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Salem Ilese: Viral Hit "Mad at Disney", Social Media, and Her Songwriting Process

Ezzah Rafique | February 13, 2021

​Salem has always wanted to pursue music since she was a kid. After attending the Berklee College of Music for two years, she dropped out to pursue her passion and move to L.A.

ORENDA Magazine Editor-in-Chief, Ezzah Rafique, sat down with Salem to talk to her about "Mad at Disney", utilizing social media to promote her music, and her songwriting process

Listen to the interview here

E: Tell me a bit about yourself and how you started to get into music?

S: I’ve been doing music for literally as long as I can remember. I started singing when I was about four. My parents caught on that I really liked it [and] put me in chorus classes. I took my first starting course when I was about 9 or 10 and I just fell in love with it and I’ve been doing it ever since like all the time. Then I went to college for two years at Berklee [College of Music], learned more about songwriting there, and a little bit about production and stage performance. Meet my amazing band and then we all move out to L.A. I dropped out [of college] after two years.

E: Your song ‘Mad at Disney’ has over 18 million views on youtube, it went viral on TikTok and over 148 million streams on youtube. What was your initial reaction to the growth of that song specifically?

S: Yeah, it’s still crazy, I still can’t believe those numbers. It sounds so surreal. My first reaction was just disbelief. I literally could not believe what was going on, I thought my phone was broken, I kept refreshing TikTok and the numbers just kept adding zeros. And I was like ‘What’s going on like this has to be a joke’ or something. So I restarted my phone and I was like ‘oh it’s still going, it looks like this is happening’. And it happened very quickly with ‘Mad at Disney’, kind of overnight almost. So that was my initial reaction. And immediately after, there was a weight that was lifted off of my shoulders because being a person whose job is to write songs and being in a creative industry like that, it’s kind of like you never know that it’s going to work out. You’re always just like grasping at straws and really holding onto hope, so that was a really amazing moment.

E: What inspired you to write the song?

S: It was one of my first sessions since I moved back to L.A. and I remember we were just having a conversation, me and the two co-writers Bendik Møller and Jason Hahs. We were just getting to know each other, I know Bendik, [he’s] my closest collaborator, but we had first met Jason that day and we were like “what’s up man, how are you doing?” And he was like “you know, I’m a little mad at Disney, ‘cause I saw the new Lion King and it just wasn’t as good as the old one.” And we were like “oh, yea, they keep remaking all of them.” And then we kind of had a very natural conversation about other reasons to be mad at Disney. I, personally, was mad because of all the stereotypes in the old movies that I grew up on. And then, I think, we started writing a different song. I don’t remember what it was, but it wasn’t ‘Mad at Disney’. We kinda left that conversation [but] we didn’t really like where we were going with the new concept. So I was like “Hey, you said something cool. You said you were mad at Disney, and we all relate to that so maybe we can run with that.” And then it happened quickly. I think we wrote [the song] in like two hours and then it only took one other session after that to kind of re-write the second verse. It was a fun session, very organic.

E: How would you describe your creative process, like when you go in to write something do have an idea in mind when you go to write, or do you write about anything?

S: I definitely start from a concept, usually. I’m a very lyrical, conceptual writer in general. Like, the words are my favorite part for sure. And I could literally spend an hour tweaking a verse, which isn’t every writer’s favorite thing. So it’s really a treat for me when I also find another co-writer who loves lyrics as much as I do because we can really nerd out going out on it. But yeah, I have a long concept list on my phone of a bunch of different idea starters like titles, a chorus, a line, so when I’m usually in a session, I pitch out those and see if the [other] writers connect with them.

E: You released a song called ‘coke & mentos’, and the music video is so much fun to watch, and that also goes for ‘Mad at Disney’, you have this cool concept you do with music videos that makes it seem like a storyline. Do you have a plan every time you release a song [for] what the music video would look like and help direct it?

S: Thank you! Yeah, I’m definitely involved in the process. It’s interesting though, because for ‘Mad at Disney’, I released it so long ago, almost a year now it’s been out in the world. And when I first originally released it there was no plans to make a music video. It was just supposed to be a one-off single like connecting to a bigger body of work later. But then, obviously, people enjoyed it. And I signed with a label and it was all so exciting, we were like “ok, now we need to make a video.” So, it was one of those things where we really had to sit and think about it after the song was already big. Which was really fun, but also a lot of pressure because we were like “oh boy, this is gonna get some eyes now ‘cause the song is doing well.” But that was really fun! I worked with my creative director and the director and my manager [and] it was a very collaborative process of kind of just throwing ideas out there. We filmed the whole thing in one day, which was crazy, ‘coke & mentos’ we also filmed in a day but we had a bit more time to really think about it [since] that was more of a scheduled release and we were like “ok we really wanna do a video for the song when it comes out.” I know I wanted to involve Lil Cow, my bearded dragon, yeah he was kinda the inspiration behind the ‘coke & mentos’ video [since] I really wanted to involve him somehow.

