The next Canadian pop superstar has arrived.
If you like: Olivia O’Brien, Tove Lo, Billie Eilish
Recent music: chaotic, she’s all i wanna be, feel like shit
Next: Upcoming album I Used to Think I Could Fly (Fri., May 27), JUNOS nom for last year’s EP TOO YOUNG TO BE SAD; playing Munich (Sun., May 8), Milan (Mon., May 9), Vienna (Wed., May 11) and more on her European tour
After about five minutes with Calgary-raised teen pop titan Tate McRae, I find myself shocked that she found the time to speak with me. “I just finished my U.S. tour,” she says, rattling off life-changing commitments with the nonchalance one might use to discuss a grocery list. “I have, like, one week back in L.A., where we’re filming two music videos, we have performances and shoots to film. Then I leave for my European tour next week.”
It’s a lot for an 18-year-old, but McRae says she’s been ready for this for her whole life. After all, she was thrust into the spotlight at the age of 13, when she became the first Canadian finalist on So You Think You Can Dance; she then grew a YouTube following by posting original songs, gaining label attention when the song One Day went viral in 2017 (adorably, her 14-year-old self prefaces the video by assuring her viewers she’s actually “not boy-crazy right now”).
She’s had countless big breaks, but her biggest came with the dark alt-pop track you broke me first, which went viral on TikTok and now sits at 1.4 billion streams (yes, billion). Now, with a global fanbase behind her and more hype than ever before, she’s prepping for the release of her heavily anticipated debut album, I Used To Think I Could Fly.
“I’ve always been very busy,” she says. “And I like to be busy. But this is, definitely, the busiest I’ve ever been in my life. And I think as much as it’s exhausting at points, I’m also doing everything that fulfills me as a person.”
With a seemingly inexhaustible work ethic, an acrobatic voice and a wide-eyed, bubbly disposition that’s bright enough to be its own renewable power source, McRae seems custom-built to be the world’s next big pop star. She’s had an unorthodox come-up that she still seems to be internalizing; she went from being bullied all throughout high school for posting her songs online to having her face splashed across billboards on the week of her graduation. She laughs about this now — “When you get made fun of for something and karma ends up working with you in the right way, it’s always a very, very satisfying feeling,” she smiles — but it was undeniably tough. I’m only a couple of years older than her, and we commiserate about the feeling of graduating high school and thinking your problems are finally over only to realize there’s a whole new host of problems waiting for you that you couldn’t have even imagined.
“It’s funny because I moved to LA and I’m like, wow, this is literally the exact same as high school. Literally the same people, just a little bit older … And as soon as I moved into my first apartment alone, I started becoming way more observant of who I was, and the people around me. I had all these insecurities that I never knew I had before. And, you know, that was really scary for me — I didn’t realize what life could look like, because you hear adults talk to you about it, but it could never seem true until you’re there and you realize the weight of it.
“I feel like I’ve lived through 10 different lives. And I’m only 18. I feel like I’m a 40-year-old in an 18-year-old’s body. It’s really strange because now is the first time that I, as an 18-year-old, am experiencing actual adulthood. So, you know, I got my first apartment, and I have to do real adult things. I’m going through relationships and this very transitional period in my life that’s super emotional … I feel like I really wanted to encapsulate that in this album and bring it as this coming-of-age piece of work.
“Ever since I was like a baby, I’ve always had this infatuation with flying,” she says, explaining the album’s title. “I know how to lucid dream, so I can always fly in my dreams if I’m ever in a terrifying situation or whatever — that’s why I’ve always had this infatuation with it. I feel like, as a child, you have this fearlessness that you can literally do anything, and you can grow up with no fears and no insecurities and nothing attached to just being who you are. And then I feel like as you get older, you know, the people around you and the places you go, and the toxicity of social media … there are so many different things that just latch on to your soul and make you be scared of certain things that you probably would have never been scared of before.
You grow up and reality kind of slaps you in the face. And you get a taste of what the real world feels like. That’s what I wanted to capture: me turning 18 and getting a real taste of life for the first time.”
Despite the seriousness of her subject matter, McRae makes everything fun — she favours bright colours, neon lighting, shamelessly Gen Z aesthetics and earnest, plainspoken lyrics about the rollercoaster of teenage emotions. Her brand of pop leans alternative, with dark, atmospheric production and echoing vocals. She’s been called Canada’s response to Billie Eilish, but that’s perhaps more of a consequence of the misogynist impulse to compare and contrast young female artists far more than it is an accurate prescription; really, she’s her own artist, whole and capable and in control.
But, as with any rising star, the criticism and comparisons aren’t always kind. As one of the hottest 18-year-olds in the world right now, McRae has found herself at the intersection of millions of different people’s expectations — and she’s aware of what the industry has done to young stars of her ilk in the past.
“If you were to see who the biggest overthinker was for that kind of stuff, it would definitely be me,” she says, after I ask her if she worries about how young women are treated in the industry. “The hard part is that I do have a lot of people telling me how I should be creating my music because I am young. I’ve gotten the spiels from many, many, many people telling me how to write my music — like, saying, if I don’t do this, then I’m going to wreck my life, and if I do this, then I’m going to wreck my life. And, you know, I think that’s a very traumatizing thing to put on an 18-year-old. Because I want to say, I have no idea. I’m just writing music that makes me feel good.
“And so, I think it’s when it becomes less about the art and becomes about career moves, and the icky industry portion of it, that’s when this industry becomes scary. But I’m just happy to have a good family who can talk me out of that kind of stuff. But yeah, it is. It’s still there for sure. That whole thing that’s been around for forever with young women artists,
it’s 100% still there.”
McRae says she stays grounded and cuts through industry noise by trying to focus on her emotions, not just create what other people want to see. Dancing, her first creative love, is still a huge part of her practice — her music videos have Britney-esque dance breaks and weave complex choreo seamlessly in with McRae’s own storytelling. And when it comes to that storytelling, her songs are always written for one person and one person only — herself.
“I’ve always just talked about my real life. I mean, it’s not a manufactured song for me. I self-taught myself how to play piano and self-taught myself how to write songs. It wasn’t ever something that someone taught to me. It was always just something that I instinctually felt — like if I came out of a situation with a guy or something or, you know, a friend breakup, I would instantly just write a whole bunch of songs about it. There was no filter. It wasn’t overthought, it was just exactly how I felt about the situation. And I think that’s the only way.”