Jensen McRae talks about the musicians who influenced her sound

Jensen McRae Wants Her Songs To Cut Straight To The Heart

“Let me include one moment of just direct emotional warfare.”

by Marilyn La Jeunesse

In Elite Daily's series Early Influences, musicians reflect on the songs and albums that left a lasting impression on them in their formative years. Here, singer-songwriter Jensen McRae shares a peek into TikTok fame, DMing Justin Bieber, and creating “knife straight to the heart” moments in her music.

Jensen McRae’s music is as vulnerable and passionate as it is devastatingly precise.

While the 26-year-old singer-songwriter might not be a household name just yet, you’ve certainly heard McRae’s folk-alternative-pop music all over TikTok. She started posting consistently in December 2020 and has slowly garnered more than 300,000 followers. She’s gone viral several times since, has been recognized by the likes of Justin Bieber and Drake, and was named one of NPR Slingshot’s Artists to Watch and #YouTubeBlack Voices’ featured artists in 2021.

Most recently, McRae had a song called “Massachusetts” — which some have also dubbed “Video Games” or “Christian Bale” — take off on the app. The lyrics are a heartbreaking reminder of all the useless knowledge you’re left with when you break up with someone: what part of the state they’re from, their favorite video game, and who plays their favorite live-action Batman.

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Four months later and the video is still taking on new life. It currently has over 5.5 million views, received a TikTok like from Drake, and was reposted by Bieber in an Instagram carousel on Jan. 7.

“I was just so confused,” McRae tells Elite Daily of the moment she found out the pop star posted her song to his account. She’d been grabbing coffee with a new friend and her “historically very dry” phone was bombarded with missed calls and messages from people in her life. The first text she opened was a screenshot of the post. “I thought [my friend] Photoshopped it or something,” McRae says. “I was sitting in a chair, I stood up and then I fell into a squat on the ground and my jaw was agape. The whole day just passed in such a surreal state.”

The duo DMed for a bit after Bieber posted her video to his account. “He seems like a really nice guy,” she says. “He said he loved [the song] and I said that it meant a lot coming from him.”

My goal with everything I do is to be a little bit better than the last thing.

Despite countless pleas in her comments section, McRae hasn’t released the song, and for good reason. She’s just started recording her new album — which will be her second after 2022’s Are You Happy Now? — and “Massachusetts” wasn’t initially a part of the tracklist. Don’t worry, though, she’s making an exception for the beloved song and plans to release it “sooner rather than later.” Right now, all she’s asking for is a little patience. It’s all a part of the grander plan she has for her career.

“I always say that I do everything I do so I can be inducted at Kennedy Center Honors when I’m 75,” she says of her 50-year plan. “My goal with everything I do is to be a little bit better than the last thing I did.”

Below, McRae tells Elite Daily about the songs that have helped her define her unique sound.

“Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” by Rufus Wainwright

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We all had that one friend in high school with a highly specific taste in music. For McRae, hers introduced her to The Mountain Goats, Nana Grizol, and Rufus Wainwright — more specifically, Wainwright’s song “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” which made her 16-year-old self feel an intense unease.

“It felt like what growing up felt like,” she says of the 2001 song. “The idea of cigarettes and chocolate milk being juxtaposed, that's adulthood and childhood sort of next to each other.” She describes the music itself as unsettling, like being on the cusp of new life experiences and wanting to be treated as an adult even though you’re still technically a kid.

But it’s not just the song that resonated with McRae — she says anytime she sits down at the piano, Wainwright’s darker, more dramatic influence comes through.

“I feel like Rufus Wainwright, Ingrid Michaelson, and Sara Bareilles are the voices in my head when I'm at the piano. When I'm playing guitar, I feel like that's more like my Phoebe [Bridgers], Joni [Mitchell] moment,” she says.

“Medicine” by Daughter

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Picture this: You’re a teenager in 2015. One Direction has taken the music industry by storm, and Bieber’s blasting from every radio in a 5-mile radius. Happy music is almost the definition of this era — but McRae says she thrived on the “super emo stuff.”

“‘Medicine’ was a song that just made me cry every time I listened to it. That song is just the most emo song ever,” she says before admitting to choreographing a “really bad contemporary dance” to the track.

Similarly to “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” “Medicine” has a distinct coming-of-age message surrounding it. It’s a theme that’s followed McRae throughout her own career with much of her first studio album, released in 2022, about growing up.

“When I first started writing music, so much of what I wrote were just songs about unrequited love, and they were terrible,” she says. “I was a very late bloomer; I didn't get into my first relationship until my early 20s, so when I was first writing music, it was all hypothetical and it was all about yearning.”

At the encouragement of her songwriting professor in college, she started experimenting with writing about politics, mental health, and other topics she had previously not considered traditional songwriting material. “Ultimately, I discovered and peeled back the layers and found that the artist underneath really wanted to write about what it meant to become yourself,” McRae adds.

“Re: Stacks” by Bon Iver

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A longtime fan of Bon Iver, she remembers hearing this song and wondering what the hell the lead singer was talking about. Unlike pop songs, which typically have pretty straightforward lyrics, she describes the 2007 song “Re: Stacks” as more atmospheric.

“Sometimes Justin Vernon writes lyrics that are super clear and direct that literally stab you in the heart like a knife. But surrounding [his music], it's almost like he's just painting with a watercolor brush and creating an atmosphere with words as opposed to trying to tell a particular story,” she explains. It wasn’t until she sat down and read the lyrics and really thought about the song that she could map the narrative.

For McRae, “Re: Stacks” helped her realize it was a skill to tell a story and convey a feeling or a mood without being direct. Still, no matter what she’s writing, she likes to have at least one direct “knife to the heart” moment.

“In ‘Re: Stacks,’ the last line is, ‘Your love will be safe with me.’ That's really the thesis statement of the whole song. In my own writing, I like to try to have these moments that are incredibly direct even when I am engaging in metaphor,” she says. “I'm like, ‘Let me include one moment of just direct emotional warfare,’ and that's Bon Iver's bag.”