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Despite his quick rise to fame, Omar Apollo 'started from zero'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This week, we're bringing you stories of this year's first-time Grammy nominees. And we begin the series with Omar Apollo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERGREEN")

OMAR APOLLO: (Singing) Evergreen - he controls me.

CHANG: He's an artist who, just 10 years ago, didn't even know how to sing. But he quickly rose from making music at his parents' house in Hobart, Ind., to snagging a Grammy nod for best new artist.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERGREEN")

APOLLO: (Singing) Am I not what you wanted...

(SOUNDBITE OF HIKING FOOTSTEPS)

CHANG: A few weeks back, my team and I met up with Apollo at a sprawling park atop the Hollywood Hills. And I'm 5'2", so when I met him, I suddenly felt really, really short.

You're, like, 6'5", 6'6"? 6'5".

APOLLO: 6'5", yeah.

CHANG: 6'5" - OK. Are your parents both really tall?

APOLLO: Nah, short, Mexican people.

CHANG: What happened to you?

APOLLO: I don't know. I'm the milkman's son.

CHANG: (Laughter).

Now, we had been told that Omar Apollo loved nature, and so his team said a great place to meet him would be this very park because they said there was a trail here that he likes to hike.

But is there, like, a spot you normally go to?

APOLLO: I've actually never been here.

CHANG: (Laughter) Are you serious? Oh, my (laughter).

He says his actual favorite place to hang out is at home, but we weren't invited there - fine. So we kept playing along with this joke.

APOLLO: Like, I come here, and I just come - No. 1 - to, you know, alleviate the pressure of the world...

CHANG: (Laughter).

APOLLO: ...That has been weighing on me as a young Mexican American.

CHANG: No, seriously.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UGOTME")

APOLLO: (Singing) 'Cause, baby, there's something you know, but clearly you say, I'm not good...

CHANG: Apollo released his first full-length album, "Ivory," last year, and now he has more than 13 million monthly listeners on Spotify. But it all started when he uploaded this track, "Ugotme," to the streaming service back in 2017.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UGOTME")

APOLLO: (Singing) 'Cause honestly, you got me gone...

CHANG: It's barely two minutes long, but when he woke up the next day, he says the ballad had already racked up tens of thousands of streams.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIKING FOOTSTEPS)

CHANG: As we settled in on a long, wooden bench, overlooking a canyon, he told me about the exact moment he knew he wanted to pursue music for a living. He was 17 and had just seen an advertisement inside a store.

APOLLO: There was, like, a little microphone there that said, like, make music. And I was like, damn, I want to make music. So then I got a job at McDonald's and then saved up to get a laptop, saved up to get a microphone, and, then, like, just with those two I started.

CHANG: And this was in your bedroom, you were starting to record music, right?

APOLLO: My garage, yeah. It was at winter. It was, like, negative 10 degrees. And I'm - every time I'm, like, try to sing, you could see my breath. And I didn't want to sing in the house. I was so embarrassed. Even my dad told me I was terrible.

CHANG: (Laughter).

APOLLO: So I would go on YouTube, and I'd practice for hours and try to learn how to give natural vibrato.

CHANG: Did you get it?

APOLLO: Yeah. And then I was like, OK, now that I learned it - you know, maybe three weeks later - sang in front of him. He was, oh, that sounded good. And I was like, oh...

CHANG: Yeah.

APOLLO: ...This is how life is. Yeah. And after that, I was like, oh, I can learn things. That's literally...

CHANG: You're doing pretty well (laughter).

APOLLO: ...What I do - start from zero. No one wants to start from zero.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAMAGOTCHI")

APOLLO: (Singing in Spanish).

CHANG: I want to talk a little bit about the range in your music. Like, on your last album, "Ivory," was that deliberate to have this wide range of sound?

APOLLO: I just - I really love music. I grew up with mariachis and corridos. I grew up with soul music, dance music. I grew up with, like, the super romantic, conservative stuff that my mom listened to and then, like, also, like, the explicit, you know, bravado, rap [expletive], you know? So when I'm making music - one, it's probably ADHD too. It's like, there's something great in every genre, you know? So even for "Ivory," I was like, damn, I like rapping. I'm going to rap on "Tamagotchi," like, and just talk, like, [expletive].

