7_12_2021_JENSEN_MCRAE_DOUBLE

Jensen McRae Turned Phoebe Bridgers Impressions into Real Hits

Many up-and-comers bristle at comparisons; VICE spoke to McRae about how she dictated hers.
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Jensen McRae keeps a comprehensive list of every song she’s ever written—she averages 150 a year—organized by month. Asterisks denote the ones she deems her best. She can casually rattle off her engagement stats, citing social media and streaming milestones as if there were line graphs sketched on the inside of her eyelids. By her own account, she’s “a bit of a control freak.”

But the defining moments in the 23-year-old’s career as a singer-songwriter have resulted from a loss of control. One of them happened a few years ago when she wrote “White Boy,” a song whose potency initially rattled her so much that she shelved it for months. 

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The song, which she eventually included on a self-released EP in 2018 and re-released in its present form the following year, embodies much of what makes her work compelling. Its sharp lyrics, cradled by the sounds of 90s soft-rock, thread personal heartache through a broader sociopolitical narrative; McRae’s voice, sonorous and throaty, curls in on itself as she conveys the devastation of seeking connection with someone who perceives her as other. ​​Sitting with the song after she wrote it, McRae, who is Black, felt embarrassed. “It’s a humiliating admission to say, ‘Oh, I’ve spent my entire life in pursuit of approval from a group of people whose approval I should not be seeking,’” she told me over Zoom, calling from her tidy, yellow bedroom in LA.

“But I knew that that initial fear response was a sign that I tapped into something real.”

Candor and vulnerability are qualities that bind many of the young women operating in the crosshairs of folk, pop, and indie-rock—a cohort that includes Clairo, Arlo Parks, Holly Humberstone, and Julia Jacklin, to name a few. One of their brightest stars is Phoebe Bridgers, an LA native like McRae, and an icon of sorts for the young, sad, and very online.  

McRae herself is a big fan of Bridgers, particularly of the way that her lyrics are distinctly contemporary and topical without being corny. In January, when Covid cases in LA were peaking and vaccination rollout was off to a slow start, McRae tweeted—without much forethought, she says—“in 2023 Phoebe Bridgers is gonna drop her third album & the opening track will be about hooking up in the car while waiting in line to get vaccinated at doger [sic] stadium and it’s gonna make me cry.” She committed to the bit, tapped into her inner Bridgers, wrote the first verse herself, and posted a recording the following day. This precipitated another defining moment when things slipped out of McRae’s normally firm grip: The video went viral. Again, her initial response was fear.  

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“When you have those moments of, all of a sudden, something taking off beyond your wildest dreams, it’s exciting. You know it’s going to convert into something positive for your career,” she explained. “But you’re also like, how do I steer the ship?” Eventually, the influx of attention slowed, and McRae got ahold of the wheel. She wrote the rest of the song, including a towering chorus about the elevated emotional stakes of pandemic relationships, and titled it “Immune.” The lyrics, colored with LA Easter eggs and the looming threat of the apocalypse, lean into Bridgers’ aesthetic, but the vocal power is all McRae’s. It’s her biggest song to date, and the highlight of her new EP, “Who Hurt You?”

In the age of internet virality, social media is often hailed as the great democratizer. Platforms with built-in discovery mechanisms and no barriers to entry can reward relative unknowns—those without pre-existing fandoms, industry connections, or institutional support; and sometimes, those without the chops or stamina to maintain the energy of an initial groundswell.

McRae is unlikely to fall into the latter category. She’s wanted to be a singer for at least as long as she can remember and has devoted much of her life to that pursuit. When Jensen was four, her mom noted in her diary that, along with books and playing in the mud, music was her among her daughter’s primary passions. She and Jensen’s dad nurtured that nascent obsession with records (Alicia Keys, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Sheryl Crow were on heavy rotation), piano lessons and, as an antidote for their daughter’s acute shyness, musical theater. (Now a warm, charismatic motormouth who rarely pauses to collect her thoughts, McRae seems to have overcome that particular obstacle.)

