Salem Ilese is turning her popstar dream into a reality
The Californian musician has always dreamt of being a songwriter for the stars. Now, she’s becoming one of the stars herself.
In many ways, Salem Ilese is alike any other 21-year-old woman living in Los Angeles. Her Zoom background is littered with fairy lights and paintings, she has a dog - named Bowie - that she adores devotedly (and a bearded dragon too, named Lil Cow), she loves Disney movies (you might already know that by now), she’s constantly online and plugged into social media, and she adores pop music, moreso than most other things in her world.
In saying that, there are plenty of things that separate Salem Ilese from the pack. For starters, her first music mentor was the legendary songwriter and Berklee College of Music head Bonnie Hayes, known for her work alongside Cher, Bette Midler and Bonnie Raitt. Hayes also inspired Salem to make music of her own too, which over the course of the last year or so, has probably been streamed about a billion times across radio and streaming platforms.
She’s been called everything from a pop princess and to a popstar by the media, has an audience in the hundreds of thousands that repost, retweet and duet every single thing she posts, and she’s become a studied example of how modern-day pop musicians are finding unexpected fame in the depths of the internet. All incredibly normal things for a 21-year-old.
For Salem Ilese, however, it’s been a long time coming. “It’s a dream come true,” she tells me from her Los Angeles home, on the day before her second EP, (L)only Child, is released to the world. “This is absolutely everything that I’ve wanted to do since I was old enough to know what singing was, and since I found you could make singing a job.” It’s hard not to ignore her excitement beaming through the screen, even if she’s sitting thousands of kilometres away. “It’s so surreal.”
Salem Ilese has always been destined for a future in music. Born in California’s Mill Valley district just out of San Francisco, her parents encouraged her to perform and sing whenever she could, collecting “embarrassing blackmail tapes” as she grew up. Her parents weren’t musicians, but as avid music listeners themselves, they saw her fascination with music and enrolled her into music lessons, which a decade down the track, became a cross-country move to Boston, to enrol in the esteemed Berklee College of Music, which she dropped out of a few years later (much like almost every other musician I’ve talked to who attended the school, mind you).
It was at Berklee, however, that Salem identified a passion for songwriting, and the way that you could use music as a tool to reflect and process something occurring in your life. She developed a skillset in writing music - partly thanks to Bonnie Hayes - that soon became a drive to make it a full-time job, writing for others even when the music she was creating herself began to take off. “I love helping other people tell their stories,” she told Happy Mag last year. Being a collaborator allowed her to see how others would dissect and tell their own story through music; things she was able to pluck apart and apply to her own work too.
Before long, however, Salem Ilese - her solo project - became the main focus, and writing for others became something she didn’t have time for. She released a debut EP - titled 757 - in 2019, and the year after, began releasing singles such as Mad At Disney, a song about unrealistic happy endings so often perceived in childhood movies. Mad At Disney took off unexpectedly quick as an early example of how TikTok can make viral successes from the most unsuspecting of musicians; those such as Salem Ilese, who literally overnight, found herself becoming the pop music sensation she’d dreamt of being since a child.
Now, everything’s all about her own project. “I’ve been singing since I was tiny, so I definitely want to be a full-on artist for as long as I can,” she tells me, a smile gleaming on her face as we recount the successes of her artist project in the last 12 months. “My priority is well and truly my artist project because I enjoy being an artist so much - it’s so fun to me. As long as it’s sustainable for me, I’m going to release music of my own.”
Released amongst an American summer largely spent in pandemic-induced lockdown, Mad At Disney’s virality happened literally overnight, at a rate Salem couldn’t keep up with. “It was just so immediate. I woke up in the morning and everything just began to climb - it felt like a practical joke was being played on me,” she remembers. She had just signed a new label deal - with her now-home at 10K Projects / Homemade Projects - and even they were thrown off guard; Salem, for example, recollects a memory of her then-new A&R FaceTiming her to say that she was the fastest they’ve ever ‘broken’ an artist: “We navigated that together,” she says. “[They were] a really great support system.”
From there, Salem didn’t slow down. Mad At Disney led to a just-as-viral follow-up in Coke & Mentos, while guest collaborations and even a Christmas single - Marry Christmas - helped her establish an audience that had quickly grown outside of the confinements of TikTok. Soon, she was an artist synonymous with those to watch in 2021; the acts of tomorrow breathing new life and energy into pop music.
