Tate McRae: Singer Reveals Feeling ‘More Cool’ After Shedding ‘Sad Girl’ Image

Tate McRae is brimming with nervous energy.

It’s just after 11:00 in the UK on Thursday, December 7. Which, thanks to the magic of international time zones, means it’s just past midnight in New Zealand. And that signals the release of her second album, “Think Later,” on the other side of the world.

“Release days are terrifying,” says the 20-year-old. “The songs are so close to you; you’ve had them in your car for a year or so, and suddenly everyone’s listening. It stresses me out.”

She turns her phone off to avoid reviews, but there’s no need to worry. Clash magazine calls the album “gripping” and “dramatic”; and the NME describes McRae as “an artist whose moment has arrived.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. McRae started out as a dancer, winning a scholarship at the Berlin State Ballet and later studying with Canada’s Alberta Ballet Company.

Then, in 2017, she posted a song she’d written in 20 minutes to her YouTube channel. It picked up 40 million views and landed the Calgary-born teenager a contract with RCA Records.

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She scored global hits with the scorched-earth break-up song “You Broke Me First” and 2022’s “She’s All I Wanna Be.” But her debut album, heavily indebted to Billie Eilish’s somber ballads, didn’t quite connect.

The follow-up is punchy and strident, mostly written with Adele and Beyoncé chart-whisperer Ryan Tedder. But McRae insists the new direction is all hers.

“I walked into the first session with Ryan with two playlists of sounds I wanted him to use, songs I liked, lyrics I’d written, and loads of different song titles.”

That focus paid off. Lead single “Greedy” is a glistening shard of sultry pop that has topped Spotify’s global chart and soundtracked nearly four million videos on TikTok.

Her current single, “Exes,” is making a similar impact, and the star’s world tour will culminate with a show at New York’s Madison Square Garden next year.

“It’s everything I’ve dreamed of for a very long time,” she says.

Settling into the BBC studios, McRae pulls a microphone close to her lips (“I learned on tour, you have to be close enough to eat the mic”) and chats candidly about songwriting, heartbreak, perfectionism, and her transformation from “sad girl” to “badass.”

Did you always know “Greedy” was going to blow up the way it did?

No, actually! There were about seven months where Ryan Tedder was trying to convince me it was the first single, and I was like, “Absolutely not!”

What? Why?!

The song genuinely scared me – how fast it was and how much energy it had. I was like, “This is not my usual sound.”

Then finally, I gave [Ryan] a million notes and transformed it from this squeaky-clean pop record into something super dark and grungy.

When your record label sent me the file, it was marked “version five, softer intro.” But that intro comes in hard. What on earth was the original like?

That’s the part where my brain can get a little annoying. I will hear the tiniest little sound, and it’ll make me twinge because it’s too sharp. No one else would notice it, but it would kill me if I didn’t switch it.

That song has so many little nuances, like sirens in the background of the verses and musical accents that my dancer brain picks up on. That stuff really satisfies me.

I saw an interview where you said “Exes” was written in 30 minutes. Is that true? Completely from scratch?

Fully fresh. It was all instinct. I was just singing melodies, and whatever first came out was what we used.

So you had no lyrics pre-written or anything?

Honestly. I thought I had nothing left to say on this album, then I started singing about how I can be self-destructive in a relationship and ruin things before they begin. It’s like your brain wants to say something before you even know it. It’s hard to explain.

Last time we spoke, you said your relationship songs were all observational – you’d never been in love and never had your heart broken. That seems to have changed…

Yeah, this album, in particular, was about a very truthful and specific relationship I went through, which makes it 10 times scarier to release.

I don’t like talking about my life much, and now I’ve put it all in an album, ready for people to hear!

You’ve been releasing music for three years now, and, between the hits, several songs have fallen by the wayside. Yet you seem to work as hard on every one. What does that say about the music industry?

Oh, the industry is so fickle. There’s so much music being produced all the time. Like, 60,000 songs drop [on Spotify] every day. It’s insane. It’s so oversaturated. So, to even make a dent is so hard.

How do you build a career then?

I think the biggest thing is making sure you and your core group of fans all love the music. Then it’s just about promoting the hell out of it on TikTok.

It’s all self-promotion. You have to do it yourself. That whole weight is put on you to make the song big.

When do you sleep?

[Laughs] I have trouble sleeping.

You hadn’t played a concert when “You Broke Me First” went viral. How did you learn stagecraft on the go?

It’s still a work in progress. I’ve had so much stage experience as a dancer, but that uses a different side of your brain.

Singing and dancing take extra thinking. It’s like a tongue twister, almost, because you’re working two sides of your body at once.

BeyoncĂ© practices by singing on a treadmill…

I’ve tried it. I don’t love running, but there’s certain skills you have to learn, otherwise you sound like you have asthma!

This album is definitely going to give you a workout on stage.

Yeah, my last album consisted of a lot of ballads and stripped-back moments. This definitely has a lot more pop-leaning songs, which has been so exciting for me as a dancer.

In the song “Cut My Hair,” you say you got bored of being a “sad girl,” always “singing the same old things.”

It’s funny because, obviously, you have to accept all your old work, but I’m also growing up as I’m making all this music.

Hearing your early songs is like looking at old Facebook pictures. You’re like, “God, I shouldn’t have worn that, I look insane!”

So who has taken the place of the “sad girl” Tate McRae?

My old album was pretty self-destructive and self-deprecating. On this album, I feel way more badass. It’s all about empowering yourself and feeling good in your own shoes.

Was empowerment something you had to learn in real life?

Yeah, I moved to Los Angeles at 17, as soon as I graduated high school, and I really struggled.

I was living alone, and I had a career, but I didn’t know what I wanted from life, and there was no one to tell me what to do.

In the end, you just have to direct yourself. I took a lot of time to sit down in the silence and figure out who I want to be.

Being on your own in LA seems very lonely.

Yeah, there’s so much going on in LA, but I don’t like to go out. So I’d just work and go home and watch movies. But that way, work just becomes your entire life.

Luckily, I found a good group of girlfriends about six months ago. I feel very lucky for that, but it took a second.

You said you prefer to stay at home, but there’s a song on the album [Think Later] that goes: “It’s not a good night if you don’t take it too far.”

[Laughs] I wrote that song because it was so out of character for me. Like one night, I just turned off my phone and went out on a whim.

Nobody could reach me, and that’s why it was such a big deal. My whole family were like, “What happened?”