Rising Pop Singer/Songwriter Salem Ilese Has Major TikTok & YouTube Success, And Writes Songs For Other Artists

Salem Ilese
Salem Ilese

Talented young singer/songwriter Salem Ilese is breaking through as a rising pop artist. She is signed with successful indie label 10K Projects, and she’s building a major presence on TikTok and YouTube. In addition, she’s a pro songwriter who’s writing with top artists such as Demi Lovato, Gwen Stefani and Kesha.

Ilese, who is 23 and now based in Los Angeles, had a RIAA-certified gold single in 2020 with her playful song, “Mad at Disney” (which has 35 million views on YouTube). She’s also released several other singles that have propelled her to online success. Impressively, Ilese has almost four million followers on TikTok and over a million subscribers on YouTube.

While she posts new videos on TikTok every day, she is also becoming an in-demand songwriter. She co-wrote the Top 30 pop hit “Build a Bitch” for music artist & social media personality, Bella Poarch. She also co-wrote two songs on pop star Demi Lovato’s latest album, Holy Fvck. And in the past year, she has written with Gwen Stefani, Kesha, Alan Walker, Tomorrow X Together, Pussy Riot and other artists.

Here’s an excerpt of our interview with Salem Ilese, who talks about her hit “Mad at Disney,” and how it led to signing to signing her label deal with 10K Projects and becoming popular on TikTok.

Currently, Ilese is preparing to release her debut album later this year. She has recently released the first two singles from the album: the edgy, modern rock song “PainHub,” and the pure pop “Tall Boi.” In the coming months, she will be releasing other singles leading up to her album release.

Ilese grew up in Mill Valley, California (north of San Francisco), and she began singing and writing songs at a young age. After high school, she attended the prestigious Berklee College of Music (in Boston) for two years, and then moved to Los Angeles to pursue her music career.

It was in 2020 that Ilese got her big break, when her song “Mad at Disney” went viral and received millions of views on TikTok and YouTube. Soon after, she signed with label 10K Projects, and released a string of singles including “PS5” (with Alan Walker and Tomorrow X Together), “Coke & Mentos” and “Hey Siri.” She has also released two EPs: (L)only Child (in 2021) and Sponsored Content (2022).

Here’s the video of Salem Ilese’s hit, “Mad at Disney.”

In addition to her songwriting, recordings and videos, Ilese is preparing to launch a concert tour which will bdgin this fall.

Salem Ilese Interview

We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Salem Ilese. She tells how she got started in the music business, and she discusses her early hits plus her new singles. She also talks about the songs she’s written for other artists.

DK: I read that you grew up in Mill Valley (near San Francisco). How did you get started with singing and writing songs?

Salem Ilese: I grew up in Mill Valley, and I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember. My parents have some footage of me singing about absolutely anything when I was four. Then I started songwriting when I was about 10. I was very lucky…my first songwriting teacher happened to be (singer/songwriter) Bonnie Hayes. She ended up teaching at Berklee College of Music, which is where I ended up going for two years. I studied songwriting, performance and production. I loved it there, and I met a lot of people that I still work with.

Then I moved out to L.A., and I’ve been writing here for almost four years. I’ve always been in love with music—making it and performing it.

DK: When you were at Berklee, were you already releasing singles and connecting with the music business?

Ilese: I was already releasing music, and I was trying to meet as many people as I could on the business side. I remember we would have song screenings at Berklee, where an A&R person from L.A. or New York was invited to speak and listen to songs from students. They would critique our songs and give us notes. I went to every song screening they had. I’d stay until the end, and afterwards I’d wait in line to get some facetime with the visiting A&R and get their email. Then I’d send them a Dropbox link or a private Soundcloud link of my songs. I tried to meet anyone I could while I was at Berklee, and get those connections before I moved to L.A. And that it made it easier to make the transition to L.A.

Here’s the video of Salem Ilese’s new single, “Tall Boi.”

DK: What was your first big break in the music business?

Ilese: I would say my song “Mad at Disney,” which came out in 2020. It was a very interesting time, because it was at the beginning of the pandemic. I released it on my own, and then my current label, 10K Projects, heard it on an algorithmic Spotify playlist. Then my now A&R guy DM’d me on Instagram. He was like, “I heard your song ‘Mad at Disney.’ I think that it could do really well on TikTok.” At the time, I hadn’t posted on TikTok at all. It wasn’t as lucrative as it is now.

So I thought, “Okay, I’ll have a Zoom meeting with these guys and see what they have to say.” And I had so many meetings in L.A. where I would send songs over and I’d go to the meeting, and no one had listened to a single song. But this meeting (with 10K Projects) was different, because once I logged onto to the Zoom, people from the team were immediately quoting my lyrics and asking about my writing process. So we ended up getting together and re-releasing “Mad at Disney” under 10K. And then “Mad at Disney” had a life if its own on TikTok which was very cool. So I started posting on TikTok, and suddenly it became something that I do every day.

DK: “Mad at Disney” has a unique title and concept. What inspired you to write this song?

Ilese: My process for songwriting usually starts with a concept or title, or a subject that I want to dive into. I’m very lyric-oriented, and when I think of a title or idea, it makes me excited to dive in and unpack it in a song.

“Mad at Disney” came very organically in a session. I wrote it with Bendik Moller and Jason Hahs, who are both friends from Berklee. We were out in L.A., and we were having a conversation about Disney and how they keep remaking old movies. Then Jason had said in passing, “I’m really mad at Disney because they keep ruining all the childhood movies with all these live-action versions.” When he said “Mad at Disney,” a light bulb went off in my songwriter brain. I said, “That’s interesting. I’m mad at Disney but for other reasons.” Then we got into the unreal expectations of love that the Disney movies portrayed, and I’ve always had this jaded feeling towards that. Ever since I was young, I’ve looked at those movies and was like…Hmm, the princess is always saved by the prince. Something seems wrong there. So that’s how that song started.

