If you have yet to discover Salem Ilese then today is your lucky day. Overnight sensations don’t come around that often these days. However, after the release of her latest single, “Mad at Disney,” Salem became an unexpected viral sensation. The song has racked up more than 70 million streams on Spotify and has been used in over 1 million TikTok videos in a very short space of time.
Salem was always destined for big things. Her first songwriting teacher Bonnie Hayes, whose CV boasts working with Cher and Bette Midler, immediately saw that she was a gifted storyteller, even at the age of 12. Salem attended Berklee College of Music in Boston before moving to LA to pursue a career in music full-time.
She quickly caught the attention of big-name publishing companies who hoped she could be a writer for other artists. Salem took the advice of her manager and held out for something greater once her own material started to create a buzz. Ever since signing a deal with 10K Projects/Homemade Projects, the hype for the 21-year-old hasn’t stopped.
We talked to Salem Ilese on Zoom about the crazy success of “Mad at Disney,” her upcoming single, and her future plans.
Congratulations on the success of “Mad at Disney”– the song is one of 2020’s fast-moving viral hits, has over 70 million streams on Spotify alone, and has been used in over a million TikTok videos. You must be really overwhelmed right now. Definitely, yeah. Overwhelmed but all in the best ways. I can’t believe this is happening honestly.
Do you ever think about how different things would be if you and your team didn’t start a TikTok campaign? Oh, for sure! I wasn’t actually planning on releasing “Mad at Disney” originally. When we wrote it, I thought it was cool. I wasn’t super excited to put it out until I played it first to my friends and mentors and they told me to put it out. I actually originally intended it to just a single before an EP I had planned and not part of a bigger body of work or anything. Obviously, with TikTok and everything, it completely exploded. I’m very happy that I made that TikTok and decided to put the song out at all.
It was one of the first songs you wrote when you moved to LA. How long did it take to complete it? So, we wrote the song in about… I wanna say, three hours. It was like a normal-length session. We re-wrote the second verse six months later. The first verse had nothing to do with Disney. We actually talked-about Hallmark and The Bachelor. We thought it would be best not to wreck the names of more companies. We wanted it to be more about Disney and then it took another month to produce after that. We wrote it about a year before it was released.
The music video is very fun! Did you come up with all the concepts and were there any restrictions due to the pandemic? Thank you! Yeah, that was really really fun to create. The concepts were a team effort between me and my creative director Claire Gillen and Phillip the music video director. We all kinda put our heads together and had a really fun time creating all of the different scenes and everything. For the restrictions for COVID, we had everyone tested at the beginning of the shoot, which was a really really great piece of mind. Doing all these in-person things like photoshoots and music video shoots, safety is always our number one priority. We set a rule as a team when I started working with everyone that if we’re going to do something in person, everyone gets tested and still social distancing. So, the whole crew and everyone was socially distanced as much as possible and everyone had masks on. It was definitely a crazy feeling to be around that many people again. I think it was around 40 to 60 people overall in one big space and it was crazy to see another human again *laughs*
Once the song was released, did you always know there was going to be a video? No. I released it before I signed with my record company. So, originally I released it and didn’t really have the resources to make a video. That wasn’t the first thing on my mind but then I got that incredible opportunity once I signed.
Since the release of the song, what is the craziest thing that has happened? Has anyone you really admire reacted or responded to it? Yeah, I had a session with Charlie Puth. That was crazy. I’m obviously a big fan and we both went to Berklee so that was really fun to bond over. Meghan Trainor texted me which was so surreal. I had a session with Alexander 23. He reached out to congratulate me when it started blowing up and I’m also a really big fan of his work.
I hate to ask, but are you really mad at Disney? Are you lowkey a fan? Yeah, I was definitely a Disney fan growing up. I think that’s why I’m so jaded now because I fell for the whole Disney fairytale stereotype. I’m a fan of what they’ve been doing recently. There are some that I think are really great movies. Especially Brave, that’s a really great movie for young people to watch, I think there are some great lessons in it. I’ve been to Disneyland, I’ve been to Disneyworld. I can appreciate Disney. There’s definitely a part of me that feels a little cheated by them *laughs*
Did you have a favorite Disney princess growing up? I don’t think I ever had a favorite. I liked Tinkerbell though. I was her for Halloween for multiple years.