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAMAGOTCHI")

APOLLO: (Singing in Spanish).

And then I wanted to make, like, a really sad, soulful ballad about unrequited love.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T GET OVER YOU")

APOLLO: (Singing) Can't get over you, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh...

I guess it's just a reflection of how I feel.

CHANG: What about when it came to "En El Olvido"? First of all...

APOLLO: So I...

CHANG: ...Is it fair to call that corrido?

APOLLO: Yeah, it's like a corrido. It's like a mariachi, traditional, classic-type of song...

CHANG: Yeah.

APOLLO: ...With, like, a little bit of R&B.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EN EL OLVIDO")

APOLLO: (Singing in Spanish).

For that song, specifically, I was, like, Juan Gabriel and, like, Pedro Infantes (ph) and, like, even my grandma would show me stuff that I've, you know, learned from. And I think I just wanted to perform a song that made me feel like I was at home, that nostalgia that I carry - you know what I mean - everywhere I go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EN EL OLVIDO")

APOLLO: (Singing in Spanish).

CHANG: You know, you're the son of Mexican immigrants. You're bilingual. You're from the Midwest. You've also talked about identifying as queer. Like, do you feel like now that you are this big performer, people are making you think more about your identity?

APOLLO: Yeah, for sure - definitely. But...

CHANG: Is it exhausting?

APOLLO: For sure - but I don't give that too much power. But that was definitely in the beginning, like, a big thing. I was like, oh, man. Every headline is, you know, queer, Mexican immigrant. I was just like, what about the album I just put out (laughter)? Like...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO AWAY")

APOLLO: (Singing) But if you had to go away again - I just don't see you enough. I wish I saw...

CHANG: Is it a lot of weight, then, to be seen as a musician that's supposed to represent being the child of Mexican immigrants, also being queer, also being from the Midwest, like all of that? Does it feel like a lot of responsibility? I guess...

APOLLO: No.

CHANG: ...I just want to understand that more.

APOLLO: It doesn't feel like responsibility, which is good. That's good. See, it's like, so effortlessly me. It's not like I have to, like, work towards being gay.

CHANG: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO AWAY")

APOLLO: (Singing) ...Before you never mentioned that you got time here to stay. Is that too much for your brain?

CHANG: So what was it like when you first learned that you were nominated for best new artist?

(SOUNDBITE OF OMAR APOLLO SONG, "NO GOOD REASON")

APOLLO: I was in Atlanta in my hotel room. Then my manager and all my friends, like, are knocking on my door, like, with, like, cameras and stuff. And I'm like, please, like...

CHANG: (Laughter).

APOLLO: ...This is going to give me so much anxiety.

CHANG: Yeah.

APOLLO: And so then they said it, and, you know, everyone - rah - tackled me on the bed, you know, and then I kick everyone out, call my dad, call my mom. My dad's at work. He's got his little cook hat on. He's like, congratulations...

CHANG: (Laughter) Aw.

APOLLO: ...Like, so cute. Yeah, that whole day, everything I did felt Grammy-nominated - the food. I got my nails done. I was like, oh, it's Grammy-nominated nails right here.

CHANG: Yeah. What'd you get your nails - what did you get on your nails?

APOLLO: It's a sheer pink. I've been simple lately, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO GOOD REASON")

APOLLO: (Singing) ...I don't know. I call you all the time, you pickin' up, just introduce it.

CHANG: Well, Omar Apollo, it has been such a joy to be sitting here on this bench, overlooking this valley, talking to you.

APOLLO: Thank you. I love this bench. I've actually been coming here for years.

CHANG: (Laughter) Stop it, Omar. You're making me do it all over again (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO GOOD REASON")

APOLLO: (Singing) Who you tryna (ph) be bad for? What you makin' me mad for? You tell me, I don't know, say, I don't know (know). You tell me, I don't know, say, I don't know (know). You tell me, I don't know, say, I don't know (know). You tell me - yeah - you tell me, I don't know (know).

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.