We spoke with R&B singer Xavier Omär about his new album, his background in the church, and how getting married affected his songwriting.
Xavier Omär taught himself to play the drums when he was a child. He played by ear in countless churches throughout his life.
“I would just listen, repeat the sound back in my head, and just find it,” he shared during a Zoom interview from his home in San Antonio, Texas.
Despite being born in Monterey, California, the singer-songwriter doesn’t count it as his hometown. Instead, he prefers to relish in his experiences in San Antonio, a city he believes fully fleshed him out as an artist, due to the community he found there. Omär’s music has been garnering traction for nearly eight years. For good reason; his sound keys in on harmonies which, he agrees, he’s drawn to.
“I think that’s why I love harmonies so much because I feel like I feel it more,” he said. “It’s become a bit of a signature for me, at just random parts of songs or throughout a song, that I do a three-part harmony. It’s very rare that I don’t.”
On Friday, Omär released his latest album, if You Feel, the follow up to his 2019 effort with Sango, Moments Spent Loving You. Omär believes if You Feel is his best project yet. The content on it is consistent with his feelings and the inner self-work he’s built his entire artistry upon. Facets of this include heartfelt lyrics offering his depiction of what healthy relationships sound like. This isn’t new for Omär; he has been looked to as an R&B singer that gets it. Misogyny, over-sexualization of women, and other looming negative factors do not have a space in his music. It’s proven to work well for him, in a market that often cheapens itself by making way for artists who are soulless or too indebted to trap.
Omär got married last year. During our conversation with Omär, which occurred just hours before if You Feel was set to be released, he spoke about how his marriage affected his music. “If my marriage has done anything for my writing, at all, it’s probably in this project,” Omär said. “It’s the first time I’ve ever been introspective in any manner in my music… I faced myself a lot on this project and that’s something I hadn’t had to do. Being married is a mirror in a lot of ways.”
During our conversation with Xavier Omär, the singer also touched on his background in church, what fans can expect from his latest release, and more.
I’d like to start by digging into your background which you spent immersed in the Black church and the churches that you were around growing up. How does that influence your music?
If nothing else it definitely taught me the difference of when you can really feel something and when you can’t because you can notice that off the bat in church. I play drums. I played drums from 11 to about 24 in church consistently.
I understand just the feel that a drummer has to bring and what that brings to music, but also on the vocal side of it, even just listening — even when I wasn’t participating vocally — which I don’t really think I did until maybe 24 when I finally got off the drums. But even just listening you can tell when somebody really believes the lyrics, or when they’re just up there just singing, or when they don’t know where they want to go with the song, all that stuff. I really began to learn the difference in how things feel musically. And then it’s a bit of a cheat code that my dad was the music director at every church we’ve been at.
My brother has gone on to do the same thing. He has now been a music director since he was 20 at three different churches, the current being my last church in Georgia. I was both my dad and my brother at one point in adult life. My brother plays piano on the intro transition on my album. It’s the first time I got to do something with him on my music, which is really cool.
I think that’s why I love harmonies so much because I feel like I feel it more. So you’ll hear a lot of harmonies, obviously, so much more than just the pinnacle of harmony songs from me because pretty much the whole song is that. But it’s become a bit of a signature for me. It’s very rare that I don’t. So the church has been an influence in that.
Where are you from originally?
I was born in Monterey, California, and then we moved a month later. So I have still, today, never experienced my hometown in any manner. Then we did three years in Colorado, three years in Georgia, three years in Japan, four years in Maryland, and then my dad retired [from the military] and that’s when we went back to Georgia. And I spent six more years there. I went with them to Texas in late 2010 — that’s when I first got to San Antonio — and I finally moved out and went back to live with my sister in Georgia. And then I wanted to marry my wife who was in Maryland, so I moved there, and now I’m back in San Antonio. So I haven’t had this true consistent hometown.
What was high school like for you especially since you and your family moved around so much?
It was my freshman year of high school [when I realized] I was noticeably different from Southern culture. I was not an outcast, but I definitely was made to feel that way. So I just didn’t connect with a whole lot of people.
I think that’s part of why I never connected it to being where I’m from. But in San Antonio, that’s when I started making my solo music for the first time, and that has been so much of a journey here. I’ve been very much embraced even when I was just trying. I was just getting a lot of encouragement from people out here, and so this feels much more of home than anywhere else even though I’ve definitely spent more time in other places.
