Photo courtesy of Jensen McRae; Art by Victoria Warnken

Next Gen: Women in Rock

Jensen McRae Is More Than the Sad Music She Makes

Get to know the folk phenom turning serious subjects into Internet-beloved tunes.

In her first batch of solo releases alone, Los Angeles singer-songwriter Jensen McRae has tackled a number of serious subjects. On each track, she’s shown an ability to translate personal experiences into universally resonant records, but the 23-year-old folk phenom, who studied music at USC, says she takes pains to create a buffer between the songs she writes and the person she is: “Just because I write sad music as a form of catharsis doesn’t mean I’m a sad girl. I can still be a well-rounded, happy person.”

What McRae, who has worked as a songwriter with Alessia Cara and collaborated with Joy Oladokun and X Ambassadors, is, however, is a malleable talent with a rich, evocative voice. She made Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” her own on a sparse, haunting cover in October 2020, and kicked off this year with the release of the tender “Starting to Get to You” and “Immune,” a de facto coronavirus vaccine anthem filled with moving lyrical details.

Here, McRae talks about not getting swallowed up by the darkness of her subject matter, her viral Phoebe Bridgers parody homage, and writing 150 songs a year.

If you had to pinpoint where your passion in music first came from, where would that be?

It’s hard to say, because it’s been my whole conscious life that I’ve wanted to be a musician, since I was a child. But I guess it really was being exposed to Alicia Keys. My mom played me a lot of Alicia Keys when I was a kid. A lot of it was very cosmetic: she was a mixed girl with braids, I was a mixed girl with braids. I was like, “I want to do that![laughs] I was so inspired by her and I knew I wanted to do exactly what she was doing and I never looked back.

When you started writing music, at what point did you hit on the way your work sounds now?

I started playing piano when I was 7, but I didn’t learn guitar until I was 18. That was a big turning point for me, and honestly, it was largely out of convenience. Keyboards are very heavy and a lot of venues don’t have pianos there, so I was already at a disadvantage. When I started playing guitar, I was like, “This will make playing gigs way easier. I’d better get good at this.” Also, as I was writing, I realized that so much of what I loved, like The Mountain Goats, Phoebe Bridgers, Joni Mitchell, [were] more guitar-based things and that was probably better-suited for the kind of storytelling I was doing. The more competent I became at guitar, the more I realized that my sound really lies in that space.

You stress that you’re a folk artist, despite sometimes being mischaracterized as an R&B or soul singer. Why do you think it’s important to make it clear that music that sounds like yours and tackles the subjects that you do is folk?

A big part of it is that I think it’s important for people to know what they’re getting into. I like to talk about my music with labels, because then people can know what to expect when they’re listening to it. I like making my music more inviting in that way.

And then, from a demographic political standpoint, it’s really important for me as a Black woman to claim those genres that historically have closed out people like me. When I say, “I make folk pop music, I’m explicitly not making soul or R&B,” it's a way of inviting more people of color into the genre and the space, and to assert that the music I make belongs where I think it belongs.

I get excited when people come up with new comparisons that I haven’t heard before. To me, that’s a mark of really educated and close listening, to draw a comparison that even the artist didn’t see before. I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.

I saw when you tweeted the joke about Phoebe Bridgers and then I heard “Immune” and I swear, I texted my friend, “This is so crazy. This sounds so much like Phoebe Bridgers.” I didn’t piece together that was the entire point of the song.

I’ve had success on a couple different platforms. I went viral on Twitter. I have a decent TikTok following. I’ve had people say, “I didn’t know you were the girl that did ‘Wolves.’” That’s so crazy to me. You’ve heard my voice so many times, but it’s on two different songs. I kinda like it. Obviously, I would like for people to identify me right away, but I kinda like that it’s varied enough that people can find it under different circumstances. I’m trying to figure out a way to put them all together though.

As a new artist, how did the lack of performing opportunities in the last year affect you?

My album was done already, in terms of the writing and recording process, when the pandemic began. I wrote a little bit more in 2020 than I did in 2019, but not by a wide margin. I write 120-150 songs a year regardless, because it’s just how my brain works and I need to get it out.

On the one hand, I obviously was distraught not just by the tragedy of the pandemic, but also because I was about to get rolling on touring. To not be able to do that was a bit of a disappointment, but I honestly feel really glad that I’ve had a year to build up my audience a little bit more. Now, when I put these projects out, they won’t just be a shout into the void.

Is there often a single catalytic event for issue-driven songs of yours like “The Plague,” which addresses child detainment, and “Wolves,” which tackles abuse? Or do the ideas build in your mind over time?

It’s definitely both. With “White Boy,” with “Wolves,” with “The Plague,” all of those were songs I had probably been meaning to write for years. “White Boy” is a song that I’ve probably been trying to write for my entire life, but it didn’t happen until I went to this party where a man ignored me very blatantly in front of a bunch of people and it triggered this wave of memories where similar things had happened in my life. I had to write the song. I wrote it very quickly, but it had been brewing in my brain for my entire life.

When I’m writing about a heavy topic, the song begins to take shape very early on and I don’t even realize it’s happening. And then one day, the dam breaks and it all comes out at once.

The collaborations you’ve put out are pretty wide-ranging, with people like X Ambassadors and Alessia Cara. What appeals to you about getting outside of your strictly solo artistic career to do these things that sound different?

When I’m writing for other artists and I’m not involved in the performance part of it, it really feels like a puzzle of how can I create something that I believe in and find to be true, but that also is true for another person and authentic to their experience. When I’m collaborating with someone for us to do something together, like as a duet, I find the best thing to do is to try and make something that’s an exact 50-50 split of our styles.

There’s a certain amount of fetishization of sadness with musicians in modern pop culture. How do you keep the darkness of some of your subject matter from consuming you on a personal level?

I find that in my day to day life, I’m a pretty goofy person. I often say that I take my work really seriously, but I don’t take myself seriously at all. I think that’s the main way that I can avoid being overwhelmed by the sadness of my work. And I love to listen to sugary happy pop music to counteract the darkness of what I’m writing, if I need to.

The art that I’m making is not who I am. That’s something that a songwriting professor told our class. “Music is what you do, it’s not who you are.” That’s really valuable from a mental health standpoint, in that you are not defined by rejection or success. But it’s also helpful in what you’re talking about, as far as content goes. Just because I write sad music as a form of catharsis doesn’t mean I’m a sad girl. I can still be a well-rounded, happy person.

Helen Ballentine of Skullcrusher told me something similar, that at the end of the day, you want to have the ability to detach from your artistic identity and just be a person.

People lose themselves in all jobs. It’s part of the capital machine, to convince people that “If you have your dream job, you’ll never work a day in your life. You’ve gotta find your passion and make it into a job and it should consume you. You should be doing it at 2 a.m.” But no matter how great or fulfilling a job is, it is not your whole life and it is not the most important thing about you.

I think it’s so important to take a break from it, even as a musician. People will be like, “I eat, sleep, and breathe music.” I would never criticize someone for saying that, but maybe you should eat food. [laughs] It’s super healthy to have separation there.

Which song would you pick as the starting place for a new Jensen McRae listener?

I would honestly have to say “White Boy,” which is interesting because it’s my least popular song, but it was the first song that I wrote that I felt like I had hit on something important. When I was a junior in college, John Mayer came to speak at USC and my first songwriting professor invited me to have lunch with the two of them. It was unreal. It was just the three of us sitting in this restaurant and at one point John Mayer turns to me and says, “Have you ever written a bulletproof song?” And I was like, “No,” and he said, “What do you mean?” I said, “I’m 20. And you’re John Mayer. Why would I say ‘yes’ to that question?” But in the back of my mind, I was thinking about how four or five months prior, I had written “White Boy,” and I knew that I did write a bulletproof song. But I didn’t want to say it, because I wasn’t sure yet.

And it’s the first song I ever wrote that scared me, so I know it’s important.

How do you feel about the way your music has been covered? Do you think it’s getting to the heart of what you’re trying to express?

I get most excited when people do deep dives into my lyrics. That’s my favorite thing to talk about. I love when I do Instagram Lives and fans ask me really specific questions about my lyrics. Or in song premieres or articles when they quote direct lines and talk about what they mean. That’s my favorite thing, as a kid who loved English class. There’s this incredible blog, Indie Happy Hour, that has been covering me since 2017. The guy who runs it is an English teacher and he’s talked about how he’s had his class analyze the lyrics to “White Boy.” That was one of my favorite things I’d ever heard. To me, that’s the highest compliment, if a bunch of middle schoolers have to analyze my words.

You’ve already had this multifaceted career of writing for others and doing your solo work, are there any certain career benchmarks you really want to hit?

I just want every year to know that I’ve made more progress than I did in the year before. And so far, I have always done that. If I can continue to do that, I don’t really mind what the pace is. The weird thing about being a musician in the internet age is I always thought my career would be a very slow, gradual, consistent ascent. But there have been crazy spikes and then they plummet back down and then they spike again.

With the “Immune” situation, specifically, that was really scary. I have pretty bad anxiety and when I checked Twitter and saw 2 million people had seen me sing a song in my nightgown, I was not having a good day. Everyone was like, “Oh my god, this is amazing!” I was like, “I’m having a bad time.” [laughs] It was so stressful. It gave me a real appreciation for the slowness. I was really impatient for my whole adolescence, and as soon as I ever get a taste of things starting to pick up in pace, I panic. I’m trying to enjoy the lean times.