When you think of versatile players in the music industry, you think of artists like Charli XCX, Ester Dean, and Jon Bellion. Artists who are as present behind the scenes as they are in front of the camera and are no weaker in one area than the other. Salem Ilese, a 23-year-old singer-songwriter based out of the San Francisco area, is quickly establishing herself as another of the industry’s premier multi-faceted creators.
Her original material, such as “PS5” with K-Pop group TXT and electronic artist Alan Walker and “Mad At Disney,” combines clever lyricism and catchy pop hooks with deeper meanings and emotion beneath the surface. As a songwriter, she has had the unique experience of working with up-and-comers like Jamie Miller and Bella Poarch as well as seasoned veterans like Demi Lovato and Royal & the Serpent.
With a new project seemingly looming on the horizon, Ilese’s most recent releases “Painhub” and “Tall Boi” seemingly give a clear indication of the direction she is headed in musically.
“A million bad songs, and a few good ones.”
Ilese is a long-time student of Bonnie Hayes, a notable songwriter who has worked with the likes of Cher and Bonnie Raitt. She credits Hayes for highlighting the importance of strong lyrics and concepts and is now passing the knowledge and lessons of what she has learned onto a new generation of artists like Addison Rae and, as previously mentioned, Bella Poarch. Ilese had a hand in Poarch’s breakout hit “Build A Bitch,” and recently wrapped a weeklong session with her for an upcoming project.
“It’s so fun to work with someone who is such a talented artist and has such a vision for their project, but maybe is newer as a writer,” she said. “Both Addison and Bella are so open-minded. When they hear an idea they love, they’ll tell you and are super involved in the process. But also, they’re not afraid to make mistakes. I love when people just throw out any idea and say, ‘This may be a horrible idea, but I’m going to say it anyway.’ That’s my favorite kind of person to work with.”
That desire to not be afraid to throw ideas at the wall is all too familiar for Ilese, who says she’s written “a million bad songs, and a few good ones.”
She views songwriting as a craft with zero limitations, saying there is really nothing you can’t write about. “Everything stems from what people are actually going through,” she said. “If you’re not being true to yourself, no one else is going to believe it. Nothing is too niche. Even if you are going through something that is hyper-specific… even if someone else isn’t going through that exact same thing, they can relate to the general feeling behind it. Or they can pull from it and relate it to their own experiences, and they get the same emotions from it.”
Those kinds of personal experiences led to emotional “soul-bearing” sessions with rising star Jamie Miller for his breakout hit “Here’s Your Perfect,” (Ilese herself later jumped on a duet version) and a more open-ended session with Demi Lovato that led to “City Of Angels,” a true vocal showcase that landed on the superstars Holy Fvck record.
“Painhub” and “Tall Boi”
Beyond her work for and with other artists, Ilese is a gifted solo performer in her own right. Recent release “Painhub” sits within the same pop-punk realm as her work with Lovato and Poarch. Ilese sits perfectly in the pocket of the short yet infectious tune that, in her own words, “touches on doom scrolling, some aspects of mental health, and society’s overall fascination with tragedy.”
Despite its heavier messaging in between the lines, Ilese says she instantly clicked with it. “I’ve recently decided to try and let what I actually listen to bleed over into what I make,” she said, citing artists like 100 gecs, The 1975, and boygenius as a few of her current favorites. “I feel like my taste is different from what I make sometimes, so I’m really trying to align that. ‘Painhub’ was the first song that I did that successfully within a session. I remember leaving the session saying, ‘Oh my God, I want to listen to this in the car.’”
“Tall Boi” is much more pop-leaning, with a chorus of whistles and layered harmonies you’d hear on an Ava Max or maybe a Zara Larsson album. While both songs are incredibly modern and contain infectious melodic and lyrical cadences, something about “Tall Boi” feels like a slam dunk, no pun intended: “Despite all the heights I’ve climbed/Nothing is harder to get over than a tall boy.” She says the concept started in reference to an ex who was 6’4, joking that, “Yeah, that was why he was so hard to get over… because he was tall.”
These two songs, as well as the entirety of her Unsponsored Content EP from 2022, all fall under a similar songwriting style. “My favorite thing to do as a songwriter and an artist is to walk the line of clever wordplay and honest writing,” she said. “If you dig a little deeper in all the songs, there is a level of real-life experience and deeper meaning. Like on ‘Hey Siri.’ On the surface, it’s just a cheeky song about talking to Siri on your iPhone. If you dig deeper, it’s about loneliness and the search for companionship. It very much came from a real place, but is packaged in this palatable, more clever way of putting it.”
Moving forward, Ilese is determined to learn guitar well enough to be able to play her songs by the time she heads out on tour, feeling it would benefit her while creating more rock-leaning material (Demi Lovato did the same thing during the Holy Fvck cycle, enlisting the help of virtuoso Nita Strauss for lessons while on the road).
Visually, her goals are a bit more defined. “I want to experiment with visuals that really reflect me,” she said. “I felt this external pressure, that I think was in my own head, to kind of portray this very Disney princess-esque pop persona that maybe wasn’t honoring my own tastes, which tend to be a bit dark. More left of center. So, I’ve really been experimenting with that… playing around with that world, because I think it’s something I’ve never done and reflects me more accurately.”