Back in January, all eyes were on Jensen McRae. After jokingly tweeting a description of a future Phoebe Bridgers song and later posting a “preemptive cover” of what she envisioned, the folk-pop artist daydreamed about what life could look like in a post-vaccination world. Instantly, McRae went viral, and the Internet went into a frenzy. Suddenly, she had the material that would become her next single, “Immune.”
“I always thought virality was not real,” McRae says over the phone from her West Hollywood home. “I thought it had to be manufactured by some other entity and anyone who’s ever gone viral did so because of the work of some marketing executives pulling strings behind the scenes. But I see now that it can just happen completely by accident.”
Despite the newfound attention, McRae wasn’t exactly new to the music industry: the singer-songwriter and poet, born and raised in Los Angeles in a biracial Black and Jewish family, had “no conscious memory of wanting to be anything else” beyond a musician. Growing up, McRae’s parents enrolled her in piano lessons and encouraged her to participate in musical theater to help her overcome her shyness; she subsequently fell in love with songwriting and playing pop music. By 16, McRae attended Grammy camp, a 10-day intensive at the University of Southern California, which cemented her own desire to attend college there. (And she did, studying popular music performance as an undergrad.)
During college, McRae released two EPs Lighter and Milkshake, but it wasn’t until right after graduating in 2019 that she shared her proper debut single “White Boy.” Inspired by a party she attended, McRae processes racist microaggressions and being ignored as a woman of color by a potential romantic encounter. While she claims it’s not the song she’s known for, she says, Black and Brown people of all genders have reached out and told her that they “have a white boy.” “I spent a long time thinking it was too niche of an experience and that no one would ever relate,” recalls McRae. “I was obviously very wrong about that.” What followed was her 2020 single “Wolves,” a haunting series of vignettes about sexual assault and harassment. (Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon was a “wonderful champion” of the song in its early days.) “[‘White Boy’ and ‘Wolves’] were songs that I had inklings of many times over the years, at least thematically, but I never sat down to write them because I wasn’t emotionally ready until I was in my early twenties,” the singer says.
Although people may have not fully made the connection between McRae and her songs before, the release of “Immune” was a game-changer in terms of exposure. McRae has a few theories on the sweeping anthem’s resonance: For her, it could be the timeliness of knowing the vaccinations were working and the growing fandom of Phoebe Bridgers—not to mention her Grammy nominations and an impending SNL performance—had everyone talking. “[Phoebe] was really having a moment, and people were talking about her, so for me to make any reference to her was to be participating in a conversation that I consciously knew was going on,” McRae recalls. Still, she’s not sure Bridgers explains away her instant success. “I know that I couldn't replicate it,” she says. “It was truly lightning in a bottle.”
Building on the momentum McRae garnered in 2021, the singer-songwriter released her new EP Who Hurt You? in late June featuring her socially conscious lyrics, tender vocals, and her unwavering sense of vulnerability. “There’s a lot of room in communities of color to talk more about mental health and therapy, so to be a Black woman singing about depression and anxiety is important for a lot of people,” McRae notes. Throughout the six-song EP, which covers everything from race and gender to mental illness and unrequited love, you can hear trappings of Michelle Branch, Joni Mitchell, and Tracy Chapman—along with McRae’s affinity for the rich, low registers of Adele and Alicia Keys. Although the uniqueness of McRae’s voice can’t quite be defined by comparisons to other artists, she sees the value in them. At the very least, listeners who haven’t heard her music “know what they’re getting into.” “I don't have any delusions about being the most groundbreaking person,” she says. “I know I'm part of a long and honored tradition of female folk writers and pop writers [with] maybe a little country and a little R&B thrown in there.” Her influences speak to her wide-ranging dream collaborations—everyone from Bridgers and Vernon to Sara Bareilles and Kendrick Lamar.
But as a mixed-race folk artist, McRae used to find herself misidentified when it came to genre. “People are still surprised by the genre that I worked in, and I think, even to a greater extent, I’m often still one of very few Black artists represented in those spaces on playlists or in conversations about who’s making folk music.” While she says it’s “a lifelong journey” to be seen in that space, surrounded by artists like Arlo Parks, Joy Oladokun, and the more pop-leaning Olivia Rodrigo, she feels “lucky” to be on the rise “at a time when the landscape is hospitable.” “I feel like Brown girls with guitars are having their moment,” McRae explains. “The 2000s were white men with guitars and then the 2010s were white women with guitars, and now, it’s Brown women with guitars.”