One day, I would love to start an organization that works towards combating climate change. It would be called WBF, and the slogan would be, “Be the World’s Best Friend.” I’m imagining a community of people who want to improve their relationship with the earth; people of all ages and backgrounds. Anyone can make a change, no matter how small it may feel. The hardest part, in my opinion, is getting people excited about change. This organization’s mission statement would be to treat the world like your best friend, just as it does for us. It’s so easy to take our planet for granted, as it’s so incredibly loyal to us. If we continue to abuse it, we will be letting down the one thing that has consistently sustained humanity since our creation. My manager recently showed me the last episode of the 90’s TV show “Dinosaurs,” after I wrote a song with the same title. I highly recommend watching the last 10 minutes of the episode if you have the time! There is an amazing quote in there that goes, “I’m sure it’ll all work out okay! After all, dinosaurs have been on this earth for 150 million years. It’s not like we’re going to just… disappear!” This is the exact mindset that I would love to dismantle in today’s society. Gives me chills.
As a part of our series about rising music stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Salem Ilese.
Salem ilese is an artist and a songwriter from the Bay Area. Her unique take on pop music sets her apart, focusing heavily on intricate and thought-provoking lyrical content. Salem studied songwriting at Berklee College of Music for two years, before moving to Los Angeles to further her career. She recently signed a record deal with label 10K Projects, and has garnered over 4 million streams on Spotify. Salem spends her time developing her own artist project, while also writing songs with, and for, other artists. Stay tuned for lots of new content coming from Salem in the coming months.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Yes of course, thanks for chatting with me! I was born in San Francisco, CA and grew up nearby in Mill Valley. I’m an only child, which explains a lot about who I am today (bad at sharing, good at being alone). I’ve been singing for longer than I can remember, according to my family. My parents have many blackmail tapes from when I was 4, singing about my stuffed animals or the boy I promised to marry in pre-school. They were instantly supportive of my interest in music, offering to enroll me in chorus classes, musical theatre programs, piano lessons, and eventually, a songwriting camp. This flipped a switch for me, introducing me to the world of words. I fell in love with the craft of songwriting, right down to sifting through rhymes and counting syllables for hours on end. Thankfully, this love has proved to be timeless thus far. After high school, I attended Berklee College of Music in Boston. If you’re thinking, “You probably got a lot of Salem Witch Trial jokes there,” then you would be correct. At Berklee, I discovered the unique powers of production, learning about new ways to integrate the acoustic sounds of my childhood with new and exciting electronic influences. I met a supremely talented group of peers, including Bendik Møller, who is now my main co-writer, producer, and cohabitator. While writing songs about what love is, we seemed to have found the answer in each other. I dropped out of Berklee after 2 years and moved to LA at age 19. I’m currently living in West Hollywood, working as an artist and a songwriter, raising a pet bearded dragon named Lil Cow.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
Honestly, this is the only career path I’ve ever even considered. Aside from wanting to be a veterinarian astronaut until I was 4, music has always been “it” for me. I’m extremely lucky to have parents that support this dream of mine unwaveringly, believing in me sometimes more than I believe in myself. Without them, I would not have the privilege to do what I love now. My parents also have incredible music taste, which they graciously passed down to me at a young age. I was exposed to the sweet sounds of Bowie, The Beatles, Norah Jones, Talking Heads, Sheryl Crow, Lou Reed, and more before I was old enough to truly appreciate it. I think this high caliber of writing seeped into my current music taste, setting a very hard-to-reach bar for what I consider a great song. Today, I gravitate towards more obscure production (which may have stemmed from Bowie and the Talking Heads), while still wanting to maintain a level of authenticity and rawness (easily seen in the work of Norah Jones).
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I’m reluctant to share this, as it’s also slightly embarrassing, but it’s the most interesting thing I can think of at the moment. During my senior year of high school, I was asked to be a cast member in a YouTube series through AwesomenessTV. I was beyond excited, as this was my first real taste of the entertainment industry. The series was called “This is Summer,” and followed a group of creative teens (some friends and I) around San Francisco and LA. I had already known a few of the members from music programs back in the day, but became fast friends with the rest. The show was supposed to be a reality show, but there was one big problem with that: none of us were overly interesting. We all got along splendidly, had minimal relationship problems, and didn’t get into more trouble than the average teen. Though these were all great qualities, they made for a very poor reality plot. The directors realized that if we had any hopes of getting a season 2 (we did not), they would need to start manufacturing some drama. The series quickly turned into an acting job, which is something I never particularly excelled at.
