A Conversation with Jensen McRae

By Ethan Shanfeld

Photo Courtesy of Jensen McRae

In her new single, “The Plague,” Jensen McRae, a 22-year-old singer-songwriter, poet and screenwriter, croons, “Killed with no rules/We’re shot in church and elementary schools/With guns not even foreign soldiers keep.” Her rich, soothing voice complements the poised rebellion rooted in her socially and politically conscious lyrics. Music was embedded in McRae’s soul long before she was even born — her father, a lawyer, initially wooed her mother with his singing voice. After taking piano lessons as a kid, attending Grammy Camp as a high schooler and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in popular music from USC, McRae released her first single, “White Boy,” about her struggles with racial microaggressions (“White girl arrives/I turn invisible”). In February, she put out “Wolves,” a stripped-down song that weaves together vivid vignettes about sexual assault. Below, McRae discusses her approach to making art, her plans for the future and her feelings about being labeled as a “soul” artist.

How has staying at home during the coronavirus pandemic affected your career and your creative process?

Creatively, the biggest obstacle is not being able to go to the studio. I ordered a bunch of stuff so I could get my home setup in order, quite frantically. But I’ve been writing the same amount. I still feel very inspired. I’m writing a lot about what’s going on but also about other things. I feel like the hallmark of my music in general has always been an eye for the political and the social, but with an undercurrent of my own problems because I feel like as a Black woman, I’m constantly navigating whether to talk about political issues or to talk about my mental health or my romantic misadventures or my fears of adulthood. [laughs] Professionally, the main thing is I just got an agent and was just about to start the process of looking to tour for the summer or fall, but it’s looking like that’s not going to be happening.

When did you start making music, and when did it become apparent to you that you could actually do this thing for real?

I’ve been singing for basically my entire life and started taking piano lessons when I was 7 and writing songs shortly thereafter. I had that little kid thing of “I want to be a singer when I grow up” in the same way that kids want to be astronauts or ballerinas or firefighters. For me, it just stuck. I never really wavered. When I was 16, I started taking it really seriously in that I went to a summer camp called Grammy Camp hosted by the Grammy Foundation at USC. Going there and studying songwriting for a week and a half really cemented that [music] was what I wanted to do with my life and that USC was where I wanted to go to college. I went to the popular music program at USC, and then that also made me take my music career more seriously. Honestly, I definitely had childlike confidence my entire life that there was nothing else that I would do and that I would obviously succeed. Throughout college, I had some self-doubt from facing rejection from the music industry and being surrounded by my immensely talented peers and sort of having imposter syndrome. But then I regained some of that confidence when I met my current team, and they were very insistent that I was going to succeed. And it reminded me of how I felt about my art and myself when I was a child and made me feel like I could do it.

How challenging was it to learn in an academic setting about a creative process that you had been doing your whole life? Did it feel natural?

I’d say the biggest challenge — one that I didn’t face in camp but I did in school — was taking away the “play” element. Music had been my hobby for so long, and then suddenly it became my homework and my job. My first year, one of the classes you had to take was a performance class. Each week you were assigned three songs you had to learn with a band on your respective instrument, and you had to replicate the record exactly in class. So that means listening to the record hundreds and hundreds of times. So I would always feel guilty when I was listening to music that wasn’t for class, because it’s like this is time I could be spending listening to that same Motown song a hundred more times. [laughs] So it took away some of the wonder at first, but then it came back. There’s this saying that goes something like, “Learn the rules so you can break them.” The process of learning the rules is very frustrating, but then once you learn them, the world opens up in a lot of ways. And honestly, the biggest thing I got from music school was not necessarily being in class and learning specifically how to write or perform a song, but it was being surrounded by other musicians and having an infrastructure where every week I was expected to write and perform. It compelled me to be a lot more productive.

You came up with the concept for your video for “White Boy.” How important is it to you to not only write your own music but also take the creative lead on the visuals?

It’s very important. I think I’ve become a lot better at collaborating in the past year, letting other people’s ideas shine and letting other people take control when they know more about things than I do. But I think it’s really important for the seed of my vision to be in everything I touch. I also came up with a sketch of the treatment for “Wolves,” which the director then flawlessly expanded and executed. I really like having other people’s input, especially in visuals, which is an area I’m not trained in. But I always have an impulse when I’m writing a song of,  like, “What would the video look like?” I like to have that carried into the final product even if it’s just in some small way.

“Wolves” has some heavy lyrics relating to sexual assault. “He plied me with shot after shot/He assured me he was harmless/Why did I ever trust a fox?” Where do you find inspiration for your music, and is it difficult to tackle such serious topics in four-minute songs?

Inspiration can come from a variety of places. With “Wolves” specifically, it was when my producer Rahki and I were in the studio. The R. Kelly documentary had just come out, and he was talking to me about having watched it and discussed it with his male friends and the realization that they had about how the women in their lives move through the world and the things they deal with on a daily basis. So I was like, “Do you want me to write about that?” He was like, “I dunno, you could.” [laughs] I started writing the lyrics to “Wolves,” and as soon as I sang the first verse, he was like, “Yeah, yeah, keep going.” Obviously, those lyrics come from my own life a little bit but also from the experiences of every woman I know, and how we all have different versions of the same story — that fear and that anxiety and all those lessons learned about the dangers of the world. So my inspiration comes primarily from my own life, but I like to borrow from other people’s lives enough to make the song speak to as many people as possible.

“The Plague,” is your most direct song to date, explicitly mentioning things like “kids in cages” and “travel bans.” But it ends on a hopeful note: “I’m trying to believe in something/‘Cause God is gone but maybe she is coming.” Was that a deliberate choice?

