The Gen Z hitmaker talks about writing songs about brands and continuously flexing her songwriting muscle
Whether you’re a sound-only or lyrics-first listener, we all know that a good lyric or two can lodge itself in our heads and into our playlists. Sometimes the line can be profound and vivid, other times addictive and straightforward. The bottom line is that lyrics have a way with making a song better and longer lasting. And in the case of Salem Ilese, she paints clear pictures by playing with words, thereby conjuring up specific scenarios in our heads. All the while, she’s able to speak to a universal audience. This is why many listeners continue looking forward to her music.
One might know her better because of Mad At Disney, the hit that blew up in 2020 thanks to the power of TikTok. The descriptive track criticizes the icon of our dreams for leading us to believe in their images of true love, which is, admittedly, unrealistic. Salem Ilese’s pop track won listeners' hearts, leading to a gold certification from the RIAA and more streams we can only imagine.
The singer-songwriter went on to create more hyperspecific songs, even namedropping brands to help her explore her feelings. PS5 (featuring Yeonjun and Taehyun of Tomorrow X Together) explores the push, pull and balance between a lover and an interest. Coke & Mentos describes the pure and exciting infatuation she can only compare to the collision of these two ingredients. The rest of the songs from her EP, Unsponsored Content, explore name brands while diving deep into the conflict of human emotion.
However, Salem Ilese’s unique brand of wit isn’t limited to her music. The young creative also has writing credits in Bella Poarch’s Build A Bitch and Tomorrow X Together’s Anti-Romantic—two different songs that carry the same play on words. These creations and honors prove that Salem Ilese has a way with words that put her on the map, a prowess she’s excited to share through her music and creations.
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We catch up with the singer-songwriter Salem Ilese up ahead.
Wonder: Your newest EP is entitled Unsponsored Content, yet your lyrics contain specific images and names. What pushed you to explore this concept for this round of releases?
Salem Ilese: I'm very inspired by everything I see in my everyday life [and] in pop culture. Brands are such a big part of that because they weaved their way into our daily conversations. They're just such a huge part of our lives and this generation. So it honestly just happens really naturally, because I write about things that affect me and are around me. Brands kind of just found my way into my songs. Then I eventually realized that I have a lot of songs with brands' titles. So I was like, “You know what? Might as well make a whole project just based around that,” to highlight all of the brand songs in one.
W: One of your songs on the EP, Mad At Disney, is one of your biggest breakout singles. It got awarded gold by RIAA, had 2.6 million videos use it on TikTok and amassed over 242 million streams on Spotify alone. Did you ever expect that song to reach such heights?
SI: Definitely not, no. I still can't believe that those numbers are real, honestly. It's so surreal to me and so exciting because [Mad At Disney] means a lot to me. I'm just so touched that it changed my life in such a huge way and also had such a great effect on so many people.
W: Speaking of Mad At Disney, the song blew up on TikTok, and you’ve become one of the voices of Gen Z. So when you write new songs, do you feel any pressure to pander to the audience on that platform? Or is your songwriting process still very personal?
SI: It's still a very personal process. I still write from my truth and own experiences. I feel that anything I write about will be relatable to someone else just because we all have the human experience. Though everyone's [specific] experiences are very different, we all kind of feel the same set of emotions. So from writing about a certain emotion that I have, I know that I can't be alone in that feeling, [that] there has to be someone else out there that will be able to relate to it. So I just write from personal experience and hope that it can find the people who also relate to it.
W: In one of your previous interviews, you mentioned that “Songwriting is a muscle.” Why is it important to continuously explore writing with other artists on top of your solo work?
SI: It's so important to me. It's honestly fun as well, just to step out of my own, personal experience for a bit and put myself in someone else's shoes as an artist and as a writer. [And] it helps someone else's story. It also opens up a different world for me sonically. Because, you know, so many artists have so many different, specific sounds. It's just fun to put on different hats as a writer and experiment with other genres and artists. I also love working with people in the room and being able to bounce ideas off of each other and collaborate—it's just way more fun than writing alone and by myself all the time.
W: You’ve recently collaborated with Alan Walker and Tomorrow X Together (TXT)’s Yeonjun and Taehyun for PS5. Can you share how the collaboration came about and what it’s like working with them?
SI: I originally sent [PS5] to Alan Walker because he's a gamer, so I thought he might like it. He edited the production, made it his own and also added that different second verse and second chorus. [Alan Walker] added the other perspective, which I thought was a cool idea. Then, we realized we had to have another feature on it, someone to sing the second verse and chorus. So I thought, “Oh, you know what, I will send it to TXT and see if they want to be part of it.” They said yes, and I was so excited because I felt like [the collaboration] made the song so much cooler.
@txt.bighitent #duet with @salemilese It's a hard question… #PS5 ♬ PS5 Challenge – salem
W: If you could name any artist, dead or alive, that you wish to collaborate with, who would it be and why?
SI: I want to collaborate with BLACKPINK. I'm such a fan of the girls, and I think they're so sweet—I'm a BLINK. I think that'd be awesome and love YUNG BLUD; I think he's such a fantastic artist, and I love the punk-pop type of music [he does] and it's so fun to listen to. I'm a huge Swiftie, so I would love to collaborate with Taylor Swift—or even just meet her, talk to her for a bit. I think that'd be so fun. And I want to keep working with the people I've collaborated with, so TXT, I'm always happy to do more with them, Alan Walker, Bella Poarch—so many incredible humans.
W: Lastly, what up next for Salem Ilese? Are we expecting more things coming up soon?
SI: There's a bit more you can expect from Unsponsored Content. There are a few more bonus things happening with that soon, so stay tuned—more collaborations to come. I'm also working on an album, so stay tuned for that cause it will be out at some point this year—whenever I finish it. So I'm excited to share that with everyone!
Listen to Unsponsored Content on all music streaming platforms.
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver
Special thanks Universal Music Group PH