USC alumna and rising star takes internet by storm
From releasing her first single, “White Boy” in 2019 to becoming an internationally recognized singer-songwriter, Jensen McRae is making her spot in the music industry with her lyrical poems and dusky melodies. Often strumming away on her acoustic guitar, the 23-year-old has an unforgettable celestial voice.
“I’m a poem,” McRae said. “People often ask me how I write things [and] my inner monologue is narrative. I see the world in complete sentences or lines of a verse. I often feel like a poem inside of a meat suit.”
She had a reason to feel this poetic epiphany. When an anxious 12-year-old McRae waited in line at a charity event, clutching a letter addressed to her idol Alicia Keys, little did she know that she would take home more than just an embarrassing photo.
“It felt like a sign from the universe,” McRae said. “She asked me if I was a musician and I said yes, and told me to keep doing it.”
From then on, McRae cherished that moment and took it as a call to pursue music.
Along her ongoing journey as an artist, USC alumna McRae created folk and alternative pop-sounding music, always writing from her heart. Personal experiences, books, television shows and stories from her friends inspire her songs. By prioritizing authenticity and the significance of underrepresented voices, McRae empathizes with her audience through mainstream platforms such as YouTube, Twitter and TikTok. This sensitivity toward others developed at a young age, she said.
Growing up in Los Angeles, taking piano lessons and with a firm grasp on writing, McRae experimented with poems at an early age, which later informed her songwriting. Inspiring her brother Holden McRae in the process, McRae began elaborately executing exquisite performances for her friends at school, family and fans on YouTube.
“Seeing her thrive in that environment, it seemed like the logical choice and it seemed like a place that I would definitely want to be,” said Holden, a freshman majoring in popular music performance.
McRae’s proficient talent for songwriting was resolute in a song written for her 7th grade English class. From there, she began producing thoughtful pieces evoking empathetic themes, connecting with her listeners. McRae’s music resonated with promising potential and inspired those around her.
“She continued to do that in addition to self-motivation and becoming more confident with her image. I think it’s great how she started off by being genuine to herself,” Holden said. “I’ve seen that stuff my whole life. To see other people enjoy her art is really nice to see.”
As McRae gradually communicated to a diverse audience, a new scope defined her prospects as a musician, advancing her insights and shaping her personality geared towards musical styles.
“She was very thoughtful, very quiet, taking it all in, extremely thorough. She was remarkably dedicated and had incredible work ethic,” said Chris Sampson, associate professor of songwriting and founding director of the popular music program at the Thornton School of Music.
When she was in high school, Sampson first met McRae at GRAMMY camp, a summer camp for young musicians. His songwriting lessons continued at USC, which McRae later attended. Thrilled with her progress, Sampson said he believes she deserves to be heard.
“It’s important that people hear what she has to say because she is one of the smartest writers I’ve ever worked with,” Sampson said. “It’s very gratifying to me that she has been able to write at such a high level.”
According to Sampson, McRae hasn’t changed her style at all and has kept true to herself, connecting with audience from all walks of life.
“When we are connecting with an audience through songs, it has to be authentic, it has to come from a place that is genuine to the writer, and Jensen is very skilled at drawing upon her own experience, her own feelings, her own advantage point,” Sampson said. “But then she’s able to translate that into larger themes that resonate and connect with a universal audience.”
The larger theme of womanhood and rape culture in her song “Wolves” draws from shared yet concealed experiences among McRae’s audience, written from her personal reflections and stories from her friends. Her dedication and determination to endow memory and meaning into each verse validate a sense of catharsis.
“Jensen’s remarkable skill is to take these very genuine, authentic moments and feelings and impressions and transform them into something that universally people can have an emotional response to,” Sampson said.
As a musician, McRae faced her sophomore slump in college when she realized that an academic setting stripped away her ability to put focus toward the joyful elements of making music. Although she felt restrained by the structural obligations required of academic standards, she soon broke free.
“It is optimal to learn the rules in order to break them,” McRae said. “I realized that I had a baseline of mastery over a lot of the more technical elements of user creation and that I also had more freedom because I could more easily identify why what I was doing was working or not working.”
In the end, USC entrusted McRae with the confidence of a writer, performer and musician. The swift lyrical tasks and constraints required by her classes challenged her to new depths when it came to a Phoebe Bridgers vaccination anthem.