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Shyness aside, young Jensen never doubted her gift. By 13, she was writing songs that she believed were Hot 100-worthy. (Her evaluation has cooled over time: “They were fine, for a child,” she says, laughing.) At 16, she went to GRAMMY camp, the real-life Camp Rock that the Recording Academy runs for high school students aspiring to careers in music. And at 17, she turned down Harvard in favor of USC’s Thornton School of Music, where she majored in popular music performance. She notes that the program put a big check on her ego: “It was the first time that I was surrounded by that many really talented musicians, and I realized how much I had to learn and grow.” 

She flourished in college. “All the things that had been liabilities about my character growing up became assets,” she recalls. A product of private schools where there were few other students of color, and where she was seen as weird for her strong political views and “dorky” extracurricular pursuits like slam poetry and improv, she suddenly felt her differences being validated. “In music school, the social currency is being as unique as possible,” she says. “You’re supposed to dress in a way that expresses yourself, you’re supposed to sing all the time, and you’re supposed to be a politically engaged citizen.” 

A sense of alienation lingers in Jensen’s music, though; “White Boy” is a prime example. “Adam’s Ribs,” the closing track of Who Hurt You?, uses Edenic expulsion as a metaphor for the burn of unrequited love. Sometimes, when she’s experiencing writer’s block, McRae turns to the “Unusual Articles” page on Wikipedia in search of inspiration. She gravitates to stories of extreme isolation—particularly, desolate places where inhabitants live under duress, psychic or otherwise. Two songs resulting from this exercise appear in snippet form on her TikTok. One, “Colma, California,” was inspired by a town founded as a necropolis, where dead residents outnumber the living by a factor of 1,000; another is about Centralia, Pennsylvania, where a coal fire raging in the mines beneath the town has driven out all but a dozen people. Both are really about aversion to change and the doggedness of desire, filtered through a small-town lens, and sung with remarkable conviction for a lifelong Angeleno. 

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One of the great challenges McRae has faced over the past few years is bridging the gap between being a great songwriter and being a fully formed artist. She attributes much of the progress she’s made on this front to her creative partnership with Rahki, a producer known for his work with Kendrick Lamar and the Irish rapper Rejjie Snow. After running through a string of collaborators who either “actively disliked what I made” or “completely misapprehended the goal” of what she was trying to accomplish, McRae was delighted to find that Rahki, whose hip-hop credentials coexist with a love of softer, guitar-driven music, spoke her language. 

Kacey Musgraves, Sara Bareilles, Corinne Bailey Rae, the Mountain Goats, and, naturally, Phoebe Bridgers, were among the artists from whom the pair took cues while working on Jensen’s EP and forthcoming debut album (fully cooked, release date undetermined). But McRae says that collaborating with an experienced producer like Rahki has, crucially, helped her grasp the difference between influence and emulation. “Immune”—which she approached as more of a creative prompt than as a call to overtly imitate its muse—demonstrates that understanding. 

It also reflects McRae’s undeniable digital savvy. No, turning an internet gag into a single into a breakout moment—effectively, leveraging the popularity of another artist in order to game the system—wasn’t part of her strategic plan. But calling the song’s success a fluke ignores the effort she’s put into developing a voice online and her canny sense of her audience, not to mention the sturdiness of her songwriting. And for all McRae’s worries about losing control, going viral actually afforded her considerable agency over her own narrative. Emerging artists’ value propositions are often expressed through triangulation, as journalists and other tastemakers try to locate their work in relationship to that of better-known artists. Many up-and-comers in her position bristle at comparisons; McRae dictated hers. 

Though her confidence in her work is steady, McRae says she has a hard time anticipating what will resonate. “There are songs that I’ll be fighting tooth and nail to get on an album, probably for the rest of my life, and my team’s gonna be like, ‘Nobody wants to hear that.’” She clarifies that she doesn’t necessarily take performance as an indicator of quality. Still, she’s embracing the idea that, without allowing her business sensibilities to overrule her artistic ones, she can use TikTok for low-stakes market testing—throwing out song ideas, and seeing what sticks. 

Meanwhile, McRae’s dreaming of the day when she can get off the apps. “If, in a few years, I could be like Lorde and have three Instagram posts, that would be so sick,” she says, referencing the famously withdrawn pop star. The likes and follows aren’t inherently rewarding. Ultimately, they’re just signage on the road to doing what she’s long believed herself capable of: writing hit songs.