Grammy Nominee Omar Apollo Talks Breakthrough Year: 'Everything I Wanted People to Feel, It Was Felt'

The Indiana pop star is fresh off a sold-out tour, newly nominated for his first Grammy award, and learning to create his next project with intention

Omar Apollo
Omar Apollo. Photo: Gustavo Garcia

The biggest tour of Omar Apollo's career is now over, and on the other end of a conference call with PEOPLE, he's proudly rehashing the technical intricacies of his live shows — specifically those little flourishes he adds to his dreamy pop songs on the road.

Those added details on his Prototype Tour, to him, are moments of pride. But there's more to touring, he says: the occasional voice cracks, the nights where he didn't get much sleep, and the performances where he wasn't fully himself on stage.

Just as easily as he opens up about the highlights, Apollo is candid when it comes to the lows. "It's human," Apollo, 25, tells PEOPLE with honesty, just weeks after his nomination for best new artist at the 65th Annual Grammy Awards. "Even just owning up to hard times. When you're on stage. When I feel a way, I'll tell the whole crowd, 'I've been having a really weird week.' And then I'll turn it into 'So I want you guys to be really loud so we can all just feel better.'"

Omar Apollo
Omar Apollo. Rick Kern/WireImage

As anyone who's ever read the lyrics to an Omar Apollo song on Genius can contest, honesty is his greatest strength as a songwriter. Securing him his first Recording Academy nod this year, and as the driving force behind his April debut album Ivory, Apollo's words have also scored him a few hall-of-fame Tweets as of late — and more importantly — a breakthrough organic hit with his latest single "Evergreen."

"You just don't expect those types of things," Apollo says of the success of the ballad, which inspired a handful of TikTok trends where kids would open up about their personal lows, or just screaming the bridge (as one does).

"I knew the bridge of the song was great, I was like, 'I love this part.' I was really proud of it and I spent so much time on it," Apollo continues. "But for people to relate to it in the way that they have been — especially at first with all the trends and people crying and stuff like that, that's just real emotion."

The outpouring of love for Apollo's music throughout 2022 has been rewarding for longtime supporters — who saw him transform from a Spotify playlist essential to a Grammy nominee in less than five years. Raised by Mexican immigrants (his dad moved to the U.S. in 1979) in Hobart, Indiana and as someone who has previously said he doesn't like to specifically label his sexuality, Apollo treats his music as an extension of his identity — an approach that helps his fans relate more, and nearly dissect his songs better than he can.

"The way that somebody explained 'Evergreen' was almost better than I did," he tells PEOPLE of one TikTok in particular. "It was a video explaining exactly what I was feeling but it was really in-depth. Some people have a talent for that, being able to break things down."

Omar Apollo
Omar Apollo. Gustavo Garcia

No matter how fast things seem to be moving for the pop star, and no matter how many people are starting to follow his every move — and dissect his every lyric — on the internet, Apollo admits he doesn't think too far ahead. "The way I imagine my life is one step at a time," he says.

But in early December, Apollo took a moment to reflect several steps backward when he earned TikTok's Future Icon award at Variety's Hitmakers brunch. To be fair, the musician — who hit the DIY scene with 2018's Stereo, and followed up with 2019's Friends and 2020 project Apolonio before finding his eventual commercial breakthrough with Ivory — has been seen as a hitmaker (and even a future icon) by his cult fanbase for a few years now. But when he got up on stage to accept his award, he reminded those in attendance of the same thing he reminds PEOPLE of on the phone — he's human.

As he accepted his award in front of now-industry peers in Dua Lipa and Selena Gomez, he opened up about being rejected by Columbia College in Chicago some years back. It was a rejection letter that he felt would stunt his musical aspirations when he needed a break, but that rejection only fueled him.

"That's something that's always bothered me is that they didn't accept me into art school," Apollo tells PEOPLE. "That was always something that really hurt. I had a few conversations with people like, 'Oh, I wanna do music.' We're in the midwest, we're not in New York or LA. We're not a musical family. I didn't have any connections to the music industry. I felt like, 'This would be a start.'"

"To experience rejection, not just from there, but from everybody, definitely was a part of me wanting to actually succeed," he continues. "It definitely benefited me."

Apollo took the denial and ran with it back then, pushing himself to self-release material in 2016 before building a following and signing with Warner Records in 2020. Now he's on the other end of a Zoom call with PEOPLE reflecting on the moment he found out he was nominated for his first Grammy award last month. His whole team surprised him with the news just before a tour stop in Atlanta, he says, and he immediately called his father — a man who watched this journey unfold the whole way through.

"My dad's reaction, it was great. He was wearing a little hat, working in the kitchen. And he was like, 'Oh I'm so excited.' Just congratulating me, doing what a father should," Apollo shares. "And then my mom did the same. I called her afterward and she was like, 'What are we wearing? We gotta figure out the outfits and get together.'"

After finding out he was nominated for best new artist, Apollo did some speedy research into past winners of the award. He didn't go too far into the list of Grammy champs, he tells PEOPLE, but he does understand there's an importance of this moment as it pertains to his career. "Those are forever. They're forever cemented into the academy," he says of the Grammys. "All the people that are nominated are, too. And it's just a blessing to be alongside all these names of everyone who's been putting out music this year."

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Of course, Apollo wouldn't have earned the nod this year if it weren't for Ivory — his triumphant debut album that's been making listeners bawl (and smile, when they aren't overcome with tears) for the last eight months.

The record features assistance from Daniel Caesar, The Neptunes, Kali Uchis, juggling pitched-up slappers like "Endlessly" and "Tamagotchi" with a handful of the types of ballads Apollo is known for crafting so well. Basically, it feels like a proper welcome statement from someone now earning big-time industry looks, and here's a lot to celebrate about it. But Apollo is most focused on how the LP has changed him as a man.

"There's gonna be so many memories that come with looking back at Ivory for sure. It isn't singular, but I think it's just a very, very important growth that was necessary. This album actually changed me, who I am as a person, in the way I interact with people. It's crazy how something that you make and create can affect who you are for the better."

For now, Apollo is still taking his "one step at a time approach" — so he's not thinking too far ahead. But he tells PEOPLE he's already working on new music, and found his next direction, "which is groundbreaking," he admits.

"That's probably the hardest, going in with intention," Apollo continues. "I used to just make music and it would just be what it was and I would post-rationalize afterward. And now I feel like, 'Oh, I have this idea. I can describe what I want to say throughout the album in a few words.' That's a blessing right now."

As for Ivory, and all the accolades coming his way this year and beyond, Apollo is glad it's all been felt by those who know him best: "All I can hope for with my music is that fans feel something and they're moved by something. Other than that, it's out of my control. I feel like everything I wanted people to feel, it was felt."

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