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Her viral hit "Mad At Disney" was just the start. Now, with her first EP ‘(L)Only Child’, Salem Ilese wants to be an example for young girls, question the world around us, and turn her dreams into reality.
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Mill Valley in California is famous for a number of things. Firstly, its European charm, its bounding woodland, unparalleled national parks, and briefly acting as the home to Beat Literature writers such as Jack Kerouac. And secondly, a music venue that was once hailed one of the greatest nightclubs in America. Since its opening in 1972, The stage at The Sweetwater (now The Sweetwater Music Hall) was graced by the likes of Etta James, Elvis Costello, and Van Morrison – a venue that quickly found its role as a go-to for icons and future stars alike, drawing in crowds from all over to catch a glimpse of the next big thing.
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Over 40 years later, a young high-school girl called Salem Ilese would play every Monday at the same venue in an attempt to get over her fear of playing live. She had no idea how to play guitar, and the slightly drunk crowd would applaud every time that she got a chord right. Brushing it off, she would return each week, less and less like the comedy act she confesses she was when she started. However, there were probably few people in the audience – bar Ilese’s friends and family – that would have guessed that one day that young girl floundering at guitar and finding her feet doing what she loved would become a viral pop sensation.
Now 21-years-old, Salem Ilese lives in Los Angeles, recently moving from Mill Valley with her boyfriend, dog and bearded dragon (called Lil’ Cow). Speaking to her over Zoom, Ilese is sitting in a room surrounded by keyboards, talking about her movie-like childhood as if they were the most impactful years of her life so far. She and her friends would spend their days at the beach, frequenting In-n-Out, and driving through tunnels whilst blasting David Bowie with their heads through the sunroof. “It was like the scene from Perks of Being a Wallflower at the end when they’re going through the tunnel and ‘Heroes’ by Bowie was playing,” she recalls. Ilese tells me she would spend most of her time in her room writing music, or driving around in the car with her Dad on the lookout for dogs that they could pet. When she was very young, she would dress as a different Disney princess every Halloween. But it wasn’t until she was older that she would realise that life was no fairytale.
Back in October 2020, Salem Ilese had a TikTok rise to stardom like no other with her biggest hit to-date, ‘Mad at Disney’. Many pop stars nowadays can say that their career was born overnight out of the ‘TiTok Effect’ – their song going viral on the app, leading to a bombardment of interest of managers, labels and anyone else that might be able to capitalise on the most lucrative app around. But few can say that they found fame whilst out grocery shopping. “I remember I recorded a cover of me singing ‘Mad at Disney’ acapella in my bedroom. I posted it and then went grocery shopping with my boyfriend. It maybe had a few hundred views or so. We got in the car and my phone was reloading and I looked and was like, wait a second it says 10,000 views, that can’t be right. We refreshed it and then it was 14,000 in a matter of seconds and then 17,000. It was absolutely surreal,” she says, still in slight disbelief. Now, that very same video has racked up 28.5 million views, 6.5 million likes, and Ilese’s TikTok account boasts a modest 2.4 million followers.
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Although the whole experience might sound like sheer luck, finding fame in the milk aisle was no easy feat. For Ilese, a lot had to change in her life for ‘Mad at Disney’ to materialise. The princess-loving, Disneyland-going young girl had to come to a realisation that no child wants to come to: life is not a fairytale and the lives of princesses are unattainable. It would make for a better story to say that it happened when she was 6-years-old, watching the parade at Disneyland; the beautiful princesses waving at the crowd, the princes kissing their hands, and the idea of fairytales as tangible as the cologne of the actor under the costume. And it was then, in the middle of it all that something in Salem Ilese switched, and she started to see the world for what it really is. She dropped her wand and threw off her Mickey Mouse ears, knowing that it was all a scam. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.
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“I’m not really sure when the switch flipped, when I started to see the dark underbelly of the Disney movies and realised that there were stereotypes that are so inaccurate and unhealthy for young girls to be seeing,” she explains. And even some of her earliest songs show an astute and rightfully cynical side to a young girl wanting to uproot the falsities of role models for kids all over the world. “Looking back on some old performance videos, it was one of my first performances singing something I’d written and the song was called ‘Break the Spell’. And the lyrics were like “Rapunzel, dear, don’t let down your hair, there ain’t no prince waiting there / If you want to break the spell, you have to do it yourself”. It was very cynical for a 9-year-old girl. It also really resembles ‘Mad at Disney’, so it’s kind of funny. Apparently, from a very young age, I was a cynic.”
But is Salem Ilese a cynic or a realist? She saw the “dark underbelly” of the Disney movies and fairytales – the stereotypical representations of helpless women, always on the look-out for their prince and only happy when she finds him – right at the moment when her first ideas of the world would shape her outlooks for the future. Now, the need to expose the truth and weave reality into her music is at the heart of what Ilese is trying to achieve with her work.
