How Omar Apollo Stuck To His Guns And Created His Unrestrained Debut Album

'Ivory' refuses to go the way you expect, and that's what makes it so engaging.

omar apollo photo

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

Omar Apollo could’ve been talking about his debut album almost two years ago.

He had one that was essentially ready to go but it’s only now, in 2022, that he’s delivering Ivory. It’s the Indiana-born artist’s official introduction and one that could’ve been a lot different had Apollo not taken the reins.

Apollo’s career took off quickly. His 2017 track ‘Ugotme’ was a Spotify success story and from there he released a string of viral cuts including two EPs Stereo and Friends. In 2020, he dropped mini-album Apolonio as a precursor to a forthcoming record. The one that never arrived.

“I ended up scrapping the whole first record,” says Apollo over Zoom. What’s immediately clear about him, even from a brief conversation, is that the buck stops with him. He’s focused, enthusiastic, and committed to growth. He recognised that he hadn’t had time to truly grow during his quick career takeoff and so he gave himself plenty of time in the studio.

“Classic thing, when someone gets signed their music sucks. Cliché, you know,” he laughs. “I almost got sucked into that.”

Ivory is a remarkably different work from Apolonio. The mini-album was polished and somewhat polite, showing glimmers of a budding icon. Ivory on the other hand is unhinged and unrestrained. It’s wildly emotional and its free-flowing form reflects that. Whether it’s a perfectly constructed pop song like ‘Go Away’ or a raw outpouring like ‘Petrified’, every switch-up appears unrehearsed.

One thing that strikes you is how much he’s developed as a vocalist. ‘Petrified’ is arresting thanks to a full-bodied vocal performance and he betters that on ‘En El Olvido’, a bare-boned corrido that stops you in your tracks. Apollo’s previous work has shown him to be a very capable singer but there’s something exhilarating about the way he uses it on Ivory. He really goes for it. “I’ve always had it in me but I avoided it in the beginning,” Apollo says. “I was a little afraid. It’s always so much easier to sing softer but my emotions and the way I was feeling weren’t soft.”

It’s a perfect example of how he let his emotional compass lead this album. Sometimes, it leads him to belting out a ballad, and other times it leads to ‘Invincible’, a detouring, mind-boggling track that’s hard to ignore when prematurely considering the best songs of the year.

“Classic thing, when someone gets signed their music sucks. Cliché, you know…I almost got sucked into that.”

“It starts out as rock and then has quick fast electronic drums and then Daniel [Caesar] is singing in a reggae pocket,” he says, calling it one of his favourite songs on the album. “You gotta keep it interesting. Sometimes I just wanna make some ‘Invincible’-type shit.”

Apollo collaborated with Daniel Caesar on the scrapped debut — the pair had been hanging out organically when ‘Invincible’ presented itself one day as an eight-minute, free-form demo. Apollo condensed it to its official length himself and almost turned it over for release with Caesar’s demo vocals. Caesar, as in love with the song as Apollo, re-recorded it at the last minute.

Their chemistry is magnetic on the song, as is Apollo’s chemistry with any given collaborator on the album. The trap with an anticipated debut album is that you find yourself in rooms with plenty of songwriters and producers who have plenty of success but may not be the most organic fit. This album has huge producers and songwriters on it from Pharrell to Tobias Jesso Jr. but none of them feel forced in there just for clout.

The album’s main producer is Carter Lang (SZA) who has become a daily presence for Apollo (“We get along very well, he lives down the road from me”). There are also features from Kali Uchis — who is a close collaborator and friend of Apollo — and from his childhood best friend.

Keep It Close To The Chest

For Apollo to make exactly what he wanted, he had to learn to keep his process to himself. Before he began making Ivory, he’d let his management and label in every step of the way. He stopped that and began to only show them the finished products. It’s hard to imagine songs as chaotic as ‘Invincible’ or ‘Talk’ developing from a cluster of opinions.

“Everyone understands me now, luckily,” he says, before correcting himself. “Not luckily, I really tried. It taught me so much about how to move going forward. This feels like the beginning in music, there’s so much that I haven’t done and so much that I want to do.”

“There’s so much that I haven’t done and so much that I want to do.”

It’s nice to hear him take ownership of his own work without putting it down to luck. Perhaps, when it comes to an artist’s growth, you can put some kind of immediate success down to luck — but it doesn’t get you to a debut album that sounds like this. Throughout his career, Apollo has received plenty of comparisons to everyone from Prince to Frank Ocean. It casts a somewhat giant shadow of expectation that can be hard to outrun. Ivory shuns those comparisons in favour of a record that sounds only like Omar Apollo.

Apollo, as he puts it, wants to be both engaging and jarring. From Ocean to Prince, it’s a description you could aim at many of the greats. Every time you thought they would go one way, they would go another.

That’s the greatest success of Ivory, it’s completely unexpected. The 16-track listen never goes the way you expect skipping through indie rock, folk, pop, and balladry. He follows a corrido with a Pharrell-produced banger and it still somehow feels like the right choice.

It’s Grammys night when we talk and Apollo’s collaborator Caesar has just stepped off the stage with Justin Bieber. Apollo seems like a shoo-in for Grammys success in the future and if the Grammys get it right, which they historically don’t always, Apollo will at least feature in the Best New Artist category next year.

“Manifest it for me,” he says.

Omar Apollo’s debut album IVORY is out now through Warner Music Australia.

Sam Murphy is a music writer and Co-Editor of The Interns. He also co-hosts the podcast Flopstars. Follow him on Twitter