Omar Apollo on Catholic guilt, body image and self-care

Omar Apollo makes dreamy bilingual soul music about his life as a gay man, as the son of Mexican immigrants and as a kid growing up in small town Indiana before moving to Los Angeles to pursue his career.

He also posts A+ tweets.

Last month, Apollo went viral on Twitter after another user asked if he was “another queer baiting singer” — the type, the user continued, who might say, “I don’t tag myself, get carried short and.” paint my nails and say I find another guy hot.”

Apollos priceless answer is not quotable here, but suffice it to say it made his sexual identity clear.

Of course, the NSFW tweet wouldn’t have traveled so far if Apollo, 25, weren’t already known as a singer-songwriter with an unusual style and sensibility. His talents are evident in his excellent major-label debut Ivory, which spawned a TikTok hit on the Motown-esque Evergreen (You Didn’t Deserve Me at All) and led to a new artist nomination at the 65. Grammy Awards scheduled for February 5th. He’s also been delighting fans on the go throughout the year, including a sold-out show at LA’s Greek Theater in November.

When asked if he’s seen Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born — which used the Greek for the pivotal scene where Gaga belts out “Shallow” for the first time — Apollo says he’s seen it watched the movie but didn’t. I don’t know it was filmed in the same place he just played. “The film is very sad. I cried on the plane,” he says. “I was embarrassed. The guy next to me said, ‘Are you okay?’ I said, ‘No, man.’ ”

These are edited excerpts from the interview.

You’ve been very busy lately.
Two tours in one year. I will never do that again. Your circadian rhythm is all messed up. You have to take care of two small vocal cords in your throat, to the point where you have to watch what you eat. It’s so strict. I miss eating late and not worrying about my voice.

Let’s say you’re playing a show and you come off the stage around 11. What happens then?
You shouldn’t talk, but then I’m like this on because I just got off the stage and the dopamine release from my brain is getting me so high. I can’t just walk into a room by myself and be silent. So I have to interact or at least have a guitar or something with me. Something has to happen. I got straight into the Suburban and lost my mind and cried on the way home.

That sounds dark.
It’s getting dark. I understand why these artists struggle when touring. It’s inhuman. I mean it’s rewarding. You just have to really take care of yourself and learn how to do it.

You’re nominated for Best New Artist. Growing up in Indiana, did you feel like the Grammys were something open to you or like that mysterious, far-flung organization?
Everything feels that way from the Midwest. It felt totally far-fetched. Then you move to LA and New York and your friend says, “Oh yeah, my dad directed it [that movie].” But over there it’s like drugs or meth — that’s the vibe.

How was you in high school? Did you exercise at all?
I played basketball. I played football. I am [6-foot-5]but I could not mature.

You said the 2015 internet album Ego Death inspired you to start making music.
I was working at McDonald’s when I found this album. I got the job so I could save up for studio equipment. It was probably about three weeks into my job when I found the album and thought, oh, I’ll go to the pawn shop after work and get a guitar. [Later] I got a job at the Guitar Center and every Sunday some really good players would come and I would just ask questions.

Their music is reminiscent of Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Prince. Was that music you heard in your house as a child?
These are the artists that I was drawn to when I had access to the internet and such. My parents introduced me to Pedro Infante who is a great singer in Mexico. There is a song called “Cien Años” that I keep coming back to. Then they introduced me to Juan Gabriel, Los Panchos, Los Bukis. That piqued my soulful interest, and I think that’s why I’m drawn to Prince and Donny and all that stuff.

Do you remember hearing a Donny Hathaway song for the first time?
I was maybe 19. “You have a boyfriend.” I think James Taylor wrote that. [It was Carole King.] But Donny’s was the one.

A singer performs on the stage outdoors

Omar Apollo performing at the 2022 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

(Timothy Norris/Getty Images)

Why did you move to LA?
I worked at the Guitar Center. I put out maybe three songs and they started doing really well on Spotify. I was making about $500 a month. Then it was $600, $800, then $1,000, then $1,200. I thought: Oh, I can make a living from this. My rent was $140, but I would split it because I lived in an attic with four people.