You are preparing for your next single, “Coke & Mentos.” What can you tell us about this song? So, “Coke & Mentos” I wrote with my boyfriend Bendik Møller, who also worked on “Disney” and our friend Jason Hahs, and Jason produced it. We wrote that one close to a year ago as well. Definitely after “Disney.” It is, I would say a lot more light-hearted than “Mad at Disney.” Not as Jaded. Definitely more of a light-hearted song.
Was this always supposed to be the next release and is there pressure now that you’re being labeled the next big thing? I always wanted to release that song as a single. Even before I wrote it. The way I thought of the concept, so, my boyfriend and I play a concept songwriting game in the car. We shuffle a playlist on Spotify, usually Pop Rising or something like that, and we see the title and we have until the end of the song to think of a better concept relating to that title. It’s the best way to generate concepts for me because it’s concentrated time just thinking about how to spin things. We’re big songwriting nerds *laughs*
I can’t remember what song I was listening to get “Coke & Mentos” but in the chorus, they said something about a reaction, and my mind went to chemical reaction and then coke and mentos. When I thought of that, I was like, that’s going to be a really cool song. So, I really excited about it before I even wrote it.
Is there a release date for it? Not a concrete one just yet but definitely November.
Along with the new song, you are planning a full-length project. Is it an album or another EP? I believe it is going to be an EP, released early next year. I have a lot of that done, so I’m really excited about it. I’m getting the final touches and mixes and everything on that and deciding the perfect of songs to put on there.
You released your debut EP, 757, last year. Do you feel like you were still experimenting with your sound with those songs? Yeah, that EP was a really big transition for me in terms of my sound. Before that, I really hadn’t done anything electronic or electronic-leaning before, at all. I released the song “Awake” and that was my first release when I was at Berkley in college. That was kind of my sound at the time, very live instrument-based, almost more acoustic. Then I met Bendik and he’s an incredible producer and knows how to utilize electronic sounds so well. I did that with him and Noel McGuire and we had a really good time with that, we basically spent the summer in Boston, just writing and producing it up, experimenting with different sounds and finding something I thought represented me as an artist. At the time, I think it definitely did and now I’m really happy because I’m seeing the progression to different sounds and vibes. So yeah, that was definitely the first time I had really focused on finding a true Salem sound.
When writing, are you the type of artist that comes up with the visuals in your head? Not really, I’m definitely more lyric-based when I write. I always start with a concept and then I usually start with lyrics and then melodies start to come through with the lyrics. So, that’s what I’m thinking about but I do love when I have a concept and immediately know how to market the song and immediately think of a cool music video for it. I think that’s a really good sign of a strong concept when you can see it as you’re writing it.
You recently said you had a writing session with Charlie Puth and have also been working with Alexander 23. Are these features in the making or are you just writing together? We just kinda go in there and try and write the best possible song. That’s usually how I approach most sessions. Unless I’m specifically going in to write for someone but with them, it was to try to write the best thing that we can.
You’ve been vocal about wanting to perform your new material live. Tell us a bit about your experience. So, I have a band that I started working with in college and I love them dearly. They are some of my best friends, we’ve been playing together for I think two years now. We gigged a lot in college around Boston, which was a very interesting and growing experience. Most of the shows were in basements and bars. The sound was terrible, you know, bad acoustics, backing vocals and stuff like that. When we moved to LA, we did a few shows before quarantine set in, we got to play some smaller showcases, which was super fun. Unfortunately, we had to take a break but recently we started rehearsing again which was amazing. I hadn’t played with them in eight months because of the pandemic. Now we’ve been getting back in and doing some live stream recording things. All of us really really can’t wait to get back on a stage again in front of people.
It’ll probably be different this time because lots more people will know the words to your songs. I still can’t believe that. I keep saying that everything in my life has changed but also nothing has changed at all because I’m doing the exact same things from my couch. On the internet, everything is completely different. I feel like it’s gonna hit me and feel completely real when I’m on a stage in front of people and hear them actually sing the words to “Mad at Disney” back at me. But I will cry, I know that I’ll cry.
Lastly, have you set yourself any goals for the rest of the year? Ooh, any goals. Not really. Honestly, just stay true to myself and try and be a good role model and use my platform as positively as I can.