being in love with someone that only wants to be friends. While There for Me (Interlude) is about empathy and feeling like you’ve outgrown a past relationship. Even though you’re in a totally new place, and everything’s changed, you still miss it. But Omar plays it cool. “I'm also kind of flexing on that song a little bit too,” Omar says, grinning. “I say, ‘I just signed a lease.../ shit's been real easy for me.’ I'm just saying I'm doing good over here, but it's not the same.”
It makes sense then, that Trouble is Omar’s baby. Not only does it mean the most, but it’s his favourite song he’s written so far. “Costly, I tell you/ You need to grow/ Feels close to heaven/ Past the unknown,” he croons. This first verse is written to a younger version of himself and speaks to Omar’s fascination with ageing, but it’s less about wishing he was older and more about wishing his younger self knew the things that he knows now. Particularly, when it comes to romance. “It's about endeavours of a young boy turning into a man and just growing and letting love inspire your growth,” Omar says.
This article originally appeared on i-D US.