How Tate McRae’s ‘Ballsy, Obnoxious’ Alter Ego Is Fueling Her Breakout Year
By reclaiming creative control, she has gone from TikTok-savvy pop breakout to global star-in-the-making.
Tate McRae was recently scrolling TikTok when an old interview she did at 16 came across the screen. “I was the most awkward person ever, and I was like, ‘There’s no chance that this is the same person,’ ” she says with a grimace. “You evolve so much, and not only am I seeing it, but I’m documenting it in my music in real time.”
Now 20 and living in Los Angeles, the native of Calgary, Alberta (which she calls “the Texas of Canada”), has spent much of her life thus far on screens — both her own, while navigating TikTok like a promotional pro, and others, whether on network TV or YouTube. As a teen, McRae placed third on the 2016 season of So You Think You Can Dance and soon after, in fall 2017, launched the weekly YouTube series Create With Tate, which she used to share new choreography and music covers. She thought she would go on to become a backup dancer, but she felt equally drawn to songwriting, covering her bedroom walls with lyrics, quotes and poems that her mother has since painted over in a shade she describes as “serial killer white.”
Tate McRae will perform at the 2023 Billboard Music Awards on Nov. 19. Watch on BBMAs.watch, @BBMAs and @billboard socials.
One of the first videos she posted was a song that proved she wasn’t destined to be anyone’s backup — and could very much hold pop’s center stage on her own. The lovelorn piano ballad “One Day” (which McRae wrote herself) gained traction online, and by early 2018, she and her parents were flying to New York for label meetings (accompanied by McRae’s dance manager at the time); just a year later, it was announced that she had signed a record deal with RCA and a management deal with Hard 8 Working Group. As her high school graduation in Calgary neared, McRae was splitting her time between midterms and awards shows.
“She was so young then, obviously, but so determined and really in some ways sort of moved like a competitive athlete, which makes a lot of sense, given her dance background,” RCA COO John Fleckenstein says. “But still, even at that age, she was so clear on where she wanted to go and what was important to her.”
And while those in McRae’s inner circle agree she has always wanted to steer her own ship — and has proved more than capable — she says that it took her until now to learn how to sail full speed ahead and in only one direction: her own. When she got her start in the industry, she was straddling two different worlds. “Now a lot of my time revolves around music in some way: thinking about music, playing music, driving and listening to music,” McRae says. “It’s all one world.” But merging the two didn’t happen without some friction.
By 2020, McRae was well positioned for a major year, with a proper team assembled. Then came the pandemic; still, she stuck with the plan, releasing what became her breakout hit, “You Broke Me First,” that April despite being homebound — unable to promote it or fully enjoy its success. Like “One Day,” “You Broke Me First” is a tender, midtempo pop song, and together they contributed to McRae’s early classification as a “sad pop” songwriter, drawing comparisons as Canada’s answer to Billie Eilish. But “You Broke Me First” has a bit more bite than its predecessor. It took off on TikTok within a month, ultimately peaking at No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100, and performances at the MTV European Music Awards and on Jimmy Kimmel Live! followed — all as McRae prepared to graduate and move to Los Angeles.
McRae recalls spending a month in the city in April 2021, renting a house with her parents to “test it out,” during which they read Donald S. Passman’s industry bible, All You Need To Know About the Music Business. “We read this book together because we were like, ‘What are we walking into right now?’ ” At the end of their stay, McRae got her own apartment and has lived solo since. Though she admits she spends lots of time “inside on my couch,” she has found comfort and community in “a really awesome girl group” and fellow artist friends (like pal Olivia Rodrigo, whose “bad idea right?” video includes a McRae cameo) “because we’re private in our personal lives, but then our innermost, darkest, most intense fears are the things we’re putting on display, which is so weird.”
In the following years, McRae released music at a steady pace, including two EPs (All the Things I Never Said and Too Young To Be Sad) and a string of collaborations with artists such as Troye Sivan and Regard (“You”) and Khalid (“Working”), both of which became Hot 100 hits. Her 2022 debut album, I Used To Think I Could Fly, debuted at No. 13 on the Billboard 200 and yielded two more Hot 100 entries while also supporting her headlining tour of clubs and small theatres. All of which should have been cause for celebration — but what McRae remembers most is feeling lost.
“[That] album was a very big internal battle for me. I was so confused with who I was as a person,” she says. “I remember releasing it when I was still on tour, and it felt so overwhelming. I was just like, ‘Oh, wow. I just released my first album. It’s here, it’s happening. I am now an artist.’ And I think as much as it was a relief, I also was just like, ‘Is this right?’ ”
As she put together the album, McRae had felt like she “was working with every producer on the planet” and struggled with her “people-pleasing” tendencies while trying to make everyone involved happy. “It took a lot of time after that to be like, ‘OK, let me not look at any other person for a really long time and just figure out who the f–k I am and what I want to do with my life for real.’ ”
By the end of 2022, McRae knew something had to change. She trusted her gut. “I had to figure out who [in the industry] was actually on my side and who wasn’t … so a lot was shifting behind the scenes.” The biggest shift came when she signed a new management deal with Full Stop’s Tom Skoglund, Jeffrey Azoff and Tommy Bruce (all of whom also manage Harry Styles), along with Sali Kharazi and Ali Saunders.
“I was lost in the whirlwind of it all, and it got to a point where I was like, ‘I don’t feel like I’m being respected as a young woman, and I don’t think I’m being heard in the ways that I want to be,’ ” she says. “What I take a lot of pride in is being a genuine, good person. I’m always going to give out that energy, and if the people who are representing you and on your team aren’t reciprocating that, that’s just not the type of people you want on your side. I was just feeling like I was stuck in a spot I had been in for like, five years, and I was like, ‘I feel like I’m going crazy.’ ”
At such a time, she was thankful for her young artist and producer friends, whom she says were “so transparent with me on how things [looked] from the outside.” And now, she couldn’t be more grateful for her new management team and the relationship they’ve built — and the many successes they have already shared. “They look at me and they don’t question me making decisions,” she says. “I want to be a businesswoman. I’m 20 now and I’m still young, but I know what I want.”
Simultaneously, McRae’s creative process shifted as she finally found a consistent co-writing crew in Ryan Tedder, Amy Allen and Jasper Harris. She says the way they made her forthcoming second album, Think Later (out Dec. 8 on RCA), was how she always imagined her idols made albums, with a sense of togetherness. “My last album wasn’t like that at all … I was getting songs from 10 different people and being like, ‘OK, here’s an album.’ And this time it was written by the same core group of people,” she says. “That’s what made the process so fun for me, because it actually felt like a project that I was working on.”
Already, the new process is yielding results. Sultry lead single “Greedy” has become McRae’s highest-charting hit to date, peaking at No. 11 on the Hot 100, driven by 104.2 million on-demand streams, according to Luminate, and its usage in 1.3 million TikTok videos. But arguably, its biggest accomplishment has been reintroducing McRae to the masses — as an artist who, this time, knows exactly who she is.
While McRae says fans shouldn’t expect the entire album to sound like “Greedy,” she thinks the song represents a stylistic through line of “straight pop. It’s also pretty savage.” She credits the shift to her alter ego, Tatiana, McRae’s tour persona whom she describes as “ballsy, so loud and obnoxious.”
In the studio, “I was like, ‘I don’t really give a f–k. I just want to say what I want to say and I want to be 20 years old,’ ” she says. “Sometimes you just want to go out and have a good time and just live life and be present and follow your intuition and not think too hard about it — and I just didn’t feel like thinking too hard about a lot of these songs. I don’t think people are going to expect me to say the stuff that I’m saying.”
In other words, as Fleckenstein puts it: “Some of these records, you’re going to stop in your tracks and go, ‘I didn’t realize she could do that.’ ”
When we talk in early November, McRae tells me her last few weeks have felt like “a bit of a dream.” “Greedy” blasted off; she announced her second album along with a world tour, during which she’ll play her first hometown show and end at Madison Square Garden; and she started prepping for her Saturday Night Live musical guest debut. But, perhaps most impressively, she got her collaborator Tedder to work on a Sunday.
“She’s the first artist to get me to [do that] in close to 10 years!” exclaims Tedder, who executive-produced Think Later. “I don’t care how much I love you, who you are, how many Grammys or how high the stakes are, I don’t work on weekends. Weekends and late-night rap sessions are two things I’ve officially graduated from. But she got me to do it because the song was that good.”
The song came together in one weekend — and after she had technically finished her album. The two had started working at 10 a.m., going through sequences and punching vocals, with the goal of wrapping by 7 p.m. About an hour in, McRae revealed she felt that one box had yet to be checked, sonically speaking, on the album. “We had already sent the tracklist to the label, and at 6 p.m., we walked out with a song completely written, recorded, vocaled and produced,” Tedder says. “It’s the fastest, craziest Hail Mary of my entire life.” The next day, a Sunday, they listened with what he calls “tomorrow ears” and finished the track with enough time for it to make it on Think Later.
McRae and Tedder first met over a Zoom session in 2020, after being connected by mutual friend and songwriter-producer J Kash. As they both recently recalled to each other, they wrote a “trash” song that day and didn’t work together again until late last year, on Tiësto’s thumping dance-pop track “10:35” (on which McRae features). It was clear to Tedder then that McRae had “started to definitively put up guideposts.”
That became even more apparent during their first session together late last year for Think Later, when they wrote one of Tedder’s favorite songs on the album. “That session started with her walking in, opening up a playlist that she made that had 21 to 22 songs on it, and [saying], ‘These are the songs that shaped [me]. I want to figure out the through line and attempt to beat some of these,’ ” he recalls. “She had words and phrases and endless amounts of topics and real-life stories to write from, and that just doesn’t happen. I can count on one hand the artists I’ve worked with in 20 years that have pulled that on day one. And it was the most refreshing thing in the world. Otherwise, you’re playing pin the tail on the donkey in the dark.” (As further proof, he adds that McRae’s mix notes are so detailed “you’d think Quincy Jones wrote them.”)
That session led to many more with the same tight-knit team — just how McRae had always envisioned making an album — including the one for “Greedy.” Earlier this year, Tedder had posted on Instagram a few early-2000s songs he was revisiting, including some by Nelly Furtado, to which McRae replied that she had been listening to the same material. “There was a discussion like, ‘Would it work now?’ ” Tedder says. “I said, ‘One hundred percent it will.’ I’m just old enough where I know cycles, and this cycle is going to happen.”
McRae calls “Greedy” a “wild pass” on which they tried a totally new sound and beat — and just as Tedder predicted, it worked big time. She remembers debuting the single during her Philadelphia tour stop: “No one knew it was coming, and I remember feeling it that first night, like, ‘Holy sh-t, what’s going to happen with this song?’ ”
And while fans may not have known when to expect the song, they knew something was coming thanks to McRae’s TikTok, where she boasts 5.5 million followers (the most of her social media accounts) and had been teasing the song in a series of clips. (Within days of finishing her last song created with Tedder, she had already started teasing that on the app, too.)
“She is not scared or shy about playing music for fans and talking about what she’s doing, and she is driving that conversation every step of the way,” Fleckenstein says. “It’s not a record label ta-da! that you’re seeing around her where there’s some orchestrated marketing promotional shtick. This is about her making something, delivering it to her fans and saying, ‘This is what I care about, and I hope you do, too.’ And then we, as her partners and label, are making it as big as we can possibly make it.”
Tedder says he always tells McRae that, when it comes to social media savvy, “you’re the female [Lil] Nas [X] and he’s the male Tate,” adding that, “Understanding that the world lives on the internet and understanding what people want to hear, how they want to hear it and how they want it to be presented, that is its own art form now that I didn’t have to contend with when I started. I played a gig last night and was with Kygo and The Chainsmokers, and [The Chainsmokers’] Alex [Pall] and Drew [Taggart] cornered me to talk about Tate, and Drew said, ‘Man, I’ve been watching what’s going on with that song. She gets the internet.’ ”
Which is why McRae was well aware that the “Greedy” music video — in which she heats up an ice rink with her impressive dance moves, which she worked on with choreographer-to-the-stars Sean Bankhead — would land so well. “I’m really particular with my taste, and that hasn’t always translated through what the internet has seen of me, even with what I’m wearing and how I’m performing and the choreography,” she says. “I’m so proud of [the “Greedy” video] because I got to actually be a dancer and make a video that I was like, ‘This is sick. I want to show my friends.’ I never ever used to feel that way.”
Now she’s thinking of how to translate this previously untapped swagger to the stage. On her most recent tour, which wrapped in October, McRae wanted to push herself as a vocalist rather than relying on her dance background to carry the show. And yet, those roots are what so many in McRae’s inner circle call her “magic.” As Tedder says, “She can outdance any pop star and it’s something she rarely flexes — and she flexed in [the “Greedy”] video.”
“The truth is, she is winning because she is singular,” Fleckenstein adds. “And particularly in a pop landscape — which is often a fickle and very difficult place to be successful — you need to be that good.”
And no one understands that better than McRae herself. When she names the artists she most admires, they’re a reflection of her own ambition — and many are former dancers who translated that foundation into global pop superstardom. “When I look at my favorite icons or videos or performances, it’s always the biggest pop stars, so I think that’s always a goal,” she says. “I think what defines a pop star is how iconic [they are]: Madonna, Britney [Spears], Christina [Aguilera]; they would put on these shows and blow everybody away and make timeless art. And that’s what I want to do: make timeless art and timeless performances — and strive to keep on doing that.”