Salem Ilese Is Your New Favorite Songwriter

Salem Ilese Is Your New Favorite Songwriter

By Erica CampbellDec 05, 2023

Salem Ilese has been preparing to release her debut album High Concepther entire life, and it shows. Smiling from her car in Los Angeles, bright-eyed with her face framed by oversized headphones, the songwriter turned pop star is thrilled to finally share her first collection of music.

“I've been working on that project for about four years now,” she tells PAPER during our video call. “Just writing as much as I can and slowly pulling songs for the album until I had a full project and it felt ready to be put out into the world. It's weird that it’s finally out and not in my unreleased Dropbox folder [laughs].” Every aspect of Ilese’s life has been poured into her songwriting career, one that started when she was just 10 years old, taking classes from infamous lyricist Bonnie Hayes [Cher, Bonnie Rate] that eventually led to her enrolling at Berklee College of Music. That study paid off, earning her writer credits for Demi Lovato’s album HOLY FVCK, Bella Poarch’s hit single “Build a Bitch” and noted work with acts like Gwen Stefani, Pussy Riot, Kesha and Addison Rae.

But the real uproar around her talent didn't begin until she decided to release her own music. She signed with 10k Projects and dropped her viral TikTok hit “Mad At Disney” in 2020. Inspired by the disappointment many fans have over Disney remakes, the saccharine, jittery pop track amassed millions of streams. She followed that success by collaborating with k–pop stars TxT and DJ Alan Walker on the rapidly chart-climbing single, “PS5”.

Now, with High Concept dropping in September, Ilese has played many of her tracks live across the globe, with dates in Asia and her hometown of LA, noting that it’s been “so cool to see people singing along to the songs.”

“People already knew the words to the tracks and some of them weren’t even singles,” she says. “I was so excited to see them resonating with it.”

Here, Ilese speaks with PAPER about releasing the deluxe version of her debut album on December 8, her love for the craft of songwriting and why she says, “If you spend time with me you will be plagirized."

Now that you've been performing High Concept live, which tracks are resonating the most with fans in person?

I think "Strongly Worded Letter" is definitely made to be played live. Also, I get to play guitar on that one and the highlight of my year has probably been learning guitar. I took lessons when I was a kid and then completely forgot everything. When I started the rollout of the album back in January, I decided I was going to learn how to play electric guitar because I really wanted to play it during the shows. A lot of the album is electric guitar-centric and kind of [The Killers] influenced so that was the main inspo for all of that, leaning into what I listen to which is rock. My drummer and guitar player would teach me every week and use different tuning so it was easy for me. There's a moment when my guitar player has a solo and I'm accompanying him on guitar, we're back to back. I feel like a total rockstar.

Speaking of High Concept, you said you'd been working on those songs for a while. When you were writing these songs, were you intentionally thinking of them as individual tracks that were going to end up being a part of this project?

It happened really organically. Honestly, I've never sat down and thought I'm gonna write a song for a specific project. Not when it comes to my own music at least. I do sessions about five days a week. That's how I spend most of my time in various studios around Los Angeles or on Zooms working with people, only about half of the sessions are for me as an artist. So I basically just wrote every day and every time I wrote something I knew I wanted to keep, I would earmark it as an album track. I had about 20 songs I thought could be on the album. I went through and narrowed it down from there and then saved a few for the deluxe [version].

I feel like the only thread of the album is my voice as a songwriter. Sonically it's all over the place and I love that. I feel like that's because I worked on it for so many years with so many different people. There are a lot of good friends on there that I collaborated with in studios and a lot of different sonic inspirations throughout. But the concepts and the songwriting perspective are the string that ties it all together.

Let's dig into the deluxe album. First, the obvious question, why did you want to release a deluxe version? Also, what can fans expect from this version versus the original release of High Concept?

I really wanted to give myself the freedom of having a completely blank slate for whatever's next. I also wanted to give these four extra tracks a chance to be listened to and heard. One of them is "Taylor Made" a song I teased on TikTok. I wrote the song the day that Taylor Swift joined TikTok, and I thought What better way to pull a Taylor than to write a song about her? I always get DMs from people asking why I didn't put that song on the album so that was a treat for everyone. The other two songs were also ones I wanted to have their moment to shine. One of them is "Can Of Hurt" the other is "Whiplash." They're both leaning into the direction I want to keep leaning into, which is a bit of nostalgia mixed with guitar-heavy vibes and just raw emotion. They're a lot less polished than a lot of my pop songs. The last one is one called "Don't Shop When You're Hungry," which currently features Vault Boy, and the deluxe version is the original without him on it.

We've touched on social media with your viral hits and even with the song about Swift joining TikTok. I'm wondering, now that you've had success online but also have met fans in person, has your relationship with social media changed?

Great question. Yes, I have to work on my relationship with social media every day. I feel like most people right now kind of do because the internet is just such a huge part of our day-to-day lives. Social media has helped me incredibly and I'm so grateful for it especially TikTok because that's where I got my first bit of luck with promoting my music. But it definitely also can do a number on your mental health. I've been working on just setting boundaries, with not only posting stuff but also my relationship with scrolling on social media. "Pain Hub" is actually about doom scrolling. It's pretty easy to justify scrolling all day when you are also a content creator. Because I'm doing it for research, I tell myself, and then like three hours later, I'm like, wait, I actually have no research. More than ever lately, I feel like I've just been trying to use social media as a way to connect with people. In the past, I've used it strictly as a marketing tool, which definitely helped me in a lot of areas. I think it's important to have the business aspect in mind sometimes, but lately I've just been really trying to remember that social media is a tool to keep in touch with people all over the world. I'm finding the beauty in using it for person-to-person interactions and connections as opposed to chasing virality and trend hopping.

Since so many people first got to know you via social media, is there something you think people misunderstand about you and your work? Something people miss when they don't see you as a fully dimensional artist?

That's something I think about a little too much. It's so easy it is to get misconstrued and misinterpreted online, because people are only seeing a very small portion of you. I try not to think too long and hard about how people perceive me, because it will send me into a full existential crisis. But something I definitely want to highlight more on social media, or just in general, is my involvement in the creative process. I feel like it's really easy for people to know that a lot of my songs are satirical and I feel like a lot of people don't know that I'm actually very heavily involved in the writing process. That's how I started out is songwriting, and that my day-to-day is writing for myself and others as well. I'm basically just so in love with the craft of music and that's how I spend my time. I feel like a lot of people don't really know what I do day to day. I don't know what they assume. That's something I definitely want to highlight because songwriting is such a love of mine. That and, you know, every aspect of music creation.

Let's go into that process for a moment. How does it feel when you know a song is good enough to release and how do you bring it into the world?

That feeling is exactly what makes me so in love with songwriting, and makes me want to do it all the time. It's that constant need to chase that lightbulb moment. Literally, it's the classic metaphor of the light bulb above your head. That is what happens when I get an idea for a song. The reason that High Concept is called High Concept is because my songwriting process which is very heavily reliant on the song concept. I love a good word play, I love a good fun title or interesting flip. I love idioms, all of that stuff just really lights me up. And I always start with a title or a concept. I get inspiration for those honestly, from everyday life.

My friends always make fun of me because "to pull a classic Salem" is to be in mid-conversation then someone will say something and I go, Oh, hold on one sec and then whip out my notes app and write it down. They're like, "Are you gonna put me in a song?"Probably. If you spend time around me, you're definitely gonna get plagiarized [laughs]. I'm just gonna take exactly what he said and put it in the chorus shamelessly.