Here’s the video of Salem Ilese’s single “PS5,” with Alan
Walker and Tomorrow X Together.

DK: I also like your song “PS5,” which has a funny concept. How did you come up with the idea for this song?

Ilese: That also came from a very real place. My old roommates had gotten a PS4, and I remember that was the day they stopped talking to me (laughs). It used to be when I got home from work, we would have a little conversation and we’d eat dinner together. But the day the Playstation entered the apartment, I would be competing with that for their attention. I’d walk in and they’d be gaming, and they wouldn’t even notice that I was there. So eventually, I decided to write that song specifically to show it to them. I was like, “I wrote this for you. Please play less Playstation” (laughs). And they thought it was hilarious. Then I decided to put it out. But I realized that PS5 was coming out, so we had to rewrite the chorus.

Then I thought of (producer/DJ) Alan Walker, who I’d worked with before. I knew that he’s big in the gaming world and he’s a Playstation enthusiast. So I sent it to him and asked if he’d like to add to it, and much to my surprise, he sent me a completely redone version where he redid the production and rewrote the second verse to have a gamer’s perspective. Then we thought, we need another feature on it. I had worked with (Korean boy band) Tomorrow X Together, so I sent it to them and they sent it back with their vocals on it. It all came together naturally, and I love that song.

DK: You released an EP, (L)only Child in 2021, and an EP, Unsponsored Content, in 2022. Can you talk about these EPs?

Ilese: (L)only Child was released about two years ago, and it was fun to make. It was a grouping of songs that I had written at both Berklee and in L.A. Some of my favorite music is on there. And then Unsponsored Content was an EP that was all brand-themed and oriented in some way (such as “Mad at Disney,” “Ben & Jerry” and “Hey Siri”). I decided to do that because I had started incorporating brand names and titles into my songs very naturally. And I think all these brands have a personal meaning to everybody, and evoke certain memories. So I thought it was a fun songwriting experiment and challenge for me.

Here’s the lyric video of Salem Ilese’s single, “PainHub.”

DK: This year, you’ve released two new singles, “PainHub” which is more rock, and “Tall Boi.” Can you talk about these new songs?

Ilese: “Tall Boi” was one of the first songs I wrote in L.A., and I knew that I wanted to release it as an artist. And “PainHub” was the same way. “PainHub” is one of my favorite songs that I’ve released. It’s definitely a sonic departure (more rock) from what I’ve put out in the past.

I tend to gravitate towards my own songs that aren’t about relationships, because I feel that writing about love or lack thereof is easier because it’s so universal…it’s experienced by everybody. So that’s the go-to in many songwriting sessions. So when I’m able to write something that I’m proud of that isn’t about that, it makes me almost feel more fulfilled or accomplished. And that is “PainHub” for me. I wrote it with two amazing writers: JHart and Andrew Goldstein.

DK:  Do you have plans to release a new EP or an album?

Ilese: Yes, I’m excited about releasing a full album. “PainHub” and “Tall Boi” are the first two singles from my album, which is set to come out in September. I do have a few more singles to get through. I want to take my time on this rollout because the album itself took about four years from start to finish.

DK: Besides being an artist, you’ve written songs for other artists, including a hit with Bella Poarch on “Build a Bitch.” How did you connect with Bella and the other writers on this song?

Ilese: That was a fun one—I’ve been a fan of Bella’s for a long time. She was one of the first influencers on TikTok to use “Mad at Disney” in a video back in 2020. She played a big role in that song blowing up on TikTok, which I’m so grateful for. Then my dad said, “Hey, this girl who used ‘Mad at Disney’ is a good singer; you should try to work with her.” I thought that’s a great idea.

“Build a Bitch” was originally written with my close friends, Justin Gammela and Dave Arkwright, who I met when I moved to L.A. It was written during the pandemic and it started out as an idea on a Zoom session. We’d heard that Bella was starting an artist project and I wanted to write for her. We were all fans of her, and thought she was a cool person with an interesting story. We had the concept “Build a Bitch,” and we had Bella in mind when we were creating it. Then we sent it to her team, and she heard it and put her own spin on it. She ended up releasing it as her first single which was so cool. And through that process, I got to work with her on more songs as well. That song means so much to me.

Here’s the video of Bella Poarch’s hit “Build a Bitch,”
which was co-written by Salem Ilese.

DK: You also co-wrote two songs on Demi Lovato’s new album, and I read that you’ve worked with Kesha and Gwen Stefani.

Ilese: I’ve had the amazing pleasure of writing with all of them in the past year. I am always honored to be in a room with them and watch them create. I have two songs on the last Demi Lovato project, “Holy Fvck” and “City of Angels.” Demi is so prolific, and we got to work with (hit producer/writer) Oak Felder. Demi is so welcoming, and she made me feel like I had such a voice in that room.

DK: I want to ask you about your live shows. Are you planning to do a tour?

Ilese: I will be announcing some shows soon, which I’m excited about. Live performing is one of my greatest loves. It’s so much fun and gratifying. I spend a lot of time in the studio…my day-to-day is existing in small dark rooms (studios) and working on the songs there. So performing these songs live feels like the reward to all that. Playing live is so fun, and it means so much to see how the music actually connects with people live.

Here’s the link to Salem Ilese’s site: https://www.salemilese.com/

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima