In Hebrew, “Shalom” has three meanings, one of which is “peace.” Shalom Obisie-Orlu is still looking for hers, but the singer/songwriter is getting closer every day to finding it. It’s been a journey, though, and not one that most Americans can understand. Born in Maryland, raised in South Africa, and currently based in Brooklyn, Shalom has moved twice in the last three months after living in a “racially hostile” apartment where a white roommate repeatedly sang a song containing a racial slur. “She just kept using the ‘N’ word after I talked to her about it,” Shalom says, visibly exhausted. “And she was like, ‘I’m Jewish. I didn’t write the song.’ It was so absurd.”
Amidst rough personal encounters like those, Shalom is also having the most musically successful year of her life. After a few years playing DIY shows with bands around New Brunswick (Shalom attended Rutgers University, where she earned her Bachelor’s in 2021), last summer she signed to indie-rock torchbearer Saddle Creek Records. The label’s A&R just happened to stumble across Shalom’s first self-released song, the meditative, aching “Concrete,” plus a few other home-recorded demos, which she’d compiled into an EP, the first snowstorm of the year, in December 2020.
Saddle Creek connected her with producer/DJ Ryan Hemsworth, who has worked on tracks for Tinashe, Tory Lanez, and Mitski, among others. In 2020, Hemsworth signed to Saddle Creek under the moniker Quarter-Life Crisis and released an EP of the same name featuring guest spots from Charlie Martin, Hand Habits, Frances Quinlan, Claud, and Yohuna. When he and Shalom started writing together over Zoom, ostensibly for Quarter-Life Crisis, they produced so much so quickly – including the already-released “DTAP,” a cover of Hovvdy’s “True Love,” “Bad To The Bone,” and Glass Animals cover “Agnes” – that Saddle Creek said, “You and Ryan should just make an EP.”
Four songs turned into seven songs, and before Shalom knew it, she was being encouraged to complete a full-blown LP. That body of work, titled Sublimation, will be released on March 10. It’s easy to see why Hemsworth and Shalom work so seamlessly; both are fast and prolific writers, and both have a natural ear for hooks. “He just really understands my brain,” Shalom says. “I don’t talk like a human sometimes. Like, I told him, ‘Imagine this sound but if it was like cereal milk. If you put all the cereals in it except the chocolate cereals – that milk. So like, it’s not just brown, because it’s got all different colored cereals in it. But there’s no brown in it.’ And he was like, ‘You’re weird, guy. I got you.’ And then he got it. He just understands me really well. And I felt really misunderstood for a long time growing up. It’s really special when I can level with someone and just be like, ‘This is what my brain is doing.’”
Shalom’s in-studio communication style might be a unique metaphorical language, but her lyrics are brutally straightforward and radically honest. Upbeat lead single “Happenstance,” one of our favorite songs of the week upon release, sounds outwardly joyous, with layered, driving percussion and an animated piano melody. Lyrically, however, Shalom unloads her frustrations: “I’m waiting for the day that I can finally walk away from all this bullshit/ Sitting in my room practicing how to be cool but I can’t do it/ I tried hard enough with my roommate and she’s mean for a nurse but anyway/ It wasn’t enough and my life is weighing heavy on my chest.”
On the chanting wall of sound “Soccer Mommy,” Shalom remembers how listening to the titular artist’s Color Theory LP was the only thing keeping her calm as she learned to drive. “I’m terrified of driving, but I always felt brave listening to ‘Circle The Drain’ on 287 South,” Shalom said in a statement when Saddle Creek released the song in early February. “I did a bunch of drugs before I turned 21/ Ate two tabs once a week for a whole month straight,” Shalom sings in a near-monotone, then turns the camera on her present-day self: “Now enough time has passed for me to know what the fuck was up/ Introducing her royal highness, it’s me — I’m a royal screw up/ I drive around listening to Soccer Mommy/ Whisper I’m so sorry/ To the girl you ate alive.”
Sublimation is a remarkable debut, an introductory statement that pulls you in with magnetic pop melodies and blunt candor. But despite what is sure to be a wave of positive coverage surrounding the album, Shalom, who also lives with bipolar disorder, is plainspoken about her ongoing struggles, which include the aforementioned job hunt and lack of health insurance. “My medication is really expensive,” she says. “I don’t have insurance and Latuda is $1,500 for 30 pills. I also, like, can’t not take it.” In addition to various psychiatric prescriptions, Shalom self-medicates with weed, which she says “has the most profound effect” on her. Over the course of our Zoom conversation, Shalom periodically pauses mid-thought to inhale from a towering yellow bong. “If I’m having a panic attack, like shaking, crying, screaming, throwing up, if I rip the bong, I will be fine… I can just go to bed immediately.”
Shalom’s fatigue crystalizes on the latest Sublimation single, “Lighter,” a midtempo ballad about feeling all kinds of burnout. “I’m a super resilient person, but I’m really fucking exhausted of it,” Shalom admits. “Like, I’m tired of having these ‘Elle Woods in the pink bunny costume’ moments. Like, [quoting from Legally Blonde] ‘I’ll show you how valuable Elle Woods can be.’ I mean, I will, but, who’s writing this? Can you send me to jury duty for a season? Can I chill for a minute? I’ve lived the last five years and not had a minute. And when I have had a minute, it’s been like, I went to LA for two weeks, and I was still working. I’m working all the time.”
At the same time, “Lighter” does signify a personal triumph. “The song made me start liking myself, she says. “I wrote it in 45 minutes, I sent it to Ryan, and then the next morning I woke up and he had sent me the mix back. While I was listening to it, I was like, ‘I made this. Objectively, this is excellent. Surely I cannot be garbage if this is what I’m making!”
At no point does Shalom attempt to paint a coat of white primer over her day-to-day life, which is simultaneously filled with potential energy around Sublimation’s impending release and anxiety around her tenuous living situation, work, meds, and money. On one hand, Shalom’s experience is typical of your average young adult trying to carve out a path in an unforgiving city. On the other, this person and her life are anything but ordinary.
One of five siblings, Shalom left Johannesburg for America after attending the local University for one year. “And then I got mugged six times in 2016,” she says. “I was like, that’s enough. I have to go now.” Getting to New York City was always Shalom’s goal. “For my 18th birthday, my sister got me a New York guide book because I was obsessed with New York and Brooklyn. It was like my big dream. I went to Rutgers because it was close to New York, I could be there on the train. [But] when I came to New York, I was really disappointed. I was like, ‘It smells like trash, and it’s way too hot.’ In Southern Johannesburg, it’s not humid, like ever. I felt like I was swallowing water.”
Soon, however, Shalom started heading into the city for shows, seeing bands like LANY and Walk The Moon live. Well before she picked up a bass in 2019, Shalom blogged independently and wrote freelance articles for millennial-focused online outlets like Everyday Feminism and Hello Giggles. “Basically exploiting my trauma for money,” Shalom deadpans.
A couple of years later, Shalom bought her first bass at Guitar Center and taught herself how to play. “I really love bass, I really love the sound of it,” she says. “When I started going to shows in New Brunswick, I started really studying these bands. And I was like, ‘Out of all of [the members], your bassist has the power.’ People are moving because of your bassist. If your rhythm section is tight in a basement, it doesn’t matter. If you’re playing a hollow-body guitar in the basement, you’re fucked for sound; feedback will be terrible. But if your bassist and your drummer can hold it down, the basement will be poppin’. And that’s just the rules.”
Though it is a product of her aforementioned hustle, Sublimation is also “a look into what life has been for me since moving to America.” Shalom then outlines a scenario: “Imagine if you lived on the other side of the world. Then, when you were 19, you just packed up all your shit and moved [to the US]. And you’re already a person who has had a lot of weird shit happen to them.
“The songs are processing for me,” she continues. “I hold a lot in my body. If I’m really upset about something, like, it literally hurts. But if I sit down and am like, ‘Okay, it’s coming out,’ once it’s out I don’t have to hold it all the time. I can still reach via song, but I don’t need to have it on all the time. Now it lives over there because I don’t want to hold it anymore.”
Processing her emotions into song is also a way for Shalom to live out her namesake. “My mom is very big on meanings of names,” Shalom says. “She was saying to me yesterday, ‘Shalom, I’m always telling you, don’t worry. Just relax. You’re gonna get to live your name. You will have peace.” Or, like a rabbi once told her: “The truest meaning of ‘Shalom’ is to destroy the authority attached to chaos. It’s getting rid of the thing that thinks that gets to control the chaos. That’s peace.”