Tate McRae graces the cover of Notion 88, speaking on her prodigious beginnings, charting commercial success, navigating the challenges of lockdown, and her relationship with social media and fandom.
Ever since bursting onto television screens and into the public eye as a 13-year-old finalist on American show So You Think You Can Dance?, Tate McRae has enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame, having recently dovetailed her talents with a burgeoning career in music. Fresh off the release of her viral hit “you broke me first” and first VMA nomination, the Canadian teen sensation speaks to Notion about her prodigious beginnings, charting commercial success, navigating the challenges of lockdown, and her relationship with social media and fandom. Take note, Tate is certainly one to watch.
Somewhere in the world, a teenager has just experienced her first real heartbreak. She sits on her bed, cross-legged, as she plops headphones over her ears and streams the latest of Tate McRae’s emotionally-driven songs; all of which have been met with unifying acclaim by a collective Generation Z fanbase. I have this image in mind when hopping onto a Zoom call with the illustrious singer, songwriter, and dancer, who is currently working on a new EP at her home in Calgary, Alberta, following the release of a new collaboration with singer and rapper Ali Gatie. Tate McRae is no ordinary 17-year-old, which is even more evident in the meeting, with her breezy confidence, easy-going disposition, and winning smile that relays several years of experience in entertainment. At the end of August, an electrifying performance at the MTV VMAs pre-show of you broke me first showcased Tate’s aptitude for blending her recognisably melodic voice, brooding lyrics, and an expressive contemporary routine, set to mid-tempo trap-inspired beats. The single, which was released—along with a homemade music video—in April during lockdown, has already surpassed 125 million streams on Spotify, gained TikTok virality, climbed international charts, and is easily the alt-pop singer’s most mainstream song to date.
“It’s been pretty dang busy the last couple of weeks, considering I’m doing everything out of my bedroom. It’s crazy how intense it’s been!” Tate laughs, referring to the hasty yet innovative production of her lockdown music video. Having to adapt to an unprecedented quarantine brought its unique challenges for the young star. “I had to step out of my box in order to figure out something that would work, and obviously make sure it didn’t look homemade,” she relays animatedly. “It was the first song I released out of quarantine, which was about a week in. I got sent back home to Canada and my label was like, ‘Alright, we need a music video’. I had to think on the spot and film it at home with one person, so I took one entire shot on my iPhone and sent it in like, ‘It’s all I got—you’ve got to work with it!’” she chuckles. The finished product—a striking, moody visual that tracks Tate walking against a skyline backdrop of her hometown, as storm clouds gather overhead and the red beacon of Calgary Tower shines ominously—is effective in its visual emulation of a teen’s turbulent headspace. That isn’t to say the creative process was as smooth as the video suggests; rather Tate had almost given up at the beginning: “It was kind of hard to make it actually look decent, but it was the perfect day outside—super cloudy and dark, which is exactly what I wanted. I taped my phone to the front of my mom’s car and stacked it up with tissue boxes for the perfect angle!” she reveals. “My friends drove backwards and we were going through all the cars on this rooftop—it was the craziest thing ever! The weather started getting all wacky and we had to go. It was so funny how it all came together.”
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These days, Tate is occupied with songwriting sessions over Zoom calls (which she describes as a “different, weird experience”), alongside dance training (also conducted over Zoom). “My mom has a dance company—so I’ve been pretty consistent with my training. The rest has been literally figuring out how to put content together and filming from home,” she continues. “I remember two months in, I was MTV’s Push artist and they sent me microphone packages and three huge boxes of equipment. I had to put everything together, figure out the channels—all the techie things—and I was on the phone with their tech guy for like 3 hours,” she recounts jovially. Overcoming such instances are testament to her incredulous work ethic and tenacity, which she offers to her songwriting. The majority of her songs deal with tumultuous elements of adolescent relationships: heartbreak, confusion, and rumination. “Since I was super young, I’ve just been the biggest overthinker,” Tate says, reflecting on her creative mindset. “As I lie in bed at night, my mind is racing a mile a minute and it never stops—so when I get into the writing studio and I’m in that headspace of ‘I need to create a song’, all my subconscious thoughts just come through. When I freestyle, they just kind of spit out of me,” she describes. However, for a teen so well-versed in the art of heartbreak, Tate notes her relatively uncomplicated life so far: “It’s weird because I haven’t experienced real heartbreak, or anything really traumatic. My brain is constantly observing and seeing other people’s perspectives in lifelike things that my friends go through—and I paint a picture in my head, which I put into words. It’s how I write and think, my brain never turns off.”
Tate’s prodigious dance abilities would become visible to an international audience at the time of her 2016 appearance on American talent show, So You Think You Can Dance?: The Next Generation. At 13, she leapt, kicked, pirouetted, folded and contorted her way through complex choreography that broached deeply emotional topics, as well as fun, zesty routines—winning the hearts of the show’s millions of viewers. Tate’s professional background in dance has moulded her into a unique type of performer today; one that is multi-faceted and masterfully apt in commanding both voice and body to communicate a story. I pose the question of whether there’s a symbiotic relationship between her choreography and songwriting—as a dancer first, does one aspect have a larger influence upon the other? Her response is thoughtful: “Definitely—especially when I’m listening to the producer create the track, it’s all about how my body would react to it and how I could make it a dance piece. That’s why I love bass and trappy beats,” she smiles widely, “…I think my lyrics are emotional and pretty, but I love a gritty background because then your movement becomes dynamic. I like being able to push my dance with contrasting genres—you broke me first is such an emotional song that has this beat to it, which I love as it doesn’t fit one category specifically.”
