There’s nothing like a dose of heady, euphoric pop to get the blood sugar sky-high and provide a dose of candy-hued escapism in these dark and dreary times. And one singer serving it in the shed-loads is San Francisco-hailed newcomer Salem Ilese – learn her name, because there’s no doubt she’s about to hit the big time.
She’s making a name for herself finessing her own brand of fizzy pop, packed with fiery and introspective lyricism – and with otherworldly visuals to boot. Her last single “mad at disney” immerses the listener in a Mad Hatters-esque discotheque all the while exploring Ilese’s disillusionment with unattainable and reductive Disney fairytale endings, and portraying women as people in need of rescue.
Her new track “Coke & Mentos” – an explosive combination if you’ve ever frequented palpitation-inducing experimental home videos on Instagram – looks at how intense exhilaration (in all aspects of life) are inevitably short lived. We’ve been there.
We caught up with the burgeoning pop star and talked lockdown, early inspirations and her new single…
Hi Salem – how have you been during this uncertain time? How has it impacted your music and creativity?
It’s definitely been an adjustment. I went from doing sessions in person every single day, driving back and forth to stranger’s houses, to doing all of my sessions on my couch on Zoom. But it has definitely been a cool time to reflect on my priorities and really look at what’s important in my life. It’s also been crazy with all the success “Mad At Disney” has been getting, to experience that in quarantine. In one sense, my life has completely changed because of the song, but it also hasn’t really changed at all because I’ve been in my apartment the whole time. It’s definitely been an interesting time.
How did growing up Mill Valley, CA, influence you sonically? Who are your musical heroes? And how would you describe your genre?
I think growing up in Mill Valley definitely allowed me to appreciate live music a lot, live instrumentation and production. I was fortunate enough to work with a bunch of instrumentalists when I was younger. I studied songwriting at a place in San Francisco too which was great. I also took guitar lessons there, piano lessons, really anything, and I got to work with a bunch of really cool people and play in bands, you know, all throughout my childhood. Mill Valley is well known for its rock scene since The Grateful Dead is from there. There is just a lot of really rooted, organic influences. Growing up around that was really fun. The San Francisco area in general is known for its rock and live music scene so that was definitely sweet.
Who are your musical heroes? And how would you describe your genre?
David Bowie is someone who I grew up listening to. My dad is the biggest Bowie fan in the universe, and I’m confident saying that. I also listened to Nora Jones when I was growing up. I used to want to be Nora Jones. I would play open mic nights in Mill Valley every Monday, and I would go by myself most times. I didn’t let my parents come to a lot of them because them being there actually gave me more stage fright. They were always pretty bummed, but maybe once a month they would come. I would show up wearing a wide brim hat, ripped jeans, and cowgirl boots, and I would go up there and sing whatever song I had written that week or play piano. It was very acoustic, and that’s kind of what I wanted to grow up to do, but obviously that changed a lot once I discovered electronic production at Berklee College of Music.
Where are the most unusual places you pull musical inspiration from?
Most inspiration comes from just my life. I always try to be as honest as I can be when writing. Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of inspiration from TV shows. My boyfriend and I have been binging How I Met Your Mother, and we’re lucky because there’s many, many seasons so we’ve been watching that show for most of quarantine. It’s very funny because we’ve gotten maybe 10 concepts from the show because the character Ted is a really romantic character in the show. A lot of stuff that he says comes off as a joke in the context of the show, but if you take it out of context it’s quite brilliant. It really shows that inspiration can come from anywhere.
You’re so regimented with your songwriting, even gigging in the nights – did you always know music was what you wanted to pursue?
Salem: Yes, I’ve wanted to be a musician as my career since I was 4 years old. Before that I wanted to be an astronaut, and when I realised that that was quite dangerous, I was a little scared, and I decided that singing was the safer route. Since then, it’s been the dream.
Congratulations on your new single “Coke & Mentos” – what is it inspired by?
Thank you! “Coke & Mentos” actually came out of a car game. My boyfriend and I are huge songwriting nerds, and we invented a car game for songwriters. The way it works is we shuffle a playlist on Spotify, just any random playlist, and we look at the title of the song that comes on. We have until the end of that song to come up with a different concept relating to the title, and whoever’s concept is better wins the round. So, for “Coke & Mentos” I remember we were driving back from Santa Barbara down the highway, and the song “React” by the Pussycat Dolls came, and I immediately thought, “Oh, react. Chemical reaction. Coke & Mentos. When we touch it’s Coke & Mentos.” I won the round and wrote the song a few weeks later.
And you dropped your music video for “Mad At Disney”, which is so trippy and amazing – it’s like a mad hatters tea party – what did you want to convey with it?
Thank you I’m so glad that that was the description used, I appreciate that. The whole concept behind the music video was just trying to take stereotypical Disney tropes and flip them on their heads and use them in unexpected ways. For example, we had me sitting on the moon dressed as a knight in shining armour, instead of a prince wearing the knight in shining armour. We definitely wanted it to be a good mix of Disney and anti-Disney.
And you’re working on your first full-length project, what can you tell us about it?
I can tell you that it’s going to very honest, and it sounds nothing like “Mad At Disney” sonically. I feel like the thread throughout my music will be my voice physically and also my voice as a songwriter, and I’m hoping that when you listen to it, you get to know me a little better.
What do you want fans to take from your music?
Whenever someone listens to one of my songs, I just want to make them think about something. Obviously, I’m a pop artist, so all my music I would consider to be pop. It’s important that the songs sound palatable and easy to listen to, but I always try and add a lyrical depth for those that enjoy going one step deeper as a listener. I’m hoping that I can offer some different perspectives on things.
What’s next for you? What are you looking forward to next year?
I am looking forward to a vaccine being made for COVID. After that, I am looking forward to travelling, touring, and getting to see the impact of “Mad At Disney” on people around the world. It’s one thing to see it happening on social media, but it’s quite hard to believe until I get to perform it to a crowd of people, so I’m really, really excited for that.