Born and raised in Los Angeles, singer-songwriter Jensen McRae solidifies her space within folk music, showcasing that Black women have a range outside of societal expectations of solely R&B and hip-hop. Through her sharp songwriting, McRae discusses her experiences as a young Black female artist. When she first stepped into the industry, people wanted to pigeonhole McRae and strictly peg her as an R&B artist. It wasn’t until she met her current team that they understood her path and vision in indie rock.
Ahead of the release of her debut album, Happy Girl, EDITION sat down with McRae to discuss the messages within her music, her strong presence on TikTok as an artist, and her plans for the summer.
What were some of your inspirations growing up?
When I was a kid, my mom and dad played me a lot of the great singer-songwriters of their childhoods – Carole King, James Taylor, and Stevie Wonder. Then, my mom got me into Alicia Keys and Corinne Bailey Rae. They were my first role models of what music could look like for Black girls. So, that made me realize that what I wanted to do was make music and be like them. Then, when I was in middle school, I got really into Sara Bareilles. I was obsessed with Sara Bareilles. I guess I was in high school in the 2010s with the alt indie-pop thing. I was obsessed with Bon Iver and John Mayer. So, those were the people that were very pivotal for me to discover throughout my early childhood and adolescence.
What has your experience been like as a Black Jewish woman with storytelling within your music?
I have found that entering the folk space as a Black woman was challenging. I played all the songwriter nights that I could get my hands on in college, and I was usually the only Black woman on the lineup. And oftentimes, I would get ignored, or people would act really confused that that was the kind of music that I was making and would make weird, racially charged comments about the music. I would have scrambled to try to get a meeting with anyone that I thought could help me. They would say, “Oh, I don't do urban music.” I don't make urban music, and they would not be able to compute that maybe a Black woman would make music that wasn't R&B. For a long time, that was challenging. But then, when I met my team at the beginning of my senior year, they immediately understood exactly what I wanted to do. I didn't have to explain myself, and I didn’t have to affirm my existence to them. They're just like, “This is the music that you want to make it. It's the music that you make, and it's great. We want to help you do that.” It was affirming to have that experience and form the team I have now.
I’m sure finding a team that appreciates and understands you and an audience on TikTok has been tremendous. How do you feel that connection with your fans through TikTok has impacted your artistry?
TikTok is an incredible platform for finding the people you've always been looking for. I think the social internet was designed to create a niche community, but I feel like TikTok does it in a way that's especially powerful just because of how the app is designed. The ‘for you’ page is never-ending. You never stop scrolling which is a little cursed because I definitely spend hours on it. But it's remarkable how it taps into who you are based on your behavior on the app quickly, which obviously can be scary. It's weird knowing that an app knows so much about you, but it's also powerful. As a musician, I posted one to talk about my song, “White Boy.” And I was like, ‘Oh, my god! Does it sound like what Taylor Swift would write if she were a Black girl?’ I captioned it, “Where are the Black Swifties?” I got hundreds of comments like, “Hi, I'm a Black Swiftie.” And I was like, ‘That was so easy.’ It's been wonderful that people can find my music efficiently. And it's exactly the kind of people that benefit from hearing my music the most. That's special.
It's so easy to find that community and find that niche of people who will understand you. What was your inspiration for Happy Girl?
It’s about mental health and how you want to present yourself in a certain way to the people who care about you because you don't want to scare them. You don't want to worry them. It's also about how when good things happen to you, or you make changes in yourself that other people perceive to be positive. You're supposed to feel better, and it's supposed to solve everything. Still, it doesn't because mental health is an ongoing process of management and mitigation, and you're going to have good periods and bad periods.
Happy Girl was about that experience in my last year of college. I had gotten this amazing opportunity in a meeting with my producer Rahki and my manager Kristin, and I knew that I was supposed to be super excited about it. On some level, I was, but I was also so stressed out about letting people down. I was really burnt out at making all of this music in such a short span of time. I knew that I was supposed to be the happiest I've ever been. I felt adrift, scared, and stressed. “Take It Easy,” another song on my album, also nods to that, but Happy Girl is about my lifelong thing of I know I lead a very fortunate life. So, it's hard when I feel that pull of sadness and darkness because I know I'm “not supposed” to.
I had a chance to see that kind of expression and emotion through the visualizer. I love its simplicity and how it just got straight to the point. “Take It Easy” was also one of my favorite songs off your album. It was very upbeat, but then the message is still there of trying to make you calmer about life. Then, in another TikTok, I saw you’re very busy this summer with festivals, headlining in London, and touring. How does that make you feel?
I'm excited to be getting on the road. I did a mini-tour in mid-March. Even though it was only four shows, it was one of the best weeks of my life. I love traveling. I love performing. I kind of let myself forget how much I love performing. When the pandemic had shows shut down, it was like, ‘Well, God knows when those will be back.’ Now, I'm able to play them. I remember how exhilarating it is and how much I love being on stage. Combining my love of travel with my love of performing is truly a dream come true. I love London. It's my favorite city aside from Los Angeles, and I haven't been in three years. I'm really excited to go back. The other places that I'm going for the overseas shows I'm excited to explore. I have to figure out what I'm doing for the fall. I anticipate I'll be on the road some more. It's the best feeling ever playing for a new audience every night – and watching the music land in different ways with different people; getting to explore the local bookstores and coffee shops is the best part of traveling. Every new city is also so exciting. I need to pack.
You have an announcement in July, which I'm looking forward to seeing. As far as the next steps, what does that look like for you as an artist?
I am in the process of trying to enjoy the release period because this album has been a long time coming. I finished it a couple of years ago, and then because of the pandemic and logistical things, there was no good time to put it out until now. So, I'm trying to enjoy that I’m able to put out this album that I've loved for so long. I'm always writing. I'm trying to figure out what the next record could sound like and the stories I want to tell. So, I'm writing as much as possible, mostly on my own right now. When I get back from the East Coast, I’m doing a bunch of sessions. The summer will involve a lot of sessions exploring different possibilities because I'm proud of the first album, and I think it's super representative of my introduction to who I am.
Photography by: Caity Krone