Tate’s creative force and discipline also partly stems from an early childhood aspiration that she hasn’t lost sight of over the years. “I’ve always wanted to be a performer since I was like 2—since I was a baby!” she exclaims. “I had the most obnoxious personality when I was super young, I don’t even know how my parents dealt with me. I remember I’d have my plastic mic, blue eyeliner all over my face, a cowboy hat and sparkly outfit—and I’d stand on top of the table like, ‘Watch me, I’m performing for you!’” she erupts into giggles. “I was just a weird child! My mom said she would drive by my school when I was in Grade One, and I’d be singing on the bike stand by myself. But that was my mentality all the time. I never wanted to stop singing and dancing. I was this overly dedicated kid,” she recalls perceptively.
Much like the bedroom pop cohort of Gen Z, Tate’s music career launched off the back of her YouTube channel, which originally showcased her self-choreographed routines. Relishing in setting challenges, the young dancer had set a goal of weekly uploads, but it wasn’t until her fourth video that she encountered a creative rut. “It looked terrible and I couldn’t release it! I was in this really annoyed headspace and I went into my room, locked myself in there for 20 minutes—,” she laughs at her younger self, “—and I ended up writing this random song, which I put on the internet that night.” The piano ballad (aptly titled “i wrote this song”), marked the inception of her Create with Tate series and would turn the fresh-faced teen into an even bigger star overnight, garnering millions of hits and attention from record labels. “Fans wanted me to keep writing, I started releasing original songs every week,” she says matter-of-factly. “But it was so weird—I was 13 at the time, and it was my first structured song. One week, I remember we got 11 phone calls from different labels, so we flew out to New York almost immediately and met with every single one of them. We found our people at RCA, and it was just really, really crazy,” Tate sighs, recalling her whirlwind journey. Her first offering from the label was a harmonic 2019 single co-written by Billie Eilish and her brother FINNEAS, titled “tear myself apart”. “I’m a huge fan of Billie and FINNEAS, so I was freaking out,” Tate recollects earnestly. “I met Billie at her LA show and we talked about it.” She slows to gather her thoughts: “I mean, it was just a really, really sick moment for me to even hear [Billie’s] voice on the demo and hear her perspective. It was such a cool process!”
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Tate’s face naturally lights up as we discuss her dedicated fanbase that has been with her since her first YouTube forays: “The coolest part about my fans is that they’re totally open for me to try new things. The original roots of my lyrics are always going to be the same—that’s what I always say to myself and my fans, that no matter what production changes, it’ll always be my genuine lyrics and my voice, and exactly what I want to say.” She continues passionately, “No matter what style or vibe I’m feeling, it’s always going to be authentic because I love writing about real emotions. They’ve been so loyal and it’s really cool that as I’m transforming, they’re coming along with me.” As a teen of an extremely digital age, Tate has a self-professed “love-hate relationship” with social media. “Sometimes I wish that there was none at all,” she muses sagely, “—there’d be no comparing yourself to others, no negativity or hate, but it’s also how I introduced myself as an artist and how I grew my platform in the first place! Without it, I wouldn’t be where I am. I think navigating your way is a huge learning experience growing up—learning how to market yourself, making sure you’re composing yourself in the right way. It’s a lot to learn at a young age, but I feel like it’s a really important tool—especially as the music industry is constantly shifting and turning fully digital.” The young star credits social media for the way the music industry has evolved: “It’s honestly kind of insane how much TikTok controls the music industry right now!” she observes. “As a very private person, it’s very hard to put your life online and I prefer to be vulnerable through my songwriting. It’s really scary because people can twist your words and make you seem like a person you’re not—but it’s in their hands when you put your life online, so that’s the scary thing. But you’ve got to because it’s the strategy. Every single song that’s blowing up on TikTok is hitting the charts! All the trends are starting from young kids, then growing into the music industry and becoming the ‘new’ new trend,” she laughs.
Musically, Tate lists the likes of The Weeknd, Post Malone, and Iann Dior as current inspirations for the direction she would like to take her work: “I love the vibes—rap, trappy beats, and a good guitar—so I feel that’s what I’ve been going for, I have a lot of ideas with rhythm and melodies. I always like to push myself and I get inspired by different things when I’m writing,” she nods thoughtfully. I ask if she has any personal idols that she would like to meet, and she gushes at the idea: “I would love to meet Zendaya! She’s been one of my biggest idols forever and is such an amazing role model. I’ve watched all of her interviews and I’m obsessed with her fashion and vibe, as well as Dua Lipa. They’re people that I will forever look up to in all aspects of life. They’re both really intelligent women and are such inspirations to me,” she beams brightly. And it’s palpably clear that Tate McRae should also cast her own name into the roster of strongly talented and inspirational role models for today’s youth—given her rising trajectory, and growing ubiquity across radio stations and social media. With plans to release a second EP early next year, an album following suit, and a hope to tour across more of the US and Australia, the young star has a lot on her plate. “I want to sit down and create a good chunk of music, and make sure it all sounds cohesive—that’s the next step,” she remarks. “I think my music is gonna evolve like crazy within the next year, I already know it has since quarantine happened.” On what she’d like to say to her younger self, Tate offers wistfully wise words for incredibly young shoulders. “I’d say, to make sure you don’t doubt yourself and stop dwelling on the negative parts of who you are. I feel like that’s the only thing I’ve ever regretted—not celebrating the many successes,” she says wholeheartedly. “I’ve been such a perfectionist all my life, and for every little mistake, it would eat me up inside. And there are too many moments in life that you can’t dwell on, or keep looking back on. You’ve just got to keep moving on with your life and be proud of yourself—which I never really took the time to do—those are the moments you get to really enjoy life and be happy.”