At just 17, Tate McRae has already cemented herself as one of pop’s fastest rising stars — and she did it all while quarantined in her house.
McRae took the pop world by storm in 2020 with the April release of her heartbreakingly honest single, “You Broke Me First.” The song, featuring a hook that lends itself perfectly to scream-singing in the car with the windows rolled down, catapulted McRae to stardom in the midst of a pandemic. McRae — whose second EP, “Too Young to Be Sad,” is out today — is quick to note the oddity and double-edged nature of her rise to fame.
“I’ve accomplished some of my biggest goals I’ve ever dreamed of and I haven’t truly been able to experience it in person,” McRae tells Variety. “It’s been really interesting to go to my first-ever awards show and first-ever red carpet and late night shows and being able to perform, but not able to see anyone or leave my house.”
To date, “You Broke Me First” is certified platinum, has garnered over 800 million combined streams worldwide and placed at No. 1 on Billboard’s dance and emerging artist charts. And McRae’s 2021 is starting off just as strong — she is the youngest person on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list, and is currently Apple’s Up Next Artist and both Amazon and Pandora’s Artist to Watch.
But McRae isn’t a stranger to the spotlight: She grew up dancing and competed on the 13th season of “So You Think You Can Dance” in 2016, coming in third and becoming the first Canadian finalist on the show. Before appearing on the show, McRae also had a stint dancing on Justin Bieber’s Purpose World Tour.
“I started dancing when I was around 6, and I was pretty committed to thinking that I was going to grow up and be a professional dancer. I really did think that was going to be my career choice,” McRae says. “The thing that I think brought me into singing was the fact that I just really loved writing, whether it was stories or poetry. I had this weird passion for it that whenever I was in a really intense moment or I was feeling something really emotional, I just would go always straight to writing.”
McRae first introduced the world to that side of her on Oct. 20, 2017, in a YouTube video titled “i wrote a song… one day.” The video starts off with a nervous, 14-year-old McRae telling the camera: ” I just whipped this out. I don’t really know where it came from because it’s about love and I’m currently not in love. I’ve had crushes in my life, but I’m just focused on my passions and my dancing, singing and acting, so I’m not boy-crazy right now.”
But contrary to the typical pubescent popstar wannabe, McRae’s lyricism in “One Day” is mature and to-the-point. It’s clear that the young McRae is a natural-born storyteller as she sings: “It’s impossible to get you off my mind / I think about a hundred thoughts and you are 99 / I’ve understood that you will never be mine / And that’s fine I’m just breaking inside.”
“It’s a very vulnerable feeling because my entire diary from when I was 13-16 years old is posted on the internet,” McRae says of her YouTube channel. “I always look back at my most dramatic and really in-my-feels phases of my life and they were all documented, which is pretty embarrassing if I really go into the depths of it, but also the coolest thing ever. It’s like looking through a photo album.”
That YouTube video started it all for McRae, leading to her record deal with RCA Records. And the echoes of “One Day” can certainly be heard in “You Broke Me First,” which McRae calls her “baby,” as well as her new EP, “Too Young to Be Sad.” All have one common thread: a maturity and emotional depth that’s rare for songwriters of her age.
McRae’s lyrical honesty regarding the trials and tribulations of growing up in the social media age and strong, warbling voice have often drawn comparisons to another young, talented musician — Billie Eilish. Though McRae considers the comparison a compliment and Eilish an inspiration, she is adamant that the similarities end there.
“Firstly, it’s a bit of an honor because she’s one of the greatest female artists right now,” McRae says. “But then again, I feel like we have very different sounds; our voices are very different. For a lot of females growing up in this age, there’s only a few artists they would be compared to. And I feel like Billie would be one of them because she grew up on social media herself and had this same sort of growth.”
But Eilish has, in fact, been a contributor in McRae’s growth, having co-written McRae’s first single for RCA Records with brother Finneas O’Connell, “Tear Myself Apart.”
“Fifteen-year-old me was like, ‘Oh my god, Billie and Finneas are letting me sing this song? Yes please, they’re the coolest people ever,'” McRae says.
As far as her songwriting process goes, McRae prefers to come up with a concept off-the-cuff rather than plan it all out. Though McRae says her inspiration comes from her personal life or her observation of others, she prefers not to lay her cards out on the table and instead sings what she can’t say.
“I’m really terrible at talking about myself, especially in sessions. If I don’t know the producer or the writer, I’m not going to spill my deepest, darkest secrets to them in two seconds,” McRae says. “So I tend to freestyle to some sort of loop, whether that’s guitar or piano, and without actually explaining myself, I’ll have a concept in my brain. If it’s just something sitting in my head that I wouldn’t talk about, I’ll sing it. It’ll come out and people will be like, ‘Ah, that’s a sick concept’; little do they know it’s everything that I’m experiencing at that moment.”
On “Too Young to Be Sad,” McRae displays a true-to-life picture of teenage romance, from the early days of falling (“Bad Ones”) to miscommunication (“Slower”), complications (“R U OK”), breaking up (“You Broke Me First,” “Rubberband”) and longing for something more (“Wish I Loved You in the 90s”).
But with the title of her EP, McRae is hoping to juxtapose her love-centric discography by encouraging her fellow Gen Z-ers to live in the present.
“I have all these love songs and heartbreaking songs on this EP, and that’s one side of my personality, but I have this whole other side of me that honestly doesn’t give a crap about anything,” McRae says. “I feel like teenagers get really wrapped up in their feelings right now, but there’s also something really special about being present and in the moment and enjoying life and seeing the good things.”
On “Wish I Loved You in the 90s” — the EP’s last song, and one of its standouts — a chord progression reminiscent of “Wonderwall” and a slower pace see McRae, born in 2003, wishing away the buzz of social media for a chance at true romance.
“If I had loved you in the ’90s / Back when life wasn’t a blur / Say right guy, right vibe wouldn’t have to try / Bet it wouldn’t hurt,” McRae sings on the track.
McRae admits that she’s “scared for this generation” when it comes to dating, which became the inspiration for the song.
“I have this whole idea in my head that if phones didn’t exist, social media didn’t exist and this whole couldn’t-care-less persona of every single person in the world didn’t exist, that people would actually be able to find good love and not be in toxic relationships all the time,” McRae says. “People used to care so much more and put in so much effort and I feel like that’s lacking so much nowadays, and it totally takes away from what a relationship is actually supposed to feel like.”
McRae points to her own parents’ relationship, recalling that her dad had to ring her mom’s doorbell with flowers on the first date and make a good impression on her parents.
“Nowadays, a guy just sends a text like, ‘Here,'” McRae says. “That’s brutal.”
McRae is confident that she’s not the only teen that feels this nostalgia for an era without social media, echoing the main goal of her songwriting: to make other teenagers feel less alone in their social media-inundated, hectic lives.
“Honestly I think of music as a huge piece of therapy for me. If I’m ever in a hard place where I can’t seem to put things into words, I’ll literally just go on a drive and listen to music and see if I can find someone else to do that for me,” McRae says. “And that’s all I want to be for people who listen to my music, is just to be able to put every single thing that they’re thinking into words and know that they’re not actually the only one feeling it. It makes things a lot less serious than they feel.”
Although McRae has become a star from her childhood home, she is hopeful that 2021 will bring the chance to live the life of a true up-and-coming musician.
“Hopefully I’ll get back on tour later this year; that would be a dream come true,” McRae says. “I will start writing an album this year, which is something I’ve been looking forward to my entire life, so there’s a lot of things that I’m really excited about … and I can’t wait to leave my house to do them.”