Best of What’s Next: Shalom

Music Features Shalom
Best of What’s Next: Shalom

Content Warning: This article contains discussions of addiction and suicide

When I first meet Shalom Obisie-Orlu—who, on record, performs as just Shalom—she is in the middle of responding to one of former NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho’s infamously horrendous takes on Twitter. Her cat is wandering and meowing nearby; the sun splashes against the wall behind her in her Queens apartment. The interview started as a phone call but, after both of us divulged that we each have anxiety and ADHD, it quickly became a FaceTime chat. Outside of music, Shalom’s most recent job title is Social Media Specialist at a PR agency, and she studied communication and linguistics at Rutgers across the bridge in New Brunswick. So, in the wake of online beefs, she is always game for battle.

The fact of the matter is, Shalom has her debut record on the way called Sublimation and it’s very good and very emotionally naked. The 13 songs are familiar, but only sonically. They’re informed by her influences, like Car Seat Headrest and Soccer Mommy, but the lyrics are immense and personal, almost to the point where you might accuse Shalom of oversharing. That’s what you get with her, though, and it’s a gift to speak with someone so acutely vulnerable about their own ups and downs, as cliché as that might sound.

But being engrossed in the ugly parts of life is something Shalom is really in love with, and it translates into her own songwriting. “I love to be involved in people’s lives. I love to see people doing well. I love being a part of it when I can be,” she says. “I really care about people and I really care to know what’s going on in their lives. When Instagram started, it was just me and my friends letting each other know what was going on. It was just like, ‘This is my life. This is my pizza. This is the test I got a 100% on.’ Though those days of social media simplicity are gone for a lot of us, Shalom is still in that place. “Why would I lie about how I feel? I love Instagram because it’s always been a place where I’ve felt authentic and it’s a great feeling, to feel real,” she adds.

I quickly comb through Shalom’s backstory with her: Her parents were Nigerian immigrants; she was born in Maryland but grew up in South Africa; she came back to the U.S. for college and got hooked on the DIY scene at Rutgers; now she lives in Queens—after being priced out of Brooklyn—and makes good tunes with multi-hyphenate Ryan Hemsworth, whom she got hooked up with through her label, Saddle Creek. Together, they recorded and released four singles in 2022: “DTAP,” “Bad To The Bone” and covers of Hovvdy’s “True Love” and Glass Animals’ “Agnes.” With Hemsworth in Canada, the pair’s long-distance collaboration began in early 2021 with the idea to make an EP out of new material. But, quickly, what resulted from those sessions became Sublimation. So, the question of “How did you get to this place as a musician with all of the places you’ve been and all of the scenes you’ve weaved through?” is a loaded one, as Shalom has lived a very fast-paced life and an emotional couple of days loomed heavily over our interview.

The Wednesday before I call Shalom, she posted a photo from the Sublimation promo shoot on her Instagram with a caption explaining how Monday, January 23rd was “the worst day of my life and i almost did not make it out.” Comb through her social media and you will quickly understand that bouts with mental illness are something Shalom has been enduring for quite some time, and they are usually reflected on, after the fact, on her timeline or in her stories. Though the post was vague, you can infer what she meant. Going into our conversation, that was something that was clearly weighing on her mind, but I didn’t want to pry into that moment. But she was candid about it immediately, quickly transitioning from her anger towards Acho without hesitation. “It’s been a really crazy week. I almost died on Monday, so everything is very weird. But it’s okay, we’re gonna fix it,” she says.

Though she’s quick to note that she is a Cancer—and that star alignment does greatly inform aspects of her personhood—Shalom’s roots online are not so bound to astrology: In 2015, she got “famous” on the study side of Tumblr, where she would push study tips, cool ways to take notes and how to get help with math. “The program is Wolfram Alpha. It can do any equation and can show you all of the steps,” Shalom says. “I was like, ‘Guys, I’m really bad at math, but this thing saved my life.’ And that post was in 2015 and it’s still making rounds.” Then, a year later, she adopted the mantra that has carried over into her music career: “Since 2016, I’ve tried really, really hard to live by the idea that life is just a series of events where you get to choose to act out of love or you get to choose to act out of fear every time,” she adds.

The last seven years, or so, have not been easy on Shalom. She candidly refers to her failed suicide attempts as “troubleshooting,” and laughs about her other near-death experiences, like getting in a bunch of car accidents. But 2023 has been particularly hard for her. Shalom hurriedly moved twice in three months after issues with roommates, varying from gaslighting to racism, left her office job after her mental health plummeted because of the draining nature of a corporate email job and lost both her income and health insurance. As her bank account was nearing zero and she had to pay for rent and medication, she launched a GoFundMe. “I was begging for help for a long time,” she says. “After being faced with the realization that I had enough money for my meds or for rent, I thought, ‘If I can’t have both, I would rather be dead. If I can’t have a place to live and also [have] my brain intact, I would rather die.’” The panic came to a head when Shalom’s forthcoming housing crisis began to feel much more real, and she started considering finding a new home for her cat.

I think the personal lives of musicians can sometimes get muddied by the glory of a record deal. Shalom didn’t get a seven-figure payout from Saddle Creek for Sublimation—few indie artists will ever see that kind of stipend—but she’s on a label that puts out albums by some of the best artists in the world, like Indigo De Souza, Hand Habits, Tomberlin and Hemsworth’s Quarter-Life Crisis. We see these rosters and assume that everyone on them is doing great because they now have the assets to put out a beloved project they worked endlessly to make. But there is much more going on that so many folks don’t know about. Before we sat down together, Shalom spent most of the week doing logistical work about Sublimation. The day after her almost suicide attempt, she had to sit through a meeting about bookings.

After making it through January 23rd, Shalom marked it on her calendar: “bad day (worst).” What made this day so much more unbearable than anything she’d gone through in her teens was the simple explanation of being stuck in the throes of adulthood. When she was in high school, a cry for help was usually cushioned with the safety of having a place to sleep and food to eat. On the 23rd, though she got enough money to get her medication, she didn’t have enough left over to buy the food she needed in order to successfully take those meds. “I have to eat before I take Latuda, otherwise I will throw up. And it’s a $1,500 pill,” Shalom adds. But, after a period of time that she only calls “not good,” in which Shalom withholds details that are hers and hers only, she reveals that her younger sister talked to her on the phone for a long time and bought her the dinner she needed. Afterwards, things quickly fell back into place, though they thudded heavily.

The next day, January 24th, Shalom woke up and learned that she was actually owed a lot of money, all of which would cover rent, medication, groceries and rent, again. “I’m feeling a lot better today than I was, because I was just in such a state of shock. I really was at such a risk of dying, but I didn’t have to be, which is a crazy way for the day after a suicide attempt to go. The next day they were like, literally, ‘Actually, you’re rich.'”

During our call, Shalom is noticeably better. It’s only been a handful of days since her suicide attempt, but she is speaking actively about walking through life without fear. Over the next few weeks, as the release of Sublimation gets closer, she’ll continue to be positive, especially around her art and her survival. “I’m here for a reason, because I’ve attempted exits several times,” Shalom says. Her mantra of choosing love over fear comes from the Tumblr bio of an Australian woman named Phoebe. “Her little bio blurb, all it said was ‘Love > Fear,’” she adds. “I saw that and I was like, ‘I’ve never seen such a compelling argument and understood it so quickly, ever, in my life before…or after.’ It just made sense. And I was like, ‘Okay, so I just have to care.’”

And in turn, Sublimation is this grand exercise of not giving in to fear. She puts her entire self out on the line, not afraid of articulating her life in ways that might make for an uncomfortable list. The lead single, “Happenstance,” is a giant “fuck you” to Shalom’s college roommate from freshman year. On Instagram, in the caption for her album announcement, she wrote: “happy happenstance day, blast it for mean nurses everywhere to know that the rest of us are fucking on to them.” That roommate, who shall remain nameless here, went on to become a nurse, but not before vaguely accusing Shalom of stealing from her. Shalom was surprised, because they had been friends since before she left South Africa, and they were living in the dorm together by her roommate’s request.

Later, during the week of midterms before spring break, she found Shalom sobbing on the rug in their dorm room. Instead of keeping her cool and attempting to comfort her, she told their RA that she worried that Shalom was going to kill herself. Why was Shalom in such a bad way in the first place? On top of the stress that comes during midterms week, she’d just learned that she wouldn’t be able to return to South Africa to celebrate her mom’s 50th birthday with her four siblings. Her roommate ended up moving out of the room the next day, and Shalom spent the remainder of the school year isolated. The rest of the dorm decided that her roommate had the right idea, and what was supposed to be a comforting and understanding space with an alternative arts community turned into a hellscape riddled with friendly bullies. All of this left Shalom vulnerable, especially as a 19-year-old on her own in America for the first time.

For over an hour, Shalom goes on elaborate tangents about vivid memories from her past. She talks about getting into a relationship with a 24-year-old and dating him for “four very intense months” until he told her he was pretending to be in love with her—with the caveat that the sex was good and their kids would be cute. When he walked out of her apartment, Shalom never saw him again. She takes a deep pause. “And that’s what ‘Train Station’ is about,” she says with a smirk. When explaining her songs, she cannot fathom doing so in only a few words. There are many days, months, even years of pain and healing and reconciliation at the root of each track. A sentence could never paint the whole picture.

In 2018, Shalom started throwing shows in her basement and booking shows in other peoples’ basements. “New Brunswick’s music scene is extremely special and extremely important,” she says. “It’s just kids who rent a house. People choose if they want their house to be a show house and then they take the risk. Then you put lights up in the basement and get a rug for the drums. I made the joke that I’m part of the furniture in New Brunswick, because I haven’t been back to South Africa since 2018. I was in New Brunswick every summer and every semester and every Thanksgiving. I didn’t have anywhere to go.”

Shalom’s tour de force single “Soccer Mommy” arose from the ashes of a destructive 2018, where she found herself off of her meds and taking a lot of acid, and her getting her driver’s license in 2019. “I’ve always been really scared of driving, [I got in] a bunch of car accidents as a kid and a bunch of car accidents as an adult. I spent 2020 driving on 287 [South] and listening to Color Theory by Soccer Mommy. I was thinking about my life a lot,” Shalom says. In turn, “Soccer Mommy” is a brisk, two-minute collage of energetic, searing guitars and Shalom’s voice firmly engrossed in the eye of the storm. “Whisper ‘I’m so sorry’ / To the girl you ate alive / And I’m not sure when it changed but I’m bored of being ashamed,” she sings, in a monotone octave fashioned like a metronome.

In the background of these stories, there is a constant: A woman named Emily Wheatley, who is not just Shalom’s longtime best friend, but the guitar player in her band, too. When things went to shit freshman year at Rutgers, Wheatley’s room became a haven; when Shalom moved off campus, so did Wheatley, and they both spent the summer beating the shit out of Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial, the only CD in Wheatley’s car. Shalom plays bass, too, but her “come to Jesus moment” wasn’t like Emily’s, who heard MGMT’s “Electric Feel” and was guided by her art teacher to keep seeking out songs that sounded similar. “In 2018, I was really into bass players and I was like, ‘This is the part of music that I’ve always been drawn to.’” she says. “I was going to shows and I was seeing that the bassist is the person with the power. Your body listens to the bassist. And I always made the joke about how the bassist is the hottest one in the band, and I wanted to be the hottest one in the band.”

Shalom eventually got her hands on a bass of her own, picking one up from Guitar Center after crying on the phone with her friend Rory. “I was like, ‘I want to buy this, but I don’t know how to do it.’ And they were like, ‘Just do it,’” Shalom says. “At that point, I’d never played an instrument before. I played the ukulele, but not very well.” Shalom turns her head and motions at the top of her Squier bass guitar that’s barely in frame. She and Rory would both play bass in a band called Sin Scope with Wheatley and their drummer, Grace. “It was cool and scary, because I had never played an instrument before and I was not doing it right. I still am not doing it right, but, now, I don’t care, because it’s fine,” she adds. “But, at the time, I was playing shows and I was really nervous about these math-rock college boys looking at me playing this.”

Once COVID hit in 2020, Shalom holed up in her ex-boyfriend’s parents’ house, because she didn’t have anywhere else to go. “They invited me to move in with them because I really didn’t have anywhere else to go, and I didn’t want to be back and forth between their home and New Brunswick and potentially bring something back and get them sick. I’m so grateful for them; it felt like having parents [in America].” It was there that she started covering songs and putting them on Instagram. When she posted her cover of “Agnes” by Glass Animals, the band reshared it. “Wavey Davey [Bayley] thinks I’m the guy!” she laughs. Later that year, Shalom recorded “Concrete,” which ended up on Sublimation. After sending a bunch of songs to her friends and putting them on Bandcamp, an A&R rep from Saddle Creek hit her up and got her connected with Hemsworth, and the two musicians would write and record together, albeit virtually, for the next two years.

Everything changed for Shalom in February 2021 when she and Hemsworth made “Soccer Mommy.” It was as if the tides had finally turned for her, that she could actually make a whole record. “[I remember] feeling really crazy because I was like, ‘This is my favorite song I’ve ever heard and I made it,’” she says. “The first time I heard my vocals mixed, I pissed my pants. I peed my pants and I ran to the bathroom and I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ It was so crazy to me. I thought it sounded so good and so cool. At that point, I was walking past myself in the mirror and giving myself a wink.”

Shalom talks more about working with Hemsworth but, in the middle of all of that, she takes a moment to herself. “It’s just so crazy that I almost wasn’t going to be here, like for real,” she says. She sits on everything and considers all of the deep, sometimes uncomfortable stuff she’s let out over the last hour and a half. Then, Shalom brings up her mom, who, at the time of our conversation, doesn’t know about any of the stuff she’s been going through for the last five, six years. She’s a very Christian, Nigerian woman who, as Shalom says, is a “great one, because she really believes that her job is just to love people.”

On her Instagram posts, Shalom quotes her mom’s wisdom often. On January 25th she wrote: “my mom told me on the phone today, ‘your name is shalom. and you will have peace. and your enemies will know trouble like never before and the ground will swallow them up.’” Her mom comes up in the beautiful, string-heavy “Concrete,” which was one of the first songs Shalom wrote for Sublimation. Their conversations are getting more complicated, and Shalom is, slowly, opening up to her about all of the heartache and torment she’s been wrestling with since leaving South Africa for Rutgers. Now, Shalom is weighing the pros and cons of coming out to her mom, officially.

“I know my mom loves me so much. When I was in school, my first relationship was with a woman and we dated for almost a year. I was hiding this from my mom and, at one point, my sister was like, ‘Yeah, I told mom you were bisexual,’ and I was like, ‘What?’ In recent years, I’ve been thinking about talking to her about it, because I think she loves me so much that she would just love me. But, being gay in Nigeria can be a death sentence, and I think a lot of her feelings around [queerness], literally, comes from fear, because she doesn’t want me to be a target. And I think the reason I keep things from my mom is because, in my life so far, I’ve just been really hurt for no reason. I know how much my mom loves me and I don’t want her to be upset,” Shalom says, before cascading into a good cry. “I just can’t imagine how painful it would be for my mom to learn all the terrible things that have happened to me. I cannot imagine how painful that would be for her. But maybe I wouldn’t have to carry it anymore. It would be really painful, but may she can take it, because it would help so much.”

A few days after our interview, Shalom texts me. She says she talked to her mom about everything and that it went well. She even sent a tongue-out emoji when announcing that she even came out to her. Suddenly, the exhaustion she exudes on “Lighter” appears to dissipate in real time. She wrote that track in 45 minutes, and it sent her on a pathway to loving herself. When it hits streaming platforms in late February, she is already in a much better place. Her posts on social media now have been nothing but flexes about Sublimation’s impending release date, along with a few long, thoughtful birthday posts for some of her friends. I went into our phone call trying to uncover more about how Shalom adopted such a unique sound culled from a decade of indie rock. What I learned, instead, was everything you could possibly want to know about Shalom the person, not Shalom the musician. I’ve probed many artists about their backgrounds, about what came before the music. Their answers are usually a sentence or two. With Shalom, she gave me a key to her world and invited me inside before I could even knock on the door.

I could go on and on about Shalom’s music. Listen to a track like “Happenstance” or “Soccer Mommy” and you’ll understand why she’s the “Best of What’s Next.” The tracks are clean, groovy and urgent. Her vocals are unmoved and glide atop Hemsworth’s production in a mix of grit and finesse. But there’s something about Shalom that carries far beyond the tunes. By the time our conversation concluded, we’d eclipsed the two-hour mark. There were tears, laughs and bong rips aplenty, and the whole thing felt like a moment of healing. It was the first interview I ever conducted that never turned into a Q&A at any point. I only got two questions out, because talking to Shalom about her work is akin to those late-night conversations that crawl into the mouth of a sunrise. You do not pick where the conversation goes; you just fall in love with it.

On March 10th, you ought to do yourself a favor and stream Sublimation; not just because it’s a great debut record made by a brilliant musician, but because it’s documentation of a young person attempting to make peace with their own trauma and bullshit. For some of us, it’s exactly the record we need at this very moment: Sublimation tells us that catharsis doesn’t always come by letting go; sometimes it arrives once we lend ourselves some room to make sense of what’s gnawing at us.

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