Across her six-song debut EP, (L)only Child, overnight pop sensation Salem Ilese roots around the deepest and darkest recesses of her mind. The record opens with the 77-second “Forgiveness,” playing as almost an interlude, or rather a primer, for the record and what’s to come. As the title suggests, it centers around pardoning, both ourselves and others, and what such conviction allows for growth. “Forgiveness might be the most important thing on earth,” says Ilese. “If you don’t have forgiveness, and you’re trying to make a change, it’s coming from a place of spite or a really negative emotion.
“You can’t accomplish something positive if it stems from something negative. If you forgive everyone involved in a situation, it’s so much easier to move past it and grow,” Ilese tells American Songwriter over a recent Zoom call. Written two years ago, when Ilese and co-writer Bendik Moller were still attending Berklee College of Music in Boston, the moody centerpiece arose out of a heated debate regarding the series finale of Game of Thrones.
“I was really mad because of how Daenerys, the main female lead, ended up being portrayed. I don’t want to spoil anything, but she ended up as the bad guy. In the end, I just thought that was so uncool, especially because she was such a leader and a role model for so many young girls. She’s this badass woman,” she recalls. “And then they had to make her the crazy person at the end. We got into a very heated discussion about that, and then we ended up just kind of trying to dissect world issues. I guess this is what happens too late, we end up just talking about really big picture things. We call it balcony conversations.”
Ilese isn’t kidding about turning attention to larger, more universal themes. The EP’s title track, gummy with beats and electrifying synths, immerses the listener into the idea of living alone for all of eternity. “My biggest fear is probably dying alone. I know it’s most people’s biggest fear. And it’s quite morbid to talk about. Even though I’m such an independent person, and I love alone time, endless alone time is the scariest thing,” she says.
“It took us about two full years to crack this song, which is why it’s one of my favorites. I’m so happy that it’s done. It was originally a homework assignment for a class taught by Ben Camp. We brought in the first version, and it was bridge-less,” she continues. “It was super bare bones. Ben was like, ‘Cool song, but where’s the heart? Why did you write this? And I’m like, ‘Well, I’m an only child. I feel like it describes a lot about me. He’s like, ‘Yeah, cool, but what are you trying to say on the song?’ I was like, ‘That’s a good question.’”
With the bridge (I could sit all alone in my room for a week and be fine / But if ten years from now I’ve got no one to speak to I’ll die, she weeps), Ilese rips open the song in a way that takes it from zero to 180. Her willingness to push her songwriting permits greater depth and understanding about the human condition, especially coming off a year that tested emotional and psychological limits.
Ilese flips over even more personal stones with the most exemplary setpiece, “About a Breakup,” a deceptive title for a song that’s not about a breakup at all. In fact, the singer-songwriter admits that the world’s too fucked to cry about a breakup, she sighs.
“That’s a funny one because I wrote it with my boyfriend [Bendik], and we are in a very happy relationship. But we both have been through breakups, which is why I think it’s so easy for us to write songs like that,” explains Ilese of the song, initially inspired by wildfires in Australia. “We can just pull from our awful past experiences with love and romance and just laugh about it now and use it for content. I wrote it as a personal reminder to myself that whatever I’m dealing with and crying about, there’s always something more important to be crying about.
“The song makes me catch myself in those situations. Whenever I’m really upset about something that’s kind of miniscule, I think, ‘Wow, I should not be upset about this. Instead, I should be upset about global warming and what’s going on in India and the state of the world, as a whole.’ This song was honestly very therapeutic for me.”
Ilese’s existential nature comes to a head with the closing track, “Dinosaurs (S4E7),” in which she wonders if the dinosaurs knew their extinction was coming. Written with Christina Galligan and Dave Burris, the song quakes with meteoric emissions, mimicking that impending doom bound to crash right into earth’s surface. “It was one of those rare moments that it was a good Zoom session. Zoom sessions can be very hit or miss, and I’ve done probably hundreds in the past year or so,” reflects Ilese. “This was at the height of the pandemic. So, it was really the only thing that anyone was thinking about at the time.