Absolutely. I wrote it from a place of real despair, but I wanted there to be room for hope. Despite all my saddest music, there’s this undercurrent of hope that things can get better, and there’s some strength in tragedy. I wanted to make sure that, even though it’s just the last two lines, there’s a little light at the end of the tunnel.

On Twitter, popular singer-songwriter Moses Sumney started a conversation about why Black artists who make folk music are considered soul musicians, and your music was brought up. Has that been an obstacle for you? What do genres mean to you in general, and do you consider yourself a folk artist?

There are many parts of that question that I like. First of all, people not correctly identifying the genre of my music was my primary obstacle growing up. I’m very fortunate that my parents have been super emotionally and financially supportive of my music career. I’m only 22, so I’m very fortunate to have already begun this journey and have met the people that I’ve met. I haven’t had to deal with prolonged periods of existential doubt about my art. But people misidentifying me was a big problem all throughout my teens and in college. When people ask about my music, they’re like, “Oh, do you make R&B? Oh, so you make soul music? Are you like Beyoncé?” And I’m like, “No, not even a little bit. I love Beyoncé, but I am so different from her.” When I would play shows, I think my physical presentation signaled to people in some way that they should be expecting something that I wouldn’t deliver. Producers prior to Rahki often either dismissed my music outright or tried to steer me in a direction that was very inauthentic to me. So that was really frustrating because I really wanted to make this type of music.

To answer the other part of your question, I do identify as a folk artist. I don’t have a problem with genre; I think it’s very helpful to categorize things. If I were to get into hyphenates, I would call my music folk-alternative-pop. Having gone to music school and having a real passion for straightforward pop music, I think there’s a pop sensibility injected into my folk music. As far as the other songs on my album, there’s some stuff that has R&B energy, there’s some stuff that has some country energy and there’s some stuff that’s just straight up singer-songwriter moments. I think that genre is helpful in guiding people toward what they should listen to. If I don’t know what you make, I may not go click on it. I think people need that guide, so I definitely have no problem with identifying myself in a certain way. Moses was right on. There are a lot of people of every ethnicity, and not just Black artists — I’d say that Asian and Latin artists are more pigeonholed or dismissed from the conversation entirely. They make this incredible music that’s pop or folk or R&B, but because of the color of their skin, they’re foreclosed from even being a part of that canon. I’m hoping that we’re getting past that a little bit, but sometimes there’s still regressive moments. Honestly, with the Complex article referring to me as a soul artist,* I wasn’t totally opposed to that categorization, but I did note the racial undertones. I was like, “Well, I know that part of the reason they’re saying that is because I’m Black.” But I appreciated Moses calling attention to the broader issue of this happening with a ton of artists.

You’re also a poet. When you have ideas, how do you distinguish whether it’s going to turn into a poem or a song, or is that a subconscious process?

It’s sometimes a subconscious process, but it’s trial and error mostly. If I have an idea for a line, I will usually stick it in a song first, because that’s the way it will reach the most people. If it doesn’t sing well or if it’s just not working, I will take it back out of the song and stick it in a poem. There’s been occasions where I’ve written a whole poem and been like, “Damn, I think this still has potential,” so I’ll pluck half of it out and make it the first verse.

Who are your influences?

My early influences were definitely the titans of songwriting, like Carole King, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys. Those were the people I listened to the most as a child that informed my early music. Now, the peers that I admire and try to align myself with are people like Maggie Rogers, Phoebe Bridgers, Kevin Garrett, Bon Iver, John Mayer. Those are the people I find myself gravitating toward now.

Recently on Twitter, you expressed interest in playing an NPR Tiny Desk Concert. What music industry milestones, whether it’s playing Tiny Desk or Coachella, have you always dreamed about achieving?

Tiny Desk is definitely one. I definitely want to play at the Grammys. Obviously I’d love to win a Grammy as well, but I just want to be a part of it in whatever capacity the Recording Academy enables me. I really wanna do one of those historic duets, like Carole King and Sara Bareilles a couple years ago. If I could do something like that… like me and Alicia Keys and Tracy Chapman singing a mashup of “White Boy,” “Fast Car” and “No One”… like let’s go! [laughs]. I also really want to play late night talk shows, like Seth Meyers is my king. There’s so many. I wanna get reviewed in Pitchfork as well; that’s one of my favorite publications. I wanna be reviewed on NPR, too. The Grammys is a huge cultural thing for any musician, but other than that, my focus is on wherever the intellect and the journalism is. I’d love to be welcomed into those circles for my music. That’s the dream.

You mentioned earlier that you have an album coming soon. What’s next for you?

There’s some more singles coming out — some soon, some potentially less soon. The album has been mixed, so we’re currently in the mastering process. I don’t know how long that’s going to take. The original plan was for it to come out some time during the spring, but then obviously with all that’s going on, we’re pushing it back to TBD. I’m gonna play a lot of livestream shows on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter. I had some dates that I was supposed to play in March with this great artist, Jordan Mackampa, and those have been rescheduled to November, so hopefully the rescheduled dates do happen. I’ve been watching the news… I don’t know if they will. I know that’s probably not a popular opinion to voice. I think 2020 might be a wash in terms of touring, but I’m not concerned about that. I’m very lucky to not have to be worried about my own schedule being affected by this. I’m lucky enough to be able to stay home and be patient. I used to be a very impatient person about my career, and now I just want it to unfold at whatever pace it must unfold.

*The Complex article McRae refers to was titled “Premiere: Jensen McRae’s Stunning Soul Number ‘Wolves’ Will Stop You In Your Tracks” and has since been deleted.