Planes, limousines, spring break tribulations, cheap coffees, magazines and explosive “Coke & Mentos” love are the many contents that occupy Salem Ilese’s conceptual bubblegum pop bag – it’s the stuff of Instagrammer daydreams. The 21-year-old, whose viral Tik Tok hit “Mad at Disney” has racked up over 236 million streams, pours contemporary tales of Gen-Z disillusionment-in-love into effervescent pop music smoothies, but it’s as much substance as it is style.
Because ultimately, love isn’t always as great as movies and pop music make it seem: “I’ve been in a number of relationships,” Ilese tells us, “some good [but] most bad. It’s something from my life that I can offer perspective on. It […] comes up a lot in my writing.”
As if exasperated, walking the high street with an iced-coffee, Ilese expresses soft fatigue at her failed romantic escapades. There is, of course, the eyeroll that is “Mad at Disney”, which holds accountable the blockbusting fairy-tales that she says perpetuated unhealthy expectations in relationships for women. Then, there’s her debut EP, the vibrant, hot-pink 757 (2019), where the artist overtly refuses whirlwind romance by embracing loud pop sensibilities. Musically, powerful melodies platform Ilese’s infectious lyrics – which have been compared to pop singer Julia Michaels – while stuttering vocal effects liken themselves to the quirks of Billie Eilish and intelligent production pushes the boundaries of her brand of mainstream pop.
Influenced by the love language of pop artisans Britney Spears and Lorde among others, Salem Ilese will no doubt topple the digital charts – particularly with her next hit, which surprisingly takes a sweeter perspective on young love. The explosive, Pussycat Dolls-inspired “Coke & Mentos”, whose climactic outro conjures summery road trip catharsis with a crush, dropped earlier this week and accompanies Ilese’s celebration of the US election results.
To mark the release of the new single, House of Solo spoke with the US singer about the track, pop music, her anticipated debut project and the social responsibility of modern pop stars.
Hi Salem! How are you? How are things going?
Things are pretty good! I’m writing songs every day and hanging out with my pets. I’m currently in West Hollywood, and my dog Bowie has been keeping me very busy lately. He wakes up at 6:30am every morning and wants constant attention throughout the day.
Let’s talk the new single “Coke & Mentos”. Could you tell us the inspiration behind the track?
I wrote “Coke & Mentos” with Bendik Møller (my boyfriend, co-writer and co-producer on “Mad at Disney”) and our friend Jason Strong who also produced it. The concept for “Coke & Mentos” came from a car game. [Møller] and I invented [it] – the way it works is we shuffle a playlist on Spotify and [based on] the title of the song we have to think of a related but different concept. Whoever’s concept is the best wins. So, [when] the song “React” by The Pussycat Dolls came on, I immediately thought “chemical reaction; science experiments; Coke and Mentos,” and then I thought of the tag line, “when we touch it’s Coke and Mentos”. I won the round, and we decided to write the song a few weeks later. That was almost a year ago now. I’m very, very excited that it’s finally out.
That outro is huge. I can see myself singing it loudly into a hairbrush in my bedroom. It’s a belter! At what point did you realise you had another hit on your hands?
That is so funny. I love that, thank you. I knew that I wanted to release this song the day that I wrote it. I feel like I don’t have too many big pop songs that have that explosive last chorus. I was really excited when we made this, which sounds like a song to blast in your car. I was really stoked on it after day one of writing it. […] [After “Mad at Disney”] I’m more excited than ever to put more music out because I’ve been blessed with a platform that’s bigger than I’ve ever experienced before.
It must have been great to see so many people respond so well to “Mad at Disney”. What was this like for you?
It was absolutely insane. I still can’t believe it to be honest. Every time I see a video using [it] I get emotional because I can’t believe so many people have taken my art and used it as their own and given it new meaning. It’s just so inspiring to see as a creator. That’s really the dream, to see people resonating with it. I’m touched.