“It’s realizing that we were all human, in a sense. And I’d written down the title dinosaurs, really thinking about the scary parallel between humans and dinosaurs,” she adds. “I had a scary thought, which was that we could be the next dinosaurs, and especially relating to how we’re treating the environment and global warming and everything that’s happening with the climate. That’s just something that is always at the forefront of my brain and causes severe anxiety.
“Christina asked the craziest question, ‘I wonder if the dinosaurs knew what was happening when the world was ending?’” The trio wrote from such an emotional place, lacing up the arrangement with guitar and Ilese’s sobering vocal take. “The moral is there are some things that we simply can’t control as humans. The hardest thing for me, personally, to comprehend is that I can’t micromanage every aspect of life forever. I’m just gonna have to let go of the reins sometimes and trust that everything will be okay─or cope with it if it’s not. And that’s definitely something I’m still trying to work on. But I feel like writing that song really helped me.”
Ilese weaves super personal stories about relationships into the EP, as well, from the saxophone-bound “Romeo and Juliet” to the muted “good, not great.” With the former, Ilese enlists Cautious Clay for the sweltering sax line to give it a needed musical boost. “He absolutely slayed it. He’s so incredible. I’ve had the pleasure of working with him a few times. He’s one of those people that thinks super differently to me. So it’s really fun to be in a writing room with him and just kind of watch him analyze things.”
The latter, co-written with Grant Averill and Mags Duval, sprouted from a conversation about “all of our old relationships, as songwriters do, and just kind of finding this through line that all of these past relationships were so mediocre. We came to the conclusion that most relationships last six months longer than they should—just because it’s kind of… good, but not great.”
“I tried to cancel the session so many times before it happened. That same day, I had a production session with Jason Haas and then Nick Miller to finish my song ‘Mad at Disney,’” continues Ilese. “I was texting the amazing person who was helping me set up sessions at the time, and I was like, ‘Hey, like, I really just want to finish my ‘Disney’ song today, I don’t think I have the mental capacity to do a double. I just can’t.’ She, thankfully, was like, ‘You’re going to this session, you’re so talented, you’re gonna go work with them.’
“I ended up going to the session and having a great time. Working with them actually reminded me a lot of having a third person in a room with me and Bendik. They have a very similar dynamic as writers and friends. They’re super close, and they write together all the time and had worked together a ton before working with me.”
Originally from Mill Valley, California, and with a deep love of Nora Jones and David Bowie, Ilese’s life and career seem preordained. Since the beginning, songwriting has always been such a focal point in her life─particularly when she started taking songwriting classes when she was only 10. “I always say that it happened supernaturally. I would just sing about whatever was happening in my life, my stuffed animals, whatever show I was watching, I would just sing about things. I didn’t even think anything of it until my parents kind of caught on. They were like ‘Wow, you’re kind of writing songs.’ And I was like ‘maybe I am… at age four’,” she laughs.
When she walked into the songwriting class, taught by Bonnie Hayes (Cher, Bette Midler, Bonnie Raitt), Ilese was “absolutely terrified. We were in a little band room with a stage and risers to sit on and watch people perform. I remember looking at the risers, and everyone was super cool. They had dyed hair, and they were in high school. And they had their cool piercings and tattoos. I was like, ‘Wow, I don’t fit in at all. I was wearing a sequined shirt and had a little backpack. I was just shell shocked.”
Hayes, seeing her reaction, immediately took Ilese under her wing. “We learned about the circle of fifths and the foundation of music theory. Bonnie gave me a lot of confidence and taught me how to be on a stage and not be terrified and look like a deer in headlights and truly have fun with it. Also, she instilled in me the importance of good lyric writing at a super young age, which I’m really thankful for. The fun part for me is tweaking things right down to the syllables and finding cool slant rhymes.”
Everything has led to this very special moment. Salem Ilese’s debut EP, (L)only Child, arrives as a culmination of her immense songwriting work, displaying smart, incisive phrases and an equally-sharp vocal take. From addicting earworm hooks and identifiable inflection, it’s certainly a watershed moment.