Born in Maryland, raised in South Africa, and now based in Brooklyn, Shalom Obisie-Orlu has always been drawn to different forms of writing: short stories, personal essays, poetry. Growing up as one of five children, she’d make up songs while “messing around” with her siblings, and after moving to the US for college, she’d do the same with friends while immersing herself in the New Brunswick DIY scene. Before she started writing her own songs in the summer of 2020, Shalom had played bass in a band called Sin Scope, whose dissolution led to a long and painful period of writer’s block. She ended up processing the feelings around it in the song ‘concrete’, which she wrote and produced herself. Everything after that happened really fast: She released the track as part of an EP called the first snowstorm of the year and caught the attention of Saddle Creek, who linked her up with producer Ryan Hemsworth.
Shalom did not think she was ready to make a record, and at first they seemed to be collaborating for Hemsworth’s project Quarter-Life Crisis. But the songs kept pouring out, and Shalom couldn’t help but embrace the newfound flow of creativity, which shines all the way through her debut album, Sublimation, out today. It’s full of infectious grooves, sharp observations, and reckonings both quiet and loud, a journey of becoming that sees her powering through breakups, trauma, and day-to-day anxieties surrounding young adulthood. “I don’t even know if I exist/ I wish I’d evaporate,” she sings relatably against one of the album’s many anthemic arrangements on the opening track, ‘Narcissist’. Yet her presence on the record – so vibrant and vulnerable and fervently captivated by love – is impossible to ignore.
We caught up with Shalom for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about her musical journey, working with Ryan Hemsworth, the inspirations behind Sublimation, and more.
What drew you to the bass as an instrument?
Music is really a lifeblood for me. I was really depressed in high school and definitely would not have made it out of that if it was not for having really good music to get me through that time. On my eleventh birthday, I got a little boombox radio thing, and I had this notebook where I would predict the charts, because there was a Saturday radio show called the Top 40 SA, and I’d listen to the radio like it was my job. [laughs] That’s when I started to really listen to songs and piece them apart in my brain. A little bit after that, more into high school was when I started getting into indie music. My older sister introduced me to Walk the Moon, and they’re one of my favorite bands. The only tattoo I have is a Walk the Moon tattoo. I feel like that was one of the first bands where I started to piece apart the sounds, and they have some really great bass lines. I just have always been drawn to that.
Later on, when I moved to the US, I started going to basement shows in my college town. As much as I love to participate, I love to study and watch things, and I noticed that, if there’s a band playing in the basement – it doesn’t matter what kind of band – if your bassist, if your rhythm section is tight in the basement, you win. That’s all it takes. I had always been making the joke that the bassist is the hottest one in the band, because of my theory that the bassist is actually controlling the basement. In 2019 I took my boyfriend at the time to Guitar Center, and I was going to buy him a bass because he’s really talented. He was like, “You should not buy me a bass.” I went outside and I rang my friend Rory [Alene], who actually did the animations for ‘Lighter’, they’re a bassist as well. I was like, “I kind of want to play bass, but I don’t know if I can, because I don’t know anything about music.” And they were like, “All you need is a basic setup, you can borrow mine if you want.” I had a little bit of a cry outside of the Guitar Genter, and then I went inside and bought like a typical Squier starter pack.
My best friend Emily plays guitar, and I think two days after I got my bass, I went over to her house – this is like junior year of college, I’m almost 21 at this point – and we’re just doing homework, smoking weed, playing music like we always do. But this time, I have an instrument. I was like, “How did we not think about this before?” Because Emily and I would like to make songs together, we would sing songs together. She was in a band – I was not in a band, but I was like the band’s biggest fan, because I love my friends and I ride for them forever. But then I started playing bass and eventually joined a band with Rory and Emily and our friend Grace, who played drums. We were Sin Scope, we were a double bass band. We played shows up until January of 2020, band broke up, Rory and I had a falling out, I wrote ‘concrete’ based on that falling out. But then one day, in 2021, we had a really productive conversation, they apologized, and it was really wonderful. We’re now really great friends again.
