21-year-old pop artist Salem Ilesehas been preparing for this moment her entire life. Born and raised in Mill Valley, CA, right outside San Francisco, the singer & songwriter has been “doing music for longer than [she] can remember,” and to prove it Salem jokes that her parents have “plenty of blackmail tapes” of her earliest music creations. “I’ve written songs since I could speak. As a kid, my songs would be about anything from stuffed animals to a guy in preschool I liked.”
With an innate drive to make music, her parents quickly put their precocious daughter into music lessons and introduced her to their favorites, namely, David Bowie and The Beatles. “My Dad likes to consider himself an ‘expert music listener,’” she says, “and even though they aren’t musicians, they made sure I knew the greats. Listening to a lot of Bowie had a huge influence on me because I love pop music, but my taste always veers a little bit left of center.”
Whether it’s found in her song “It Gets Better” with its explosive chorus and stacked vocals, or her most recent release “Mad at Disney” with its clever lyrical take on Disney's unrealistic paradigms, Salem’s music shares the same DNA of the songs she was raised on: irresistible melodies mixed with surprising and fascinatingly observant lyrical choices that make sure her music impossible to forget. “I definitely think that my main strength as an artist and writer is in my lyricism and my ability to write using interesting concepts. I don’t want to write a song in a way that has been said before,” she reflects.
Salem attributes her music career to legendary writer Bonnie Hayes, her first songwriting teacher. Credited for creating hit songs for Cher, Bonnie Riatt, David Crosby, Bette Midler and more, Bonnie Hayes immediately saw then-12-year-old Salem’s gift for storytelling; “she took me under her wing. She’s like a second mom to me. I probably wouldn’t be here without her.”
Hayes eventually moved to Boston to head Berklee College of Music’s songwriting department and shortly thereafter Salem also relocated across the country to enroll in her department. “Getting the Berklee degree was never my main concern, I just wanted to get the most out of the school that I could,” Salem says. After a couple years of intense learning, Salem made the decision to move back to the West Coast, this time settling down in Los Angeles.
“My biggest fear when dropping out of Berklee was that I wouldn’t be busy enough in LA. I’m the type of person who thrives off of a packed schedule,” she reflects, so the young musician dedicated herself to a strict regimen of songwriting sessions every single day, including weekends, for six months straight in order to make the most out of her move. “Sometimes I’d even do doubles,” she said, “I also did some live shows at night here and there.”
Soon, Salem’s dedicated lifestyle attracted interest from big-name publishing companies, hoping to work with her as a writer. Per the advice of her manager, she held out for something greater –“I started seeing my own music pick up soon after, with a few placements on Spotify playlists New Music Friday and Fresh Finds.” The growing buzz landed Salem in a label bidding war, and she eventually found herself landing with 10K Projects/Homemade Projects in August 2020.
Now, Salem is at work on her first full length project and continues to do writing sessions over Zoom which she admits has been “a little weird.” But the cheerful 21-year-old reassures that she’s still living her dream and would “never have considered any other career for myself, except maybe to be an astronaut when I was three,” she laughs. “I take care of my lizard, and I make music all the time. Things are good.”