Tate McRae Talks the ‘Rollercoaster of Emotions’ That Went Into Her Debut Album, ‘I Used to Think I Could Fly’

Tate McRae

Before Tate McRae wanted to be a singer or dancer, she wanted to fly.

“I’ve always been kind of obsessed with the concept of flying,” McRae tells Variety. “When I was younger, people would always say, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ And when I was a baby, I’m like, ‘I want to learn how to fly.'”

While she hasn’t realized that dream just yet, the concept provided major inspiration for the 18-year-old singer when she started writing her debut album — titled “I Used to Think I Could Fly,” naturally enough — which is out today via RCA Records.

“I think it’s so interesting how kids have this perspective of the world where because they don’t know enough yet, they’re not scared of things yet, they don’t know what they’re insecure about yet, and they have this innocent, pure brain that hasn’t been harmed by the world,” says McRae, who got her start as a finalist on “So You Think You Can Dance.” “I’m going through the process of growing up, and every single person that I’m meeting right now is leaving a mark on me and adding to the persona that I’m gonna be in 10 years.”

And, of course, part of growing up is experiencing heartbreak, which McRae portrays poignantly on the album. The 12-track project takes listeners through the ups and downs of love and loss from the sassy, I’m-over-you vibes of “Don’t Come Back” to the heartbreaking, hard-to-hear truths conveyed in “Hate Myself.” And with a stacked team of songwriters and producers including Greg Kurstin, Finneas, Blake Slatkin, Omer Fedi, Alexander 23, Charlie Puth, Louis Bell, Charlie Handsome and Jasper Harris, McRae certainly has a few hits up her sleeve.

Below, McRae tells Variety more about the recording process, writing “Hate Myself” the night of a break-up and why she wants the album to take listeners on a “rollercoaster of emotions.”

What was your mindset going into the songwriting process for this album?

It was very interesting because I got thrown initially into a lot of sessions with a lot of people, and I realized that the majority of songs that I ended up using were mostly written by just me, or just me and someone else. And I think that was the special part — I had a full realization moment that if I was gonna love this album, it had to be my truest feelings. I couldn’t be putting on a filter or any cover, it had to be exactly how I was feeling. And it was, honestly, nerve-wracking to open up that much to my fans. I don’t talk about a lot of stuff on the internet, and I don’t usually open up about my personal life. But I really feel like I did, and I have been recently and they know a lot more about me now. Especially since this album’s coming out, they’re going to know way more.

The album opener “Don’t Come Back” interpolates Nelly’s “Ride Wit Me.” What drew you to that song and how did you flip it to make it your own? 

I was in the studio with [producer] Charlie Handsome and he started playing a bunch of different loops. Then he played this one — honestly, I just start free-styling to see what came out and we were just singing old songs. He started singing “Ride Wit Me,” and I was like, “Is that a Nelly song? I’ll Tate-ify it and make it a bad bitch empowering version.”

“What Would You Do” has a bit of a rock edge and a stellar team of producers with Blake Slatkin, Alexander 23 and Charlie Puth. What were those sessions like?

I was hanging out with Alexander 23 and he was like, “Hey, do you wanna go hang out with Charlie?” We weren’t planning on writing a song but we ended up hanging out with Charlie in his studio, and then obviously Charlie starts playing instruments. We were supposed to go somewhere, and we just stayed in the studio all night long and started writing this really fun, pissed-off anthem. Then eventually we were like, we need to get Blake on this song, he needs to finish it and add his little touch to it. We ended up writing the bridge with him. Those people are my favorite people ever and really close friends of mine, so it was a really fun process.

The bridge is super fast and almost rap-like — when did you know you had put together the right combo of words?

We were like, “How are we going to summarize this song?” And Blake starts playing these really fast guitar chords and we’re just shouting out random lyrics. Like, “I keyed your car and then you blah blah blah!” and throwing out all these ideas. I remember we were writing out all these notes and it was a huge list, then Alex was texting us and sending us little voice messages like, “What if he didn’t show up to your birthday?” It wrapped up really quickly, and then we recorded it and it ended up sounding really punky and fun.

“Hate Myself” is so vulnerable. What’s the story behind this one?

It was a really hard and intense song for me to write, because I wrote it the night that I went through a break-up. Blake was like, “Get over here right now, you’re writing,” and I was like “No!” and, like, sobbing.

I just genuinely think that a lot of people like to make themselves the victim of every situation because it’s way easier to blame someone else. I’m the type of person in a relationship to blame me for everything — I’ll try and figure out all my faults and I’ll go down the list of everything that I did wrong. And in this song, I was talking about guilt and not wanting to hurt someone, but always still loving them. It was a really painful song to sing — I was literally mid-crying as I was recording the track, and you can hear it in the record. It was a good realization for me, because when I really care about people or really love people, I sometimes tend to push them away because I get scared of losing them.

The last track, “I Still Say Goodnight,” is produced by Finneas. It really taps into the power of a woman’s intuition — why end the album with this one?

As soon as we wrote that song, I was like, “One hundred percent, I’m finishing the album with this.” And I hadn’t even written the majority of the album yet, but I was like, this is exactly how I want it to end.

It is a song about intuition. I had this very vivid picture — it’s the feeling of when you look at someone and they say they’re not lying, but you know deep in your gut that they’re lying. I think that’s a really hard feeling, because you’re holding onto the hope of something that you know isn’t there anymore. I think when a relationship is fizzling out, people hold onto still saying goodnight to someone, like a text goodnight. It’s really sad when you send a text and they don’t respond anymore. I just genuinely thought that this song sounded like the rolling credits at the end of a movie, and I wanted my album to feel like that at the end.

What do you hope people will take away from this album?

I want them to be able to take these songs as saying exactly what they couldn’t say. But then again, I want them to go through a rollercoaster of emotions — I want them to genuinely feel like they’re watching a movie, because my intention is for them to experience every emotion and feel every story.