I like the sound of the bass isolated, I think it’s a very powerful sound. I like writing on bass, because I think the melodies are a bit different when you write on base. I’m not a high-pitched girl, so it’s just easier for me to find places on the bass that fits with my voice. I don’t have to stretch myself very much to find a comfortable place to sing.
When did songwriting feel like a main outlet for expression for you, something intensely personal?
I’ve been writing for a really long time, I always say that I’m a writer first. I’ve been writing short stories since I was in third grade, and I used to write songs about how my mom and my sister didn’t like me. [laughs] My 12-year-old self used to be like, “You guys hate me so much!” Granted, it should have been like, This child is showing signs of depression. We should do something. But I used to be a freelance writer as my job for Everyday Feminism, The Tempest, Hello Giggles, that vertical of personal essays. Writing songs informally was a thing while I was growing up. I have four siblings – we’re all very close in age, I was never alone growing up, and we’d just mess around and make songs all the time. But when I moved here, I was interested in being involved in a scene where there was so much live music, so consistently, which is not what I had experienced living in South Africa. Now I’m in New Jersey, and I can go to three shows in the weekend if I want to. Being around so many other songwriters, it just opened itself as an obvious potential outlet.
I started writing songs in earnest in 2020, when I was playing in Sin Scope. After the band broke up, I actually went through a really rough period of writer’s block, because I had been writing pretty much consistently by that point since 2017, whether it’s freelance stuff or creative writing classes or doing stuff in the band. It was the first time in my life where the effects were so profoundly felt, where I would sit down to make something and nothing would come out, which was just a mind-boggling, very painful experience. For months and months and months, I was trying really hard, and nothing was coming out. And then in August of 2020, I wrote the bass line for ‘concrete’, and I sent it to Emily, and she was like, “This is really great! I’m so glad you’re still playing.” I was doing little covers on mt Instagram story at this time, and I did a cover of ‘Agnes’ by the Glass Animals, and they reposted it. And I remember being like, “Hold on a minute. Could this be a sign?”
I decided to take it as a sign. That December, I was procrastinating my pragmatics final – I was a linguistics minor in college – and I did not want to do my take home exam, so I ordered an interface instead. Two weeks after that, I wrote and recorded ‘concrete’, made first snowstorm of the year, redid the ‘Agnes’ cover. And I was like, “It came out! For the first time in so long, it worked!” I was like, “I’m just gonna put this out on Bandcamp, because what if this goes away again?” I honestly make the joke that I’m motivated by fear beyond anything else; I just am continuing to write because I’m terrified that if I stop, it’s gonna go away. But it came out, and I was like, “Okay, I can make songs.” Or, “I can make some songs, and these are the ones I can make.”
Pretty much immediately after I put out that EP, Saddle Creek found it and reached that to me. They were like, “We want to make records with you.” And I was like, “You don’t understand how much you’ve got the wrong guy. I’ve never done this before.” They were like, “We sent Ryan [Hemsworth] your EP. He really liked it. What if you worked on a couple of songs?” We had a call, he sent me a couple of tracks. ‘whole life’ was in that first batch of tracks, and I remember hearing the first mix that we had – it was the first time I ever heard my vocals mixed, and I peed my pants. I literally was listening into it and started peeing my pants and ran to the bathroom, just yelling, “Oh my god! Oh my god!” I started working with Ryan and the songs kept coming out. I sit down and make the song and the song’s done, and he works the same way. We both work really quickly. It never really had a chance to go away because we were just making stuff. And then, lo and behold, we had like 15 songs.
I wasn’t sure if it was Ryan or Saddle Creek that reached out first. That was just a few days after you put out the EP?