Do you think moving around a lot made you discover music on your own?
I haven’t heard it put that way, but that’s legitimately how that happened. I am the youngest of three, so my brother and sister are seven and six years older than me. They had each other as best friends. Obviously, as they grew up they experienced everything together. So my first real introduction to popular music was my sister’s room because it was the era of posters everywhere.
So [there was] Aaliyah, [back] when I didn’t know how to pronounce [her name.] I know Tyrese was in there somewhere because she loved some Tyrese. But the room was just full with Word Up magazine posters. My brother was into Ruff Ryders, who had just formed. He was big on JAY-Z. He was huge on Missy [Elliott]. So that was really my beginning of just knowing who people were.
Being around [my siblings] gave me an idea of what was cool and what they liked, but then I guess as I got older I started to just venture out. I was beginning to make music around 12. I didn’t have anything I connected to other than Pharrell and the Neptunes. So other than them I didn’t have anything I directly connected to. The first time I truly had that was CeeLo Green, but it was by the time he was doing Gnarls Barkley [with Danger Mouse.]
And I was like, “Oh, black people can do this too? Our voices sound great on this too?” In those times I was just learning what I liked. So that’s how I got to the diversity of music that I love so much.
Who are artists you enjoy listening to now in your own free time?
James Blake in the last five years has just taken it over for me. The group Bon Iver, they did a lot for me. In 2011 I first heard their [self-titled] second album. Even though I can’t really understand the words most of the time it just feels great. It’s very calming. Obviously, Pharrell, like I said. And from there I listen to a bit of all of what’s popular as well, but those are the ones that have really done it for me.
All of these inspirations make sense, especially since I feel like you fuse sounds in your music. How do you accomplish that when you’re in the recording process?
Sometimes it’s in mind, but because I don’t produce and it’s hard to explain what I’m feeling, a lot of times I just go with what producers have, what they’re making, and see if I can connect to that. Typically it can be the approach is different because, obviously, my voice is always the same, but the way I approach it with my voice doesn’t have to be. So while I have a song like “So Much More,” there’s a song on the album called “More Than Less” which [has] a two-part harmony throughout, and it’s really autotune focused, and it feels more like an alternative or electronic rather than flat out gospel R&B.
This new album is the first time in about four years where I was like, “Xavier, what do you want to do?” And being able to bring those styles and those sounds together, I could not be happier with this project. And it’s me. And to put it together in a form that I think most would still consider R&B overall is a big accomplishment.
This is my best project, this is the best version of me. I don’t know if that’s necessarily my greatest writing or anything like that, even though I think I did really well on the songs that I wanted to focus in on. I have a good balance of knowing when it should just be fine and when I should say more. It’s my favorite and best project that I’ve ever made.
I have to ask about that Mereba feature on “Like I Feel.” How did that happen?
I got the beat pack from D’Mile that blew me away. I’m very late to the [D’Mile] party. I learned about a lot of producers this year. I’m just late. But my personal introduction to him was some of Khalid’s projects. So, I picked that beat out because it’s ridiculous. I write the song, record it, and I knew I wanted a female feature. To be honest, my first thought was, “I want Alex Isley.” That’s my first thought.
But then, I’ve got great A&Rs. So Alex would’ve knocked it out the park, as well, but they were like, “What about Mereba?” So my team sent it [Mereba], and it had to be less than a week [and] she sent it back recorded.
It was perfect. We still haven’t met, of course. And it’s just cool that we had a record that worked together so well. It had such a good chemistry, and up to that point had never even spoken to each other. And that’s what’s crazy about music. I love it. It’s one of my favorite ones.
What do you want your fans to feel when they listen to this album?
Whatever it is that they feel when they listen to the music. The whole idea of the title was just if you are able to have any emotion connected to this, this is for you. So if you feel anything I made this for you, is the concept behind the title. So if it’s joy in the beginning when you’re listening to “Find Me;” if you are finding yourself in “Something Changed” or a song like “Bon Iverre;” if you’re thinking about your lover, or your wedding on “So Much More;” your honeymoon at “Surf” — whatever it may be — I wanted people just to connect with their emotions to these songs and feel the permission to do so.