Though the show didn’t get renewed, the experience was something I’ll never forget. The crew was made up of truly incredible people, who dealt tirelessly with my lack of acting chops. They made the experience so fun and rewarding. My friends and I would film every weekend, doing fun things such as paddle boarding, recording music, hiking, and swing dancing (no, I’m not joking. We took lessons). I got to go to Vidcon, and even shot my first music video with brilliant director Éli Sokhn, who I later went on to work with for another music video. “This is Summer” definitely taught me a lot about the strange world of social media, and how hard it is to capture and maintain the attention of the masses. The series is still available on YouTube, but I urge you, please don’t binge watch it.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Back in high school, I used to perform at my town’s local “open mic night” every Monday. Each week, I would write a new song on my electronic keyboard, scramble to memorize the lyrics, and debut it to a room full of music-loving, slightly inebriated adults. I had pretty bad stage fright at the time, but knew if I wanted to be the next Taylor Swift, I’d have to get over that eventually. I’d put on my favorite rustic wide-brimmed hat, gather all of my courage, and take the stage around 9pm (as to be home before bedtime). To ease my nerves, I would take a big sniff of lavender oil right before I came out from behind the curtain. With shaky hands, I’d sit down at the keyboard and hastily prepare my mic stand. After what was usually a shy introduction, I’d begin to play my song. One night in particular, I remember somewhat gracefully getting through the first chorus, and feeling triumphant that I hadn’t yet messed up. Suddenly, though, I began to get quieter. In horror, I watched as my microphone slowly started to droop down from the stand that I had so poorly secured. I first tried to match its height, tilting my head down and to the right until I was practically lying on the keyboard. I then attempted to play the rest of the song one-handed, while holding up the mic with my left hand, consequentially leaving out the bass notes. You’d think that this humiliation would be enough to learn my lesson, but this has now happened to me 4 times. Also, remember the lavender I religiously sniffed? Turns out, I’m very allergic to lavender. Instead of relieving my nerves, it actually made breathing much harder. Today, I make sure to arrive early to every sound check, and tighten each mic stand with all of the force my scrawny arms can muster.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I just signed with the label 10K Projects, which is an absolute dream come true. Our first plan of action is to film a music video for my latest release, “Mad at Disney.” I’ve really enjoyed digging into the visual aspect of my artistry; it adds a new layer of depth to the music for me. I can’t wait to see how the video turns out, and to continue to focus more on my brand as a whole. I’m also working on a bunch of new music, which is both exciting and frustrating, as I’m constantly eager to release it all immediately. There are so many finished songs that I often fantasize about leaking, just releasing a 30 song album on Soundcloud and taking a deep breath knowing they’re finally out in the open. I’m (probably) not going to do that, though. You’ll definitely be able to hear an EP from me at the start of 2021, comprised of my favorite songs I’ve worked on in the last year or so. It’s a very personal body of work, especially lyrically. I wrote a lot of it with my boyfriend, Bendik Møller, who knows me a little too well by now. We teach each other every day how to be our most vulnerable selves during the creative process; I think that will really shine through in the EP.
We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
Diversity is extremely important in any industry, but especially so in one that is as public and influential as the entertainment industry. Media has the unique power to shape how people perceive reality. If people are exposed to diversity at a young age, it will become a more normalized, obvious notion throughout their lives. Diversity and media representation is especially necessary in today’s toxic political and social climate. People being discriminated against and oppressed need to have their voices amplified, not silenced. The Black Lives Matter movement has been shedding new light on inequalities that have been, and still are, blatantly present within our society. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve learned more about America’s history with racism in the last 2 months than I had in all of my years of schooling. This is a reflection of our flawed education system, but also of the power that media exposure possesses. It hurts me that it took such a terrible tragedy for everyone to wake up, but now we have to focus on not going back to sleep.