The song itself expresses dismay at the way Disney movies portray romance – did you always feel an urge to challenge these falsities in fairy-tales?
I did. Apparently from a very young age, too. My parents sent over a video of one of my first performances recently, and in it I performed one of the first originals I had written. Weirdly enough, the lyrics were very reminiscent of “Mad at Disney”. I’ve always wanted to challenge stereotypes that aren’t realistic and are in some ways limiting. For example, how princesses are portrayed in Disney moves is, I think, unhealthy. Especially for young girls to watch – looking back, I wish that there was [more] progressive content that showed an empowered princess as opposed to a damsel in distress.
Your catalogue, including your debut EP 757, is an incredibly colourful expression of dealing with bad love and worse relationships. Why did bubblegum pop become the perfect vehicle for what you wanted to say?
That EP holds a special place in my heart because I feel like that was the beginning of me finding my sound as a pop artist. I made that whole EP with [Møller] and our friend Noah McGuire. We wrote it in Boston when I was at Berklee College of Music over the span of a summer. It was a very eye-opening experience, because I had never been involved in such a heavy electronic project. Experimenting with all of that was really, really cool.
You work a lot with Møller – are you both huge pop music fans?
We both love pop music. [Møller] is from Norway, and I feel like Scandinavian people, or Nordic people, have an instinct for pop music that is unlike any other. We joke that there must be something in the water there. He actually blames it on the fact that, in Norway, the children’s shows have really good pop songs in them. So maybe we need better songs in children’s shows here! We both are big fans of Britney Spears and all early 2000s pop; Max Martin is absolutely phenomenal and a genius, and we are very inspired by him; we also love more alternative things too. For me, Lorde and Jack Antonoff’s production is super cool.
Your music focuses on breaking down traditional beliefs about what a relationship should be. Is this a conscious choice?
It’s not really a conscious choice, but I do write about my own life and experiences, and I feel like that is something I can touch upon because I’ve been in a number of relationships, some good and most bad. I feel like that’s something that everyone deals with, and it’s something from my life that I can offer perspective on, so I feel like because of that it’s something that comes up a lot in my writing.
You’re working on a full-length project, right?
I have a lot of new songs coming out in 2021. Right now, I’m trying to figure out the best way to package them all. I struggle with the urge every day to release a 60-song mixtape all at once, but I have to restrain myself. Just expect lots of new music and also lots of content involving Bowie and Lil Cow, my pets.
Aside a hugely successful year for your career, it’s been a huge year for US politics. Prior to the election, you posted a remix of “Mad at Disney” to your Instagram page (titled “Mad at Donald”) that urged people to vote for Joe Biden. How does it feel to be part of the wave that helped get rid of Trump from the White House?
I am so thankful, first of all, that Joe Biden was elected president. I’m very, very happy, and I’m grateful that I have the platform that allows me to try and help invoke that positive change. Honestly, if “Mad at Donald” inspired one person who was on the fence about voting to go and vote on election day, then that makes me the happiest person in the world. It’s really, really exciting for me to be able to use my voice in this way. I’m so grateful to have this newfound platform to be able to try and inspire people.
And this was your first time voting – that must have been a huge moment for you…
It was really big for me. I teared up a little bit when I had to drop my ballot in the ballot box, it was a great day.
Ultimately, you’re part of a future group of pop stars that take pride in social responsibility and speaking up. What do you most look forward to, as part of this future pop music industry?
I am so happy that pop stars these days are using their platform for more than just talking about music. I’m so inspired by so many artists, and there are so many of them that are doing a phenomenal job at seamlessly being pop stars as well as advocates for change. Halsey is a great example. I think she is incredible at weaving female empowerment and LGBTQ+ rights into her platform while also being a phenomenal pop artist.
That’s definitely a big goal. I can’t wait to learn more about how to do that and to continue to use my platform the best way I can.
Listen to Salem Ilese’s new single “Coke & Mentos”, and watch the video, below.