Her second EP, late-May’s (L)only Child, showcases how exactly she’s defining this next generation of artists. It’s a potently rich collection of six tracks that bring you into Salem’s world both musically and personally, capturing her fascinations with pop music and how she’s able to use it to cleverly reflect on the experiences of herself, but particularly those around her: friends, family and often-hypothetical situations defining much of her lyricism. It’s an EP that doesn’t make it hard to see yourself within either; the way Salem Ilese writes music (something we’ll get to in a second) encouraging self-reflection in others. It’s easy to understand why she’s been indebted in messages of appreciation and validation since the EP’s arrival.
Even if much of (L)only Child isn’t written about Salem’s life directly - that’s what she tells us anyway - there’s a certain potency in her lyricism that’s hard to mimic. Forgiveness, for example, appreciates those around her in a time of need - something that many have done in a pandemic life - while songs like Dinosaurs and good, not great point to red flags and relationship detirement; observations she’s seen mostly in the friends around her, but ones that she’s able to bring to life as if they were her own.
“I’m looking for song concepts and inspiration every moment of every day, in every conversation I have with my friends and so on,” she says. “I feel like a journalist at times, because my friends will be talking and in the conversation I’ll have my songwriting brain on listening, taking down notes and thinking about how I can turn them into lyrics. It’s so prevalent in everything I do.”
Where Salem is at her peak on (L)only Child - and where her musicianship shines its brightest - however, is in the songwriting that underpins the more tender and personal moments. It’s where Salem Ilese’s clever lyricism unveils itself; how she’s able to twist what seems like a conventional and over-done song theme - like a break-up - into something completely different, as she chooses to pursue unique points of view that breathe new life into stale lyrical topics.
Take EP highlight About A Breakup, for example. Most musicians creating a break-up song would go the emotive route; the ‘wear your heart on your sleeve’ model of songwriting that’s become so characteristic of break-up songs in pop music. Salem, however, goes outside of the box, questioning why it’s even worth stressing and being emotional over something so minutely small in the grand scheme of things - like a break-up. Written at a time where Black Lives Matter protests battled for news time with Australia’s summer bushfires and Asian discrimination in the face of the pandemic, you can’t help but blame Salem Ilese for taking such an approach. More than anything, however, it’s just a testament to how Salem’s songwriting brain works.
“I’ve always had a fear of being mundane of my whole life,” she explains, asked where this out-of-the-box songwriting stems from. “I don’t know why my expectations of myself are so high, but they’re always impossible to meet, so it’s a little game I play with myself. I think I hold myself to a standard to say something that’s already been said in a way that it’s never been said before; when I find a cool, clever way to do that, it just makes me so excited.”
About A Breakup is a brilliant example of that, and there are many others littered amongst Salem Ilese’s discography. “About A Breakup is fun; the title is About A Breakup but it’s not really about a break-up at all,” she continues to explain. “It’s more-so about how there’s always something more important to cry about. It’s a more comforting way to look at it, for me.”
Salem Ilese is the type of musician that you just know is going to go a long way. As a 21-year-old, she’s immersed herself with the heights of unexpected virality, and yet oversees every facet of her work from the lyricism - obviously - down to the fonts and visual assets that accompany every release. She speaks about her songwriting in a way that teaches you about its complexities as she tells you how she approaches it; every lyric calculated to represent what she hopes it represents, to say what she aims to say. To be able to show this without a debut album is a feat in itself, especially for someone who has only just been thrown into the craziness of it all.
That’s not how we know Salem Ilese is here to stay, however. It’s because she’s been able to learn and grow from the turbulent 12 months that have followed her breakthrough moment, and how she’s applying newfound lessons straight into what she does next.
“I’ve learnt how to pace myself and take breaks when needed,” she says. “There was a time where I was writing two songs a day, seven days a week; doing double sessions and running around trying to fit everything in.” As she explains, the pandemic encouraged her to slow down. “It was amazing, but I was so burnt out, and I didn’t realise that until I was left to my own for a long time.”
Already, she’s feeling the change. “I see my writing has improved since I started having those breaks and having those self check-ins. I’ve learnt so much about myself, but I think it’s taught me how to say ‘no’ more than anything else.
"That’s a new thing for me, but I’m glad I’ve found it.”