E: So for me, I actually heard your song ‘Splinter’, your collaborative song [with MYRNE] before I actually realized you put out ‘Mad at Disney’. Do you have a favorite song that you’ve released that maybe hasn’t gotten as much attention as “Mad at Disney” but you really love it?

S: That’s so funny, yes! I would say that my favorite song that I have out is probably ‘Roses to His Ex’ which I released, I think, almost two years ago now or a year and a half ago. I wrote that one back at Berklee with Bendik Møller, who I also wrote ‘Mad at Disney’ with. I just think that one’s really fun and it’s a little bit of a darker vibe, pulling influences from [songs like] ‘Toxic’ by Britney [Spears]- she’s like my queen- so yea, probably that one.

E: Is there an artist or band that you grew up listening to that influenced your style of music because you mentioned Britney Spears.

S: I love Britney. I grew up listening to Bowie, The Clash, The Killers- they’re my favorite band ever- Fleetwood Mac basically. My parents had really good music taste. My dad’s like the biggest Bowie fan ever, and The Beatles, of course. So we would listen to all of that in the car when I was young. I used to remember not loving it at the beginning, I used to be like “Dad, turn off your music, like c’mon let me play my stuff” which was probably whatever was on the radio or The Jonas Brothers or something. Now that’s my favorite music to listen to. And it’s kind of what I’ve only been listening to lately [which is] just older music. And any alternative rock like The Strokes. I think my attention span for pop at the moment has been less, just ‘cause older music is so nostalgic [and] it’s kinda like a warm hug [especially] with everything going on in the world right now. But I’m not really sure if it shows up that much in my music because my music is still very pop, but there’s probably some subconscious influences.

E: You’ve put out a lot of pop songs, do you have a genre you want to try to get into or try releasing a song based on that isn’t pop but a different genre.

S: Yeah! I’d love to do something with more rock undertones. I think that would be so fun [but] I think my voice is very pop, so it may be hard to pull off. But, it’s very fun. Something with electric guitars and big drums and ya know just a very big, fun kinda more angsty song would be fun. Like YUNGBLUD, [I] would love to collaborate with him.

E: Do you have a favorite song that you put out that you really wish you could perform live or when Covid and stuff start to maybe go back to the normal, do you have a song you’re looking forward to perform?

S: Definitely “Mad at Disney” I’m so excited [to perform]. Mostly because people might actually know the words so I think that’ll be kinda when it hits me that this song is what it is. It’s very hard to conceptualize people knowing my music at the moment just because I’ve been inside throughout this whole entire process. [The song went viral] while I was sitting on my couch the whole time through quarantine [I’ve] been in my apartment. So I haven’t been able to see it actually affect people. That’s probably what I’m most excited for is just meet[ing] people [who have] resonated with the song and sing along with them.

E: How has releasing music been for you especially with the use of social media specifically?

S: Social media is such a blessing. I started quarantine with basically no platform and now I have a couple million [followers] on TikTok which sounds fake when I say it. And I’m so, so grateful for every single person [who has] been supporting me. And I’ve been slowly learning how to utilize social media as a platform for my music and figure out the best ways to market things. It’s definitely new for me and… there’s a fine line between, I think, of over-marketing something like a piece of music, I don’t want to post about it every single second. But it has been fun trying to figure out how to take my music and put it in a new TikTok trend or find different ways to market it. It has been very fun.

E: What’s your favorite lyric that you’ve written

S: Oooh, that’s such a good question. That’s a hard one. Of what I have out right now, I don’t want to spoil anything unreleased, probably [would be] the second verse of ‘Mad at Disney’. I think it’s really funny. My fairy grandma warned me/ Cinderella's story/ Only ended in a bad divorce/ The prince ain't sleeping when he/ Takes his sleeping beauty/ To the motel on his snow-white horse.

E: Lastly, what can fans expect from you in the future? Are there projects you’re working on right now?

S: Definitely, yeah! I have a feature coming out soon. I can’t say exactly who it’s with, but I have something very fun coming out very soon with an exciting collaborator. Then after that, I’m working on a bigger body of work. So within the next few months, I’ll definitely be releasing a ton of new music that I’m super excited for.

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