In 2016, Calgary’s Tate McRae became the first Canadian to end up in the finals on the reality show So You Think You Can Dance, but at the time, viewers had no idea the then-13-year-old phenom could also sing. That became apparent the following year when McRae uploaded the solo-piano breakup ballad “One Day,” revealing a vocalist graced with a fearless vulnerability and deeply affecting poeticism. “I do not open up quickly to people, so my songwriting is definitely my way of expressing myself,” McRae tells Apple Music. “Once you get to know me, I am a very open book—extremely honest and straight-up, just like in my writing.” Buoyed by the viral success of “One Day” (and her subsequent signing to RCA), McRae has taken to dressing up her stark songwriting in immersive synth atmospheres, trap beats, and R&B production tics that position her as a Canadian counterpoint to Billie Eilish (who co-wrote McRae’s dramatic 2019 single “tear myself apart”). But with a string of revelatory singles released in 2020—including her ominous international breakthrough hit “you broke me first” and the deceptively sunny folk-hop jingle “r u ok”—McRae has emerged as a singular modern-pop force, wielding a sound that’s as amorphous and unpredictable as the messy emotions chronicled within her songs. To complement this playlist of her signature tracks, McRae tells Apple Music the stories behind some of them.
“you broke me first”
“My writing is all straight emotions from my gut. This song is all about knowing your self-worth and moving on from toxic situations in your life. I believe that you should never let a person manipulate how you live your life, and that’s what ‘you broke me first’ speaks about. I wrote it about multiple people; therefore, there are so many layers within it and it makes me feel so many different things. I honestly remember walking into the studio in a great mood, with no intentions of writing a sad song. It wasn’t until about four weeks later when I reheard the song that I realized how deep it actually was. I definitely think it was my subconscious brain talking and writing the entire session.”
“r u ok”
“This is a song that I never thought I’d write. It has a very sassy and feisty tone, which made it a challenge to dive into that perspective, as I think I’m quite the opposite. I love that there is a lot of emotional meaning behind the lyrics, with very trappy, bright, and contrasting production at the same time.”
“lie to me”
“Ali [Gatie] and I have very different styles, but they somehow mesh really well together. We both put all of our emotion into the lyrics and the recording of this track. It went from Instagram DMs to a global pandemic to Zoom calls to recording and editing, and, last but not least, meeting each other. It was definitely a cool moment when it all came together.”