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    Thursday, April 18, 2024

    Singer, songwriter and killer dancer, Tate McRae is poised for pop stardom

    Performing with poise on live TV is a rare skill, but it’s one that 20-year-old Tate McRae learned young.

    As a 12-year-old from Calgary, Canada, the dancer and budding singer-songwriter won third place on the 2016 season of “So You Think You Can Dance” and performed with fellow Canuck Justin Bieber. So when McRae took the stage at “Saturday Night Live” on Nov. 18 — this time debuting as a pop star in her own right — she was more prepared than most.

    “My parents came, and we were all freaking out,” McRae said in an interview at the Westwood offices of her management company. “I think there’s way more pressure on ‘SNL’ just because it’s one of the last live TV shows. Whatever happens, happens, even if I fall on my face. I was just like, ‘I don’t want to let anyone down.’”

    Her pair of performances that night showed the athleticism and artful precision of her dancing, on the Top 10 smash “Greedy,” and her poised, confessional songwriting, on the ballad “Grave.” She instantly joined a pantheon of heroes — Britney Spears, Janet Jackson — who arrived fully aware of how to physically inhabit their music.

    In the wake of peers like Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo (a close friend of McRae’s) redefining young women’s creative