I believe that some of the first life lessons we learn as children come from movies. I remember watching Disney movies everyday as a toddler; soaking in all of the romance, reveling in each happy ending. Today, I look back on those times, wishing I could’ve turned off the television. My most recent release is a song called “Mad at Disney,” which touches on the unrealistic expectations Disney movies feed to children. I’ve spent a lot of time lately wondering why our society allowed such praise and importance to be bestowed upon cinema that lacked diversity on so many levels. Why are the vast majority of the characters Caucasian? Why are all of the love stories about heteronormative relationships? Why do the female characters constantly have to be saved by a prince? Why does every princess fit today’s “ideal” beauty standard? I can’t help but think that, if the movies I had worshiped so much as a kid contained better representation, it would have been easier to break down unhealthy stereotypes later in life.
I would like to bring up one of my favorite interviews of all time. David Bowie spoke with MTV in 1983, and inquired about why black artists didn’t receive much airplay (and when they did, it was between 2 and 6:30am). I listened in amazement as the MTV interviewer attempted to unsuccessfully rebut, proving all the while that there was (and still is) a large underrepresentation of people of color. This has obviously improved over the decades, but not nearly enough. Hip-hop and Rap music are the most popular, highest grossing genres of music in the US. These genres are also predominantly carried by black artists. This demographic is highly underrepresented in the media, though, consistently being featured on less magazine covers and talk shows than white artists. A contributing factor to this is the fact that diversity is severely lacking behind the scenes. If there is not proper representation in the entertainment industry off-screen as well as on, then this will greatly impact which stories are being told, and the way in which the media is telling them.
As a consumer of content, I’m craving more interviews like Bowie’s, that highlight inequalities and actively try to dissuade them. As an artist, I deeply appreciate the opportunity to voice my opinions on important topics such as this one. Thanks for the great question!
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Celebrate all of the little wins! This is something I’ve been learning how to do since I moved out to LA. It’s so easy to get caught up in what you don’t have, as opposed to what you’ve already achieved. In an industry based on public validation, nothing ever feels like enough. I’ve been making conscious efforts to take a step back every now and then and think about where I was a month ago, a year ago, 4 years ago, compared to where I am now. This always leaves me feeling accomplished and grateful for the amazing opportunities I’ve been blessed with along the way. My boyfriend and I will find any excuse to drink cheap champagne on the roof. We think that celebrating the tiny successes will keep the big ones feeling really special. My expectations for myself have always been unmanageably high, so it’s hard not to downplay my own accomplishments sometimes, but I’m definitely working on it.
- If something doesn’t feel right, it’s not. Trust your gut! If you have to ask yourself, “am I in love?” then you’re probably not in love. The same goes for finding the perfect team to surround yourself with. In multiple instances, I’ve gotten very close to making some permanent decisions regarding who I was going to grow my dream with on the business side. It wasn’t until I found the right team that I realized how wrong any of the prior situations would have been for me. I’m so glad I listened to the pit in my stomach and trusted my instincts, and I urge myself and others to continue to do that.
- Learn how to say NO. I could still use some major work in this department. I think this stems from my underlying fear of disappointing others. When I first got to LA, I told myself I needed to take every single opportunity that was presented to me. For a while, this seemed to work well, allowing me to meet so many new collaborators and creative types. I quickly learned who I didn’t work well with, though, and often found myself saying “yes” to working together again, even though I knew it wouldn’t yield a great outcome. This had to stop, as nothing is more draining than a string of unsuccessful sessions. I’ve noticed that the apprehension to say “no” is a common trait amongst women. I believe this stems from girls being taught at a young age to be “nice” and “ladylike,” as opposed to outspoken and headstrong. This relates back to my song, “Mad at Disney,” which talks about how Disney portrays the princess archetype as the ideal form of femininity. Even though I’m well aware of this, I still catch myself having to unlearn the urge to say yes simply because I feel like I have to.