Four people in an attic? Or you in the attic and the others somewhere else in the house?
In the attic. beds spread out. Then I had my studio up there.

You’d have to kick everyone out to use the studio.
I would tell them to please be quiet. You can probably still hear them in the recordings. I lived there and then moved. There was a lot of smoking and I thought I can’t record here. I mean I smoked but not like that. My girlfriend told me I could live with her 30 minutes away. Then I went on tour and she was like, “Hey, my brother is moving back in.” So I lived in my boyfriend’s basement for three months.

Which was better: attic or basement?
basement. I lived alone when I was in the basement. And the attic had no bathroom. It was such a cold walk to go to the toilet, two flights of stairs.

Then finally LA.
I told my brother – he worked at UPS – I said, “Do you want to move to LA?” It wasn’t much thought. Actually, I like Indiana more now. Back then it felt like there wasn’t much. But now people make music. There are beautiful sunsets there. And there is a small lake. You just can’t swim in it.

Probably. I was a little kid when I swam in it, but my friend did a bridge jump and then he got E. coli.

On “Ivory” you sing in both English and Spanish. How do you decide which language is right for a song?
There is a song called “En El Olvido” which is a traditional Mexican mariachi corrido. So I didn’t even think about it – it was Spanish. But then I also have another style called Corridos tumbados where kids like me – their family is from Mexico, they were born here, they have the whole culture – they do the whole thing in Spanish, and then it’s going to be one breakdown and there is swearing in English. Sometimes when I sing R&B and Soul I throw [Spanish] in. The life I live is bilingual, mainly English. But I think music is a reflection of my life.

You grew up in the Catholic Church.
Super Catholic.

Does Catholicism have a place in your songwriting?
I used to have an insane amount of Catholic guilt. When I started making music because of that, I was afraid to say certain things. It was like, “Oh, you damn the world to hell.” It’s kind of scary. At some point I just thought: These are not my thoughts. What does Jay Z say? “What you eat doesn’t make me s-.” I have my opinions and I live by my own moral code.

Is religion a part of your life now?
I wouldn’t say I’m religious. When was the last time I prayed? I think I wrote about prayer last night. In one song I said I pray for someone, which I think I do – only good intentions for someone. I don’t know, maybe one day I’ll find something useful. But right now, knowing about Catholicism, having grown up with it, I don’t think I could live the way I want to live if I were a die-hard Catholic.

Do you wish for a place in Catholic life?
Maybe if their music was better.

Are you interested in the aesthetics of religion at all?
I like the smells – the smoking and all that stuff.

You’re pictured shirtless on the cover of Ivory. Do you take it for granted to feel good about your body?
Definitely not natural. As a kid, I always swam with a shirt on. I would get one of those tight little Under Armor swim shirts. What happened was, honestly, I went on tour and I think I weighed 220 pounds and I looked at photos of myself and I was like, damn, I have to be in front of people all the time and look at this photo from me. I had such discipline in my work and in my music that I wanted my body to reflect that for me. I just thought, OK, maybe I won’t eat at Taco Bell at 2 a.m. and actually take care of my body and give it healthy things. It took me years to really get to where I am now.

Is your body something you put a lot of energy into?
Not recently. I’ve gone insane I think it’s fear. There’s food in front of me, I’m like, oh I gotta finish this.

Some people say it’s because of their mother or grandmother.
Yes, my mother, definitely. She didn’t let me leave the table until I was done.

What do you like to eat?
Sushi. I just found out I have too much soy in my blood. It was dangerously high. Not dangerously high, I’m exaggerating. I love Italian food, Ethiopian food. Everything was Caribbean on the last tour – I had to eat jerk. I have many foodie friends. I decided today whether I’m a foodie or not.

what did you land on
I was. I know the spots, but it’s not like an obsession. I just need something in my body ’cause my hands are shaking. Omar Apollo on Catholic guilt, body image and self-care

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