Inside Jensen McRae’s Bittersweet Nostalgia 

How the rising songwriter turned one fated Tweet into her own success story. 

by Ayesha Habib

Photo by Caity Krone

Jensen McRae makes music for main character moments. Solo midnight drives with passing neon lights; unsent texts and beginnings without endings. Her voice—haunting, resonant, and sparse at the same time—carries a raw sense of sustained emotion across each verse, as if the singer could break down in tears at any given moment during a song. It’s balancing on that precipice between restraint and cathartic release where McRae thrives.

The LA-based singer-songwriter has been gaining traction in the industry over the past three years, with singles like 2020’s “White Boy,” a song about identity and microaggressions, setting the tone of her vulnerable approach. But it was a fated viral tweet that would seal the deal of McRae’s destiny: in early 2021, she mused about an imagined future Phoebe Bridgers song about hooking up in a car before getting vaccinated, and followed up with a 50-second acoustic rendition of what the track could sound like. The tweet garnered more than 70 thousand likes. 

“Within 36 hours, there were like two million people asking me when it was going to be out and I just had never experienced anything like that before,” McRae laughs over a Zoom call. But she delivered: her track “Immune” dropped just a few weeks after the tweet to the delight of a newfound fanbase. It may have started out as a joke, but “Immune” is true to the singer’s expansive vocals and tender sensibility, with lyrics like “What will we say to each other when the needle goes in? What will we be to each other if the world doesn’t end?” Somehow, she made getting vaccinated beautiful. 

McRae has since ridden the wave of her virality to come into an artist that’s decidedly her own. Her upcoming debut album Are You Happy Now? flits through different genres, from pop to folk to country, and touches on the aches of becoming an adult. Written during the end of her university days at USC’s Thornton School of Music, each song plays out like its own journal entry.

“My entire life I’ve struggled with anxiety and mental health issues in general. And it’s something that can be very difficult to talk about to people who don’t understand it. So I just started writing [the way] I might try to express myself to someone that I care about, about how even though I’m achieving the things I always wanted to achieve and I’ve kind of outgrown my awkward phase, it hasn’t solved the problems that I thought it would,” she says. “A lot of this album is just about me coming of age, growing up and realizing that the world isn’t quite what I thought it was going to be.” 

Her most recent single off the album, “Happy Girl,” alludes to this push and pull of expectation and reality. With a Tracy Chapman-esque influence in its sonics and simple delivery, the song details McRae’s lifelong relationship with a sadness that won’t quite leave her. It’s a sadness McRae describes as something that was inevitable, despite the endless support she received from her parents in her childhood. “My mom is white and Jewish, my dad is Black. And my parents were both very fixated on making sure that I had a lot of self-esteem and confidence in my identity,” she says, recalling how they would play Alicia Keys CD’s in the car and cut out magazine clippings of successful bi-racial people so that McRae could grow up feeling represented. Still, McRae tells me, her relationship to her identity had been tenuous throughout her teen years—something that’s detailed in songs like “Headlock Pt. 3 (Daughter)” which opens with the line “Fifteen years old, secretly trying to find skin-whitening cream on the internet.” 

The song is the final verse of three interludes titled “Headlock” split up across the album, the first two are dedicated to her father and mother and tell stories of intimate moments with each of them. At less than a minute each, the interludes are sparse sonically, a contrast to the rich auditory worlds built by Grammy-winning producer Rahki elsewhere on the album. The “Headlock” interludes present McRae alone with her guitar, as if she had just hit record on her iPhone. But that, at its core, is when her artistry is at its purest. Her voice itself carries enough power to hold the album up.

“I think it’s a really good plane album,” McRae says, suggesting her debut as something to listen to on long journeys with lots of time to think. The album is tinted with a sense of tender retrospection throughout, which most prominently manifests in the last track “Make You Proud,” a letter to McRae’s eighth grade self. It’s the type of nostalgic bittersweetness we feel when we dig up old diaries and relive those old feelings which once consumed us. It’s the sense of loss we feel when we realize we can never comfort our childhood selves. And importantly for McRae, it’s the growth we can recognize when we look back at older versions of ourselves. 

Jensen McRae’s debut album Are You Happy Now? is out March 22 via Human Re Sources

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