- The right people will come to you! Never stop advocating for yourself, but also remember that the people who enter your life on their own are there because they truly care about you. When I got to LA, I was so worried about getting a manager, a deal, an agent… anyone to help guide the way. I reached out to tons of people, occasionally getting responses, but mostly getting ignored. It wasn’t until I stopped focusing on what I didn’t have and instead let myself focus entirely on the creative process that my manager reached out. He taught me that, when someone reaches out to you first, it shows that they have a true interest in your work. The goal is to be so undeniably good at your craft that people who can help want to make the first move. This is definitely a lesson I wish I had learned sooner; it would’ve saved me many small heartbreaks over unanswered follow-up emails throughout the years.
- If it sounds like what’s on the radio, it will never get on the radio. This was a hard lesson to learn, as I spent two years at Berklee tirelessly studying what was on the radio. Studying music is a great way to obtain the tools you need to create it, but the real challenge is applying them creatively. I remember listening to my songs and comparing them to what was on the Billboard charts, thinking that if they were similar enough, I was on the right track. In reality, though, everything that’s popular now was made about a year ago. That being said, you always have to be one step ahead of the trends. How do you do that? I have no idea. I often wish I had a crystal ball to tell me what production style would be most relevant next. All I know is, doing something that has already been done is a waste of time.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
One of my biggest fears before dropping out of school and moving to LA was not being busy enough. My solution to this was saying “yes” to every opportunity. This resulted in me working 7 days a week (without pay), sometimes taking on 2 writing sessions a day. I surprisingly lasted like this for a solid 8 months, treating my apartment as more of a storage facility than a home. When quarantine began, this lifestyle had to come to a screeching halt. I had to cancel the next months’ worth of sessions, and begin to study the art of doing nothing. At first, I was miserable. I felt unproductive, sluggish, and unmotivated. After the first long week, though, I realized that this was the first true break I had taken in months. Before quarantine, I had been so focused on getting out a finished product every day that I had started to lose sight of what really matters: quality. I began writing less, but liking the outcome of each song more. I also found the time to really think about things like branding, image, marketing, and what I believe in, both as an artist and a human. This forced hiatus from the outside world showed me that productivity comes in many different forms. I still believe that songwriting is a muscle; the more you flex it, the stronger it becomes. Like every muscle, though, overuse can cause injury. My advice to avoid burning out is, don’t be scared to take breaks, because being exhausted all the time is exhausting.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I believe that the most pressing matter at hand is the way humans impact the environment. Though it’s hard to imagine a reality in which our resources run out, this will be inevitable unless we make extreme changes as a civilization. I think one of the best ways to do this is to educate people on the importance of environmental awareness. I wish that my teachers had stressed this to me more growing up. It wasn’t until college that I began to fully grasp the correlation between what I eat, what I buy, where I shop, what activities I do, and how all of that directly impacts the world. I am by no means a perfect environmentalist, but I do actively try and educate myself on ways that I can decrease my carbon footprint and increase our planet’s longevity. In the last few years, I’ve been slowly transitioning into a plant-based diet. I started by cutting out dairy products, then beef and chicken. I still eat fish and eggs, but plan to lower my consumption over time. I also began avoiding leather products, and making an effort to support environmentally sustainable fashion. One day, I would love to start an organization that works towards combating climate change. It would be called WBF, and the slogan would be, “Be the World’s Best Friend.” I’m imagining a community of people who want to improve their relationship with the earth; people of all ages and backgrounds. Anyone can make a change, no matter how small it may feel. The hardest part, in my opinion, is getting people excited about change. This organization’s mission statement would be to treat the world like your best friend, just as it does for us. It’s so easy to take our planet for granted, as it’s so incredibly loyal to us. If we continue to abuse it, we will be letting down the one thing that has consistently sustained humanity since our creation. My manager recently showed me the last episode of the 90’s TV show “Dinosaurs,” after I wrote a song with the same title. I highly recommend watching the last 10 minutes of the episode if you have the time! There is an amazing quote in there that goes, “I’m sure it’ll all work out okay! After all, dinosaurs have been on this earth for 150 million years. It’s not like we’re going to just… disappear!” This is the exact mindset that I would love to dismantle in today’s society. Gives me chills.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I owe every morsel of my success to about 30 people. I’ll embarrassingly admit that while in the shower, I sometimes muse about my Grammy acceptance speech, speaking into my shampoo bottle as if it’s a microphone. I try and recount the list of people I would thank for making “salem ilese” a possibility, but never find myself completing it. I have been so blessed by the people that have skipped into my life and shaped it for the better. First off, my parents couldn’t have been more supportive of me and my crazy dreams. They never once let me doubt myself; cheering me on through every horrendous open mic night performance, enabling me to attend every songwriting camp and vocal lesson that I thought necessary. When I told them I wanted to go to Berklee, they helped me get there. When I told them I wanted to leave Berklee, they helped me find and finance the perfect apartment in LA. I’ve even written songs with them! Whenever I need inspiration, they’re the first people I call. Some of my favorite concepts I’ve written have come from phone calls with my mom and dad. Nothing I have done (or will do) would be possible without their constant, unwavering support and love. I don’t think I tell them that enough, so thanks for giving me the opportunity!
When I first moved to LA, everything seemed a bit daunting. How does one succeed as an artist without a “team?” I didn’t really know where to start, or how to get my tiny foot in the gargantuan door to the music industry. I spent the summer writing more hours a week than sleeping, performing anywhere that would have me, and saying “yes, what time?” to every meeting inquiry I got. One day, I received a particularly interesting email from an A&R at RCA named Jeremy Maciak. He had stumbled upon my song, “Bad Word,” on a random blog, and clicked because of my name. He was familiar with the old “Salem” band, an experimental witch-house group, and originally thought it might be their return to limelight. He quickly realized that I was, in fact, not a witch-house group, but thanks to my good luck, listened anyways. After months of altruistic help and great advice, I knew I had found the perfect manager. I’m extremely grateful for his guidance every day. I’m also beyond excited to get to know my new label team, who warmly welcomed me into their family with open arms.
To fully answer this question, I do need to mention one more person: My closest collaborator and boyfriend, Bendik Møller. I would probably still be finishing up my schooling at Berklee if it weren’t for his genius abilities and kind heart. Bendik is the best writer and producer I know. I credit this partially to an innate talent and tremendously good ear for music, but also to his admirable work ethic and sky-high expectations that he sets for himself. He is the master of adding that last “1%” to a record that makes it truly unique. I feel like my artist project is just as much his; everything I make for it was either co-written, co-produced, or made better in some way by him. He knows me better than anyone, yet somehow still tolerates me enough to work with me all the time! I’m so lucky for him, as a collaborator and a companion.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes is, “There’s no limit to how much you’ll know, depending how far beyond zebra you go,” by Dr. Seuss. I love the idea of looking at the alphabet as a starting place, as opposed to a restriction. When I’m songwriting, the challenge is to make something unlike anything I’ve heard before, while using tools that I’ve used before. Thankfully, ideas are some of the only things that will truly never run out. There’s no limit on the amount of songs I can write, even if there are only 12 notes. The only limits that exist to creativity are the ones in which we put on ourselves. Once I learned that a standard pop song is made up of two verses, a pre-chorus, and a chorus, I then learned how to break that rule. Sometimes, a pre-chorus is redundant. Maybe, the chorus should go before the verse. What if there were no verses at all? To me, experimenting with things like song form, obscure lyrical content, modulation, tempo change, and rhyme scheme are all forms of “going beyond zebra.” I will never feel like I’ve learned everything I can learn about music, which is why it excites me so much.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
There are hundreds of people I’ve fantasized about eating with, one in particular being Halsey. Not only do I respect her immensely as a musician, but also as an activist. She is an incredible role model to young people, reshaping what it means to be a pop star. Halsey has used her platform for more than just catchy songs, time and time again. She has been the blueprint to me for how to inspire positive change, whether it be spreading awareness, protesting, donating royalties, speaking out, empowering the oppressed, or shutting down the oppressors. Halsey is never afraid to make people uncomfortable with her beliefs and challenge the flaws in our society. She has consistently supported the LGBTQ+ community, fought for women’s rights, advocated for pistol control, protested immigration rights, and marched for BLM. I would absolutely love to take Halsey out to brunch and thank her for being such an influential figure in my own life, as well as the lives of millions. I would also love to pick her brain and ask for advice about how to change the world through pop music. Halsey, if you see this, let’s hang! You’re the best.
How can our readers follow you online?
Tik Tok: @salemilese