“I usually have a big group of topics that I eventually want to dissect into songs just always in the back of my mind,” she explains. “Writing quote on quote ‘social change music’ has always been a big passion of mine, but trying to do it in a pop sense so that it gets a wider audience and is more digestible. Everytime I find a concept that gives me the ability to say something more and have a deeper meaning to it I get so excited. I just want to be able to comment on something or make people think about a certain topic in a way that is also fun and you can dance to. I always try and draw inspiration from the big ideas and shrink them down.”
Salem Ilese’s forte is finding the deeper meaning in everyday things, then pulling them apart, dissecting them, asking questions and stuffing it all back into a 3-minute song. Many of her inspirations for her work have grown out of conversations that would normally be forgotten as either small talk or just another deep chat with friends. For most people, these interactions wouldn’t be remembered the day after, but Salem Ilese sees them as an opportunity to draw connections and use them as an emblem of wider social issues – an ethos that is at the heart of her new 6 track EP, ‘(L)only Child’.
“‘Forgiveness’ came from a chat we had with our friends in college very late at night,” Ilese explains about the opening song on the EP. “It was one of those 3am chats. We were talking about life. I think it actually stemmed from Game of Thrones about how it ended because I was really sad that Calise turned into the bad guy. We got into a fight and I don’t know how but it got into one of those long, deep life chats and we decided that forgiveness was actually the most important thing in making positive change. We started talking about if you want to change something and make a positive impact on the world, but you’re going against a certain view, you have to be able to forgive and understand that view before you can try to change it.”
Turning a dissatisfaction with the ending of a TV show about dragons and the undead into a EP intro that sounds – in part – like the verse of an EDM hit is a display of Ilese doing what she does best. The EP – a melange of new songs born out of pandemic-induced Zoom sessions and others that have taken years to perfect – is both a journey through Salem Ilese’s talent, but also through her blossoming capabilities as a ‘social change’ artist with a vision of injecting morals, questions and opinions into the anatomy of her music. One of Ilese’s favourite songs on the EP, ‘Dinosaurs S4E14’ – a record that explores our futility and mortality as humans in the face of impending natural disaster, much like the dinosaurs – was, in very Salem Ilese fashion, dreamt up after a discussion about a friend’s dinosaur tattoo.
“I think my music is actually the opposite of escapism, especially for me. I try and be as honest as I possibly can be. My theory is if I’m as vulnerable as possible then someone out there is going to relate to it in some sense and maybe feel not as alone. We can share that together through music,” Ilese explains. And ‘(L)only Child’ is testament to both her outlooks as an artist and her relationship with her work. Digging deep into her emotions throughout, Ilese’s EP combines the – almost expected – songs about love and lack of love, but entwines them with the growing anxieties of a young woman living in the world.
“I just couldn’t stop thinking about how humans are kind of like dinosaurs in the sense that we never thought they could absolutely just disappear,” she ruminates. “I kept thinking about what if we’re the next dinosaurs. The way that we’re not taking care of the environment, global warming and everything going on in the world right now, I just kept drawing this similarity to the dinosaurs. But we then spun it in a more palatable way and talked about anxiety and how there are so many things in the world that we cannot change.”
For Salem Ilese, toying with the ideas of vanishing as a human race at the hands of natural disaster, whilst trying to write digestible pop music for younger generations and continuing to make lighthearted TikToks about her life, is only a drop in the rising ocean of how Ilese’s career feels surreal. On the one hand, the pop star is in LA, living her dream of being a recording artist with a global following and streams way up in the millions. But on the other hand, Ilese hasn’t hugged a fan, played live for a crowd of her listeners who related to ‘Mad at Disney’, or had a chance to fulfil her wishes as an empathetic, loving and grateful pop sensation. But it’s hard to ignore that the dream is very much alive and seemingly untainted by the effects of the pandemic.
Whilst in her Disney-loving phase, convinced by the fairytales and wooed by the lofty love stories, Ilese took a trip to Disneyland with her parents, right in the middle of a period of adoration for Buzz Lightyear (totally understandable). “We were in some auditorium – I was very young at this point, 6/7 maybe – and Buzz was dancing with all of the other Toy Story characters doing a show,” she says. “And for some reason, something came over me, and I decided to run to the centre of the auditorium and start dancing with them.”
Even as a kid, Salem Ilese’s dreams were there for the taking. Her childhood confidence to jump up, take risks and perform is what has carried her to where she is today. Although the crowd at the Sweetwater Music Hall may not have thought it, being on stage is where she belongs. Drawing our conversation to a close, not once has Ilese’s palpable excitement to run down onto the stage of the world and show everyone what she can do not bubbled under the surface of everything the star says. But the most exciting thing is that if Ilese wants something; to dance with Buzz Lightyear, to go viral with a huge hit, to make changes to the world with her music, to uncover truth – there’s no wishing upon a star, Salem Ilese will reach out and grab it.