Tate McRae Is Growing Up

As a child, McRae uploaded videos of herself singing and dancing to YouTube, now the 20-year-old pop sensation is coming into her own.
Tate McRae Is Growing Up
Courtesy of Beth Savaro.

The Monday after her sophomore album, Think Later, is released, Tate McRae, the 20-year-old pop sensation, is sitting next to me at a hotel near Central Park, describing her weekend. “We were in Paris, then Berlin, and then London,” she explained, flashing her bedazzled tooth gem. Her itinerary, which spanned time zones and culminated in a surprise 2 a.m. gig at a gay club in London, reads like an ordinary day in the life of Paris Hilton but invokes the absurdness of that one Lady Gaga meme: “Bus, club, another club, another club plane, next place, no sleep.”

But such is the whirlwind life of a Gen Z singer-songwriter-dancer, who just last month made her Saturday Night Live debut and had one of the biggest songs of the year with her chart-topping single, “Greedy.” The success of the track marks an undeniable return to Y2K-era pop that was all the rage the year McRae was born. Produced by Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic, the track capitalizes on nostalgia, bringing music videos back to the forefront, and oozing a sultry danceability that’s reminiscent of early aughts icons like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, repackaged for the TikTok generation.

“It felt like a fever dream a little bit,” McRae told Vanity Fair. “It’s just been the most surreal moments of my life collected into the shortest amount of time. I feel like I haven’t processed half of it because it happened so quickly.”

Her music has been inescapable, whether on a 10-second loop on TikTok or on the radio, this year, but don’t mistake her ascension for an overnight success. Before Think Later, McRae released several singles before her sad-girl anthem, “You Broke Me First,” in April 2020, went viral on TikTok and became the the second-most streamed song by a female solo artist in 2020, and it still remains her third most popular song on Spotify. She followed up on that momentum last year with her debut album, I Used to Think I Could Fly, but the album, a collection of more vulnerable, self-deprecating tracks like “Hate Myself,” “Feel Like Shit,” and “She’s All I Wanna Be,” casts her in a much different light than the pop powerhouse she is now. McRae, who was 18 at the time of its release, says that ultimately she didn’t feel those songs were a completely accurate representation of her. Now, she considers her sophomore album as a sort of reintroduction: “sad-girl bit got a little boring,” as she declares on the opening track “Cut My Hair.”

Courtesy of Beth Savaro.

“I’m growing up. I’m learning. I’m getting better at my craft,” said McRae. “I’m learning to take control of the room a little more.”

On Think Later, McRae’s prowess is on display, ditching her hang-ups and harnessing her newfound confidence in the studio, finally syncing up her songwriting and dancing skills. “I was able to actually bring through my dancer side that I’ve been wanting to pull out in some way for a very long time,” said McRae. Shedding her previous “sad-girl” persona, she traded in heartache for self-love and found herself in the process. “I did a lot of self-work at the beginning of this year,” she said. “Trying to dig deep and figure out who I am and what I want. I think everyone goes through that midlife crisis when they’re 20.”

She credits many of the “badass females” like Aerin Moreno, who directs her music videos, and Amy Allen, who cowrote much of Think Later with McRae, in her life for encouraging her to listen to her gut and ask for what she wants, even in a room of music executives who are often older men. “Learning to speak up as a young woman is a huge part that I’ve learned in the last year,” said McRae. “Voicing what I actually like and what I don’t like, and not being persuaded by other people.”

If you scroll all the way down on McRae’s YouTube channel, you’ll see that this journey of self-discovery actually started way back in 2011, in Calgary, Canada, when at seven years old, she posted her first-ever video, singing an original song. A star in the making, in her first attempt at songwriting, she sings, “I want to climb a tree / Or sail across the sea / I want to see the world next door and explore way more / But I really want to see the other side of me.” As a preteen and self-described “very passionate 12-year-old” who needed an outlet, she started to post more consistently, documenting her competitive dance career (McRae was a finalist on So You Think You Can Dance: The Next Generation) and songwriting evolution. Remembering that these videos are still up, McRae can’t help but cringe, squirming in her chair a bit, but is also empathetic toward her younger self.

“There’s something really special about that because it’s like watching my diary…the feelings I went through, what kind of person I was then to what I am now in my music,” she said of her digital footprint. “I give kudos to my [younger] self for taking a risk like that.”

Despite a lifetime of showmanship, she insists that she is an introvert. “When I’m at home, I’m just the most Canadian, awkward, shy, won’t speak up in a big group,” she said. McRae puts all of her energy into performing, “Then immediately as I come offstage, it’s back to alone time to recharge and find myself.” Next year when she embarks on her headlining world tour, those moments will become increasingly far and few between. But at just 20 years old, McRae isn’t shying away from this new chapter of her life.

“If I don’t have anything going on in my life, there’s nothing to write about,” said McRae. “You have to live your life in order to get the art even brewing at all.”

As for right now, she’s still got back-to-back rehearsals lined up for performances on both Today and The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon. Most impressively, McRae, who arrived in New York on a flight from London the night before, hasn’t touched her iced coffee that has sat sweating on the table during our conversation, but she doesn’t seem to need it. At this point in her career, like the “All-Star” jersey she’s wearing indicates, she’s a seasoned athlete, a pro running on adrenaline without skipping a beat.

“The last two months have been impossible to fall asleep because my brain is just running in overdrive,” she said. “This makes me sound so young, but last night I had to call my mom and put her on FaceTime and fall asleep.”