Tate McRae, dancer turned pop sensation: “There’s so much freedom in singing”

A child dance star turned teenage alt-pop sensation: Tate McRae shares how she high-kicked her way into music.

Imagine that you started dancing as a kid, and were so ace that years later, you’ve made a name for yourself and travelled the world. Instead of playing in school talent shows, you’ve performed on the stage of one the biggest TV reality shows in the US. After accomplishing it all, you put online a song that you’ve whipped up in 20 minutes and, overnight, it goes viral.

Meet 17-year-old Tate McRae, a Canadian dancer turned pop sensation who twirled her way to international stardom, working twice as hard as her older co-workers, and with even more to say. Tate has been in the making for a while, and now she’s ready to rocket through the charts.

“I can say it a million times, I was speechless when my manager texted. Craziest thing ever. I wouldn’t expect that in a million years,” says an over the moon Tate when we catch up in between recording sessions for some top-secret new tunes. She’s just received a VMA Push Best Artist Nomination, and it’s no wonder she’s excited; not everyone has what it takes to land space on the nominee list next to Doja Cat and Yungblud, with a determination to take it all the way.

Tate McRae first kicked off in 2016 when she became first Canadian finalist on American talent show, So You Think You Can Dance: The Next Generation. “My mum was a dancer her whole life and then she was my dance teacher, so I got into dance when I was about six, and then starting competing more intensively when I was eight,” she says.

Winning the Best Female Dancer award twice and storming world stages on tour with Justin Bieber, she shook US audiences and stole their hearts with her authentic charm. Already thriving in the music industry, she had the need to channel some of that overflowing talent to a different kind of dish.

“I’ve always been a fan of poetry and writing in school. Like, always. I started a YouTube channel about three and a bit years ago, and I released one song one day. It was just ‘I wrote a song’, and it was this random thing I whipped off in like 20 minutes. It started to gain some attraction and people were sticking around for some music and for me to write original songs. I’ve just kept realising them every single week on Fridays, and then I’ve started to build more of a fanbase and singing,” Tate reflects.

Asked for those responsible for shaping her taste and artists that she looks up to, Tate name-drops some of the biggest pop stars. “I’ve got so many musical influences. I’m a huge fan of Post Malone, The Weekend, Dua Lipa, Jessie Reyez and Jeremy Zucker. There are so many that I listen to every single day, and one of them is always a favourite. I’ve got a new favourite each day, but they’re all amazing. Very, very good writers.”

A few years, a record deal and 13 million listeners (and counting) later, Tate still seems to be shocked by her early success. “Oh my gosh, you know, it’s weird because my parents didn’t even like the song. I didn’t like the song. I mean, I did like the song, obviously. I’ve released it. It was just a very big action, the whole situation, until we saw views starting to slowly go up like overnight and then we started getting contacted by labels. To get recognition of the video that you’ve never really expected to put out on the first place is a weird feeling,” she says.

Tate McRae, dancer turned pop sensation: "There's so much freedom in singing"
Tate McRae, dancer turned pop sensation: "There's so much freedom in singing"
“It was a cool learning experience to get in the booth, do things professionally and release my first song, which was written by Billie Eilish! That seems crazy”
Tate McRae

Today, Tate’s repertoire bursts with emotional, sad bangers full of heart-wrenching, sharp vocals, and gripping lyrics, like on ‘you broke me first’ or ‘all the things i never said’. Though the media instantly boxed her as a bedroom pop idol, Tate doesn’t find the label fit. “I feel like it’s hard to describe a style. I feel like for every artist, it’s hard to know like ‘this is what I do exactly’ because every artist wants to constantly be experimenting especially if they are writing their own music. I would say that I’m pop alternative but like, super focused on the lyrics. No matter what. I don’t go into a session thinking: I wanna write a pop song. It’s like: I wanna write a new story today; I wanna bring that to life,” she explains.

Tate keeps her eyes open while on the hunt for stories. Leading the life of an adolescence pop idol alone delivers a fair share of material-worth kicks, and her going through typical teenage turbulences adds to the explosive mix. “So many things inspire my writing: my real life, my teenage emotions, the friends that are around me, things that go on every single day and what I see on the news. I don’t know, there are so many random things that would spark inspiration that you would never really know until you’re just one day starting to write a song about it. I feel like every single day, something new can inspire you and even when the least expected.”

After getting a grasp of the inspiration, she normally escapes from the blitz and glitz of everyday situations to pin down that fleeing sounds and put them into a shape of a song. “Usually, I get a guitar or piano, and then I start freestyling, and sort of honing melodies and then I kinda spit lyrics out. I just start typing in my notes like random lyrics and then whatever sticks with everyone in the room, it’s what we’re building off,” she says on her writing process.

Despite being a proud songwriter, Tate does appreciate help and critiques of other professionals, especially when she rates their work so much. “When you’re walking into a room, it’s like seeing a whole other perspective on life when they start talking what they think of situations. At 17 years old I’ve got my ways and my opinions, but it’s really cool to hear everyone else’s and be able to spare my brain a little bit and then see it from another point of view.”

While reaching out to work with fellow creatives is nothing unusual, having Billie Eilish (!!!) and her brother Finneas co-write a track for you is pretty special. ‘tear myself apart’ shot Tate’s career into the next orbit. “I got the song from my label, and I got to go to her show and Finneas’ like a week before,” she says. “I got to meet her and talk about the song. It was really cool because it was my first single under RCA Records. It was a cool learning experience to get in the booth, do things professionally and release my first song, which was written by Billie Eilish! That seems crazy.”

Tate McRae, dancer turned pop sensation: "There's so much freedom in singing"
Tate McRae, dancer turned pop sensation: "There's so much freedom in singing"

Her obvious spark led to the likes of Elle magazine touting her as “Canada’s answer to Billie Eilish”. It’s mindblowing enough to work with someone you admire, but being perceived as an equally talented artist is on another level of ecstatic. “I’m a big fan of Billie, I think that she’s amazing and same for her brother. Their music is incredible. For Elle to say that and I don’t know, even just put me in that category… I don’t even know. That was crazy. I didn’t expect that at all, and I’m very honoured,” Tate admits, and mentions another fan-to-fan collaboration with Audrey Mika on SAYGRACE’s bad-ass banger ‘Boys Ain’t Shit’.

“I’d heard the song on TikTok, and then SAYGRACE asked if Audrey and I could feature on it. Both of us were like, ‘hell yeah!’. So fun. It’s such a great message and song. We got into the studio with Grace. I recorded my verse, and we all met. It was a very fun and super cool process and then filming the music video was really cool. I loved it,” says Tate.

If that production was cool, her video for ‘vicious’ is beyond awesome. In the all-animated clip, she’s jumping on buildings like a lightning-fuelled Spiderman; a superhero you wouldn’t want to mess with. Just like her alter ago, Tate can do just about anything, especially when she’s got someone like Lil Mosey in her corner. “He’s a really cool kid, and we got along really well. He was super comfortable with the song, although because there’s a pandemic going on, we couldn’t really get in the studio together. But, we face-timed a whole bunch to talk about things.”

During her lockdown days, Tate has been her usual busy-bee self: playing online gigs and festivals, posting ridiculously good dance videos and getting ready to serve up another portion of her almost-baked new material. “I’ve got this one room where I record all my music and get a lot of work done, so surprisingly through the whole course of quarantine, I’ve been getting so much work done and recording some of my songs. I’m writing a lot of songs over Zoom in sessions. It’s crazy ’cause I’m like all the way in Canada, and all the writers are in LA and New York. It’s been pretty great actually. I’ve been just putting my head down, sitting in my room and getting a lot of stuff done,” she says, remarking that if she only could, she’d gladly swap her lil recording studio for a summery Australian stage. At least for a weekend.