On Jan. 14, McRae tweeted about coronavirus prospects in an imagined Phoebe Bridgers song. Little did she know, it would go viral and within a matter of hours, she was an internet sensation. After establishing a TikTok following by writing songs based on random journal entries, McRae decided to take initiative.
“I thought that in the spirit of my online presence of writing songs very spontaneously and improvisationally that I would just write the song that I was talking about. I said to seize the moment,” McRae said. “In 10 minutes, I wrote that first verse and then the next day, it blew up a little bit and then the day after that, my phone was just ringing off the hook of people saying I broke the internet.”
Together with her team and producer Rahki, McRae spent the night finishing and recording the song.
“Immune” was released on Jan. 27 as a Jensen McRae track rather than a Bridgers parody. The viral song’s captivating lyrics serve as a post coronavirus vaccination anthem despite the bleak reality of social distancing.
“It’s a fictional story about two friends who’ve had feelings for each other for a while who are going to get vaccinated together,” McRae said. “And because the line at Dodger Stadium is so long, they end up hooking up in the car, and they feel weird about it after.”
After taking the lead in creating the visuals for previous songs, “White Boy” and “Wolves,” McRae plans to also work on a music video for “Immune.”
Named one of the 21 artists of #YouTubeBlack Voices Class of 2021, McRae hopes to take this opportunity and invest in creating visuals for her music, which will continue to resonate with politics, race and frankly personal stories.
“I’m excited to be a part of it because I’ve never really seen Black art honored so intentionally that way. It really spoke to my mission statements as an artist, which is to show the full multi-dimensional experience of the Black community,” McRae said. “The only way to do that is by doing what the YouTube Black Voices campaign has done which is choosing Black artists who are all different shades, different gender identities from different countries representing different genres of music.”
Music acts as a processing mechanism for McRae to convey political or emotional topics. Reflecting on a short conversation with producer Rahki, she recited dark lyrics of fear and anxiety universally shared by women in her single “Wolves.” Borrowing from an uneasy experience at a college party, she also wrote “White Boy” about microaggressions in interracial relationships.
Besides writing and singing for her audiences, McRae listens to their voices, carefully noting their concerns, addressing their questions on her YouTube channel, Instagram and Twitter. She wishes to establish a platform for young people, enabling them to feel seen and heard.
“I want to encourage people to listen more critically to music and to read poetry, and to just engage with language in a bigger way,” McRae said. “I hope my music inspires people to write their music, express themselves with more intention and clarity.”
Facing coronavirus’ limitations like any other musician, McRae aspires to reach musical milestones of merely making her music, supporting herself and traveling the world without any restrictions socially or physically.
“I always say that I can tell a songwriter by their notebook and Jensen has one of the most amazing notebooks I have ever seen,” Sampson said. “She’s never without it. And I would see her take every moment that she had, that she could take. And she would be writing down her reflections, her stories sitting on some couch in the hallway.”
Notebooks entailing descriptive encounters and keen observations helped McRae translate her struggles and efforts into melodies, incorporating a sincere nuance and distinguishing her from other artists.
“I could actually tell instantly that she was a true songwriter,” Sampson said.
Having already filled 16 journals, McRae is currently working on her 17th, reflecting her thoughts and impressions of the world into diary entries and lyrical rhymes.
In the meantime, McRae plans on releasing an album at the end of 2021. Basing it on her childhood, adulthood and college experience, she completed the album in mid-2019, before the pandemic broke out.
As a biracial woman from L.A., McRae sings about all the ways she has come of age. Especially noting her economic privileges growing up, the new album is about her realizing the world by leaving her parents’ protective bubble.
McRae’s unique style and mission statement as a singer-songwriter entail a mindful awareness of her listeners. First impressions have never been so inspirational and dimensional.
Her lyrics are more than mere words, enticing room for interpretation, as she introduces new threads and nuances for her persistent listeners. The dimensional aspect of her songs offers a riddle of filling empathic memoirs, rather than catchy yet meaningless tunes.
“With Jensen you’ve got a multifaceted approach that allows you to appreciate her writing on multiple layers, through multiple listens, and that’s a rare quality,” Sampson said.