OMAR Apollo has me on loudspeaker while he’s in an Uber with his band on the way to rehearsal.
There’s an air of aloofness to the singer, but I can’t tell if it’s because he has company or if he’s just genuinely shy.
Just four years ago, the experimental soul-pop artist (born Omar Velasco) was working at the local McDonald’s in a small farming town of Hobart, Indiana.
His parents left Mexico and resettled there before he was born, operating a fast-food taco restaurant up until Omar’s mum fell pregnant with him. “They were like, ‘This kid is too much, we gotta shut down!’” he jokes.
Omar’s foray into music was unconventional, to say the least. He’d been a keen guitarist throughout his childhood but never replaced the instrument after it was stolen when he was about 15. Inspiration struck suddenly one day when he was listening to music while unpacking boxes at work.
At the end of his shift, he stopped at a pawn shop, bought a used guitar for around $30, and “just started making shit that day”.
Not long after, Omar tapped into his fast food savings and bought himself a laptop to start making music on. Then he searched YouTube for ‘How to Sing’ video tutorials and taught himself how to, well, sing.
That was back when he was 18, and he’s come a long way in such a short span of time. Earlier this year, Omar – now based in LA – played a huge sold out show in his hometown. It was the first his entire family could attend.
“Seeing them afterwards, it was a real wholesome moment, y’know? They were so hyped. My mom was crying. They were proud, it was really cool,” he says.
In 2018 Omar released his first EP, Stereo, a collection of funk jams, poppy R&B songs, and guitar-fused disco tracks recorded in the bedroom attic he shared with a bunch of his friends. At the beginning of April 2019, he dropped Friends, his second EP within a year.
Both releases showcase Omar’s unique brand of experimental pop and his seamless ability to genre hop, yet Friends boasts a confidence and maturity not seen on Stereo.
While Omar still flirts with more obvious influences like Childish Gambino and
It seems impossible to imagine that he only began singing and recording less than five years ago, but Omar says he was born with a good ear for music – and what sounds like a really strong will to get out of McDonald’s.
I wanted to talk about your childhood for a little bit. How has growing up in an immigrant family shaped your musical output, do you think?
Well, my mom and dad just put me on some music, like The Beatles, but they didn’t know what they were saying which is funny. I remember my dad putting on ‘Yesterday’ when I was about 11, and he just sang, “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far…” and then just hummed the rest. And then my dad put me onto all the Mexican singers, like the soulful stuff from back in the ‘50s. I grew up listening to that kind of stuff, and other than that, I was at school picking up other music tastes from friends and the Internet and shit.
Immigration is such a divisive issue in the US right now, particularly along the Mexican border. As a first generation Mexican-American, do you ever feel inclined to bring those politics into your music?
I’d actually rather go out and help or donate or do something like that. ’Cause I feel like if you just do a song it’s like, “Okay, but are you really doing anything to help, y’know?” I’ve done a few benefit shows, and it’s been really hectic. I definitely want to get creative with it and do something that can help the families because I know too many people who have already been taken away from their families. It’s so fucked up. I’m definitely always thinking about it.
You worked at McDonald’s throughout school to save up for a computer to make music on. Do you think your success is that much sweeter because you know how hard you’ve worked for it?
Yeah, motherfuckers forget where I come from … It’s weird for me to say this without offending one of my friends, but I actually know what it’s like to be broke. A lot of people out here have got their parent’s money and shit and they don’t know, y’know what I mean?
"I just went on YouTube and typed in 'How to Sing', I’m serious."
Is that even more apparent since you moved to LA?
There’s a lot of it out here, it’s wild. It’s nothing like that back home. My friends and I all kind of related in that way. It was like, “Yo, you got 50 cents?” [Laughs]. But like I’m not even joking, we just wanted a donut ‘cause we were hungry, y’know what I mean?
Can you describe the attic situation where you recorded all the music for your first EP, Stereo?
So I had to move out, my friend had this attic, and I got some money. I got lent 1000 bucks from this one dude – well actually, he kind of just gave it to me. I got lucky. Then I realised I needed to refurbish up there so I put in drywall, put in carpet, and installation. I used that money to pay my uncle to help, and then after I moved in. A bunch of friends started moving in and that’s where I made all my music from the first EP.
Is it true you’ve only been singing for like four years? The idea that you learnt how to sing is kind of crazy to me. It just sounds like you were born a singer.
I wasn’t at all. I definitely had to learn, so I just watched a bunch of YouTube videos.
Yeah, I just went on YouTube and typed in “How to Sing”, I’m serious. And I learnt how to do breathing stuff and get vibrato. If you really care about it, you’ll learn. But if you’re just whatever about it, you’re probably not going to see any progress.
But you’ve got to sort of already have a decent base voice, right?
I mean I didn’t even really find my tone until I was like 18, 19. That’s when I figured out what the tone of my voice was and what was comfortable. So honestly, no – I didn’t have any kind of base. I just had a good ear and I could play guitar. I think your ear is more important. I definitely was singing entirely wrong because I’m real big on mimicking, like how babies mimic, and I was mimicking in the wrong way. I was real tense, ‘cause you know when singers have the vein coming out their neck and it looks like they’re flexing? They’re not. They’re just intense and totally loose. And I didn’t understand that.
So do you still go back every now and then to some YouTube videos?
I did recently because my friend was like “Yo, did you really learn like that?” So I sent him some videos.
So if you didn’t come from a musical family or environment, how and when did you get into making music?
I don’t even know, I forget. I was just working at McDonald’s. I was in the back undoing the boxes listening to music and it inspired me. So I just went to the pawn shop and bought a guitar for like 30 bucks and just started making shit that day. I was using my brother’s laptop at first, and then I saved up for my own.
Friends is only two or three songs shy of being a full album, and the same goes with your first EP. Is there a reason you didn’t wait till you had a couple more tracks to release it as your debut record?
Yeah, I just felt like I wasn’t ready for an album yet, so I kind of made another EP. I want to put out some more shit before I make an album. I want the album to be thematic, whereas the EP is kind of all different genres.
Are you pretty prolific in your songwriting? How many songs are stored on that thing that no one has heard?
Like, a thousand.
Are we ever gonna hear any?
Probably not. Some of them are bad. [Laughs].