I posted the EP December 20. Amber [Carew] – who was A&R at the time, she’s not at the label anymore – DMed on Instagram, like, “ I really loved your EP, I would love to talk to you about music sometime.” I messaged her back, and I was like, “Hey, this is so nice, I would love to talk about music with you.” And after I responded – because I just like to make friends – I clicked on her profile and I saw A&R at Saddle Creek, and I was like, “Hold the phone. What’s going on?” [laughs] Amber and I had our actual call on January 13, which is my anniversary with my ex – we were in Massachusetts, we did a little road tip. I took her call, it was in the middle of dinner, and we ended up talking for an hour and a half. A few days before we talked on the phone, I got a notification from Bandcamp that said, “Ryans Hemsworth bought your EP.” I remember looking at that and I actually thought it was a spam email –
I just could not believe what was going on. [laughs] I was like, “Excuse me, Ryan who? Ryan Hemsworth from Canada?” And then I had the call with Amber, and she was like, “I’m gonna get you on a call with Ryan, see how you guys get along.” He’s so great. He’s a little weird guy, I’m a little weird guy, we do weird stuff together, and it works.
What were some signs that you could speak the same language musically?
He’s a very good listener. I was like, “Sometimes I don’t talk like a human being, and I hope you’re okay with that.” Sometimes when I’m trying to get to a really specific idea, the way I talk about it is really abstract, but with Ryan, we just really lock in. He really stays with me while I’m going on these crazy tangents, and he really really listens, because it’ll get to the point where it’s like, “Okay now, Ryan, do your production magic.” And he does it, and it’s right. And I think you can hear that on the record. We did not meet until December of 2021, but this record was finished in October of 2021. We did it all virtually, and I feel like it sounds really tight in terms of production and lyrics. It sounds really cohesive because we’re just in the same brain place. He’s just really open to people being emptying their pockets and being like, “This is what I’ve got, what have you got?” He’s just so ready to meet me there.
What feelings came up in the process of reworking ‘concrete’?
When it came time to actually redo ‘concrete’ for the record, I had just moved into my new apartment, and I got in sick. There was no guitar part, let’s just make that clear, because I am not a guitar player. My friend Ali [Allocco] came over one night and she wrote the guitar part. The harmonies on the record are picked directly from the original project. I was sick, and I was like, “I cannot redo these harmonies.” Like, “Thank you, Shalom from 2020! We are using this here,” and literally just copy-pasted that. Ryan and I did a couple of brainstorming sessions where we were just thinking about how to make the song bigger without turning it into a really showy thing that took away from the feelings of the song. My friend Calvin [Langman], who’s in a band called the Happy Fits, did the cello on that, Ryan did the strings intro. We worked on extending that outro, which now live is really special to me. That’s probably my favorite one to do live. It’s really crazy to see how that song has taken shape, not only from the EP to the record, but also from the record to the live show. I’m very proud of the way that the song has evolved.
Does it hit you differently?
In some ways. In any timeline, singing that song just makes me really treasure my friends. It’s like a reckoning – relationships can be broken, but they also can be mended. There was 100% a time where I was making that song because I was sad, but like, now I sing that song and Rory’s in the audience, so I’m not super sad about it anymore, obviously, because we’re friends again. But it just reminds me, when I’m performing, to value friendships because they can be so big and so important in your life, and then something can happen and you can not be friends anymore. It will suck, and it will suck because your mom will remind you about this friend that you don’t talk to anymore. My mom lives in South Africa – most of my friends have not met my mom, so if you have met my mom, it’s a big deal for me. And my mom loves Rory, and they love her, and my mom is always asking about them. My mom would be like, “How are they doing? I’m praying for them.” It was like that for like a year, and now it’s just not like that anymore. I’m really grateful for the way our relationship has mended itself.
I love the fact that ‘Soccer Mommy’, a punk song named after an indie rock project, is followed by ‘Did It to Myself’, which is straight-up synthpop. When you’re processing an emotion through music, do you tend to bounce between styles until you find something that feels right?
So, part of my super fun mixed bag of mental illness is that I have schizoaffective disorder. At the worst of an episode, I have really scary auditory hallucinations. And that can be very terrifying, but the flip side of that is it’s kind of like a superpower, in that sometimes I’ll be like, “What should this part sound like?” And I’ll just hear what it should sound like. ‘did it to myself’ was really fun. Ryan had sent me the track, and I’d been sitting on it for about a week. We had a girls’ weekend, all my friends were sleeping over at my house. My friend Lexi was the last one to leave – it was about to be 2pm, and she had to leave at like 2:30. I was like, “Do you want to work on a song with me?” Sometimes I’ll just be like listening to a track and it’ll just invoke a certain feeling, and I try not to hold back. We wrote the chorus, she recorded harmonies on the chorus, and I wrote the first verse. And then she left, and I finished the song and sent it to Ryan. The next day, he sent it back to me, and I was like, “This is great.”
Ryan is really great because he’s not confined by any specific genre. He doesn’t not send me something because he thinks it’s not my style. I don’t know much about genres. I’m not very technically skilled, either. I just have a good ear, and I know what sounds good together. And Ryan trusts me that if I think it sounds good, he’ll work with it, and if he thinks it sounds good, he’ll send it to me.
I was surprised by how anthemic ‘Nowadays’ gets, because the lyrics are quite dark, but it’s almost like it has to get that loud.
‘Nowadays’ is based off of an experience that I had when I was 13. I was in eighth grade, and my one of my very good friends died by suicide. She was 15. It was my first friend that ever died. I was 13, so, like, way to scramble the brain. The intro, it feels like there’s a longing there – when I listened to the track, the part of me that was feeling that was the 13-year-old part of me. I just immediately felt very connected to that experience. I’ve never really dealt with that specific trauma in a pointed way before. But making that song was one of the first instances where I was able to deal with the feelings I have around that incident. It just felt really honest. The more honest I am, the better I can know myself, and I find that songwriting is a very helpful avenue for me to do that through. It’s like, if I peel my chest open, and whatever falls out is whatever falls out and it happens to sound good, I’m not going to complain. I’m going to go along with it.
There’s at least one earnest positive affirmation on the album, and it comes on ‘mine first’: “I wanna be yours/ But I have to be mine first.” There’s a melancholy acceptance there, and the music doesn’t fight it – it just sits in that space.
When ‘mine first’ was written, I had just started my first full-time job out of college. I started that job on June 14, and me and my ex broke up on June 20. I was in a 3-hour long Zoom training, and I was sick because I had been crying for days, and I was so stuffy and congested and not having a good time. We dated for two and a half years and lived together for 14 months, so that was a very rough breakup for me. We didn’t break up for any bad reason – it was just like, “Is this working for you anymore?” “No. Is this working for you anymore?” “No.” “Should we keep doing it?” “Probably not.” But I was in a training, I turned my camera off and muted the Zoom call, and I literally just sat on the ground with my work computer on my desk, training continuing, and I recorded ‘mine first’.
It was such a real moment of reckoning for me, where I was like, “I would love so much to be so happy and in love – to be the way things were like two years ago.” It was around that time where the impact that I have on my life started making sense to me. I just started looking at life as in, I am player number one. My life doesn’t exist without me. I love doing stuff for people, I love being with people, I don’t think about myself – obviously, I think about myself, but I’m not self-serving in that way. But that break up was a realization where I was like, “It sucks so much, and I wish we were still together, and I wish things were working out. But also, at the end of the day, I’m the guy. My life is mine, and I have to be here for myself.”
What will you miss the most about making the album, or about the album being mostly just yours?
My self-esteem has not been great for pretty much my whole life. In the past, it’s been really hard for me to like myself. But when I started making these songs, specifically when I made ‘Lighter’, I started saying, “Wow, this is the best thing I’ve ever done, and I’m okay with never doing anything this good this fast ever again.” Because making these songs just made me start liking myself. The evolution from January 2021 Shalom to this version of Shalom is just so crazy, and it’s just been a really special journey to come to myself by making these songs. Deciding that I am being really vulnerable with myself in this moment, and I would like to share that with other people, because that’s what I want to do. And feeling good about it, not feeling like I’m doing it for any weird reasons or anybody’s approval. I’m just doing what I want, which is just not the conclusion I would have landed at in January 2021. I guess what I will miss the most about this album being mostly mine is just the journey that I’ve had with myself, the different ways that I’ve grown and the different things that I’ve learned in making this record. In some ways, I’m sad that that part is coming to an end, but I’m really excited for what else I can learn from other people who I get to share this record with.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Shalom’s Sublimation is out now via Saddle Creek.