For now, Tate’s happy with her newest single, ‘don’t be sad’, being out. She shares how it was different from her previous tracks: “It’s actually crazy because this is [song] from one of the first sessions I ever was in and I wrote this with two of my favourite writers. The writing process was just so cool, I love these guys, and they’re very open people. You don’t ever really feel trapped, not say whatever you want to feel and it’s just totally different. It’s not a love song. It’s tackling my mental health at the time, how I was feeling inside and I’m really stoked.”

Tate takes her mission as a songwriter seriously. Rather than giving her fans straight-forward directions, she gifts them with total freedom when interpreting her songs so they can see a reflection of themselves in her art. “I feel like each song tells a totally different message; it depends on the song, and depends on how people wanna take it. I don’t want people to feel like they’re closed off to the only thing that they can think a song is about. I want them to be able to interpret it into anything and feel like it could be their own thing that can help them through whatever they need to get through,” she says and reveals that some of her musical mirrors are double-sided. “I really love ‘you broke me first’ just because I feel like that’s a timeless song for me. I feel like I can really relate to it myself, no matter point in my life I’m at,” Tate shares.

Tate McRae, dancer turned pop sensation: "There's so much freedom in singing"
Tate McRae, dancer turned pop sensation: "There's so much freedom in singing"
“Dancing is really stressful. If you slip up, one mistake, you’re done!”
Tate McRae

Though Tate’s sneak-attack on the UK charts has only just begun, her army of loyal fans has crowned her a Gen Z queen; she took over the internet a while ago. “It’s amazing. I mean, for an artist to hear that people are connecting with your songs and bringing them back to their own lives, is one of the best feelings ever. That’s all you want to do in writing. To be able to give it to someone else and feel like that can be theirs, and that makes them feel so personal to them as well. That’s the coolest thing ever. As a teenager myself, I’m young, and I feel like going through a lot of the same things that a lot of people are at my age. It’s cool if they can relate back to me and are able to talk about it.”

If there is one thing Tate seems to despise it’s putting people in tiny metaphorical boxes with no spaces to grow. Living her beyond-limitations life, she doesn’t care for definitions. If you love something it, you should do it, seems to be her motto. “I don’t like putting labels on it. I’ve been a dancer my whole life. It’s such a big part of me, but singing is something I’m really passionate about, and I feel like there’s definitely a lane where you can do whatever you want with it. There’s so much freedom in singing, and then I can bring my dancing into it. But I would never say that I’m one more than the other.”

Though Tate’s childhood looked more like Hannah Montana’s than most, she wouldn’t exchange it for a world. There aren’t many 17-year-olds with 10 years of work experience. “As a dancer, I’ve performed on some big stages with massive audiences, and I feel like it preps you a lot because dancing is really stressful. If you slip up, one mistake, you’re done! It’s only you on stage in front of everyone. A feeling of singing is a totally different feeling because obviously, it’s your voice, not your body, but I feel like it definitely prepped me because a lot of nerves were taken away when I was like nine.”

Dance would always be a part of who she is, but it’s singing that gave her voice to express the emotions stuffed deep inside and let her discover different creative paths. “I always say this, but I feel like it’s way easier for songwriters to talk about their feelings through songs than in real life. And that’s especially true for me. I never know how to put things in words, and I can’t even argue with people because I can’t wrap my head around the situation and form a very strong opinion. Until I go a write about it, and then I have it. Everything is clear once I write a song about it.”

Tate McRae’s star is on the rise, and if anything can be clear this year, it’s that you will hear her name again. Very soon. We can’t spill much tea, but there’s plenty to come, and you should be dying to get a taste. 

Taken from the September issue of Dork.

Words: Aleksandra Brzezicka

Tate McRae, dancer turned pop sensation: "There's so much freedom in singing"
Tate McRae, dancer turned pop sensation: "There's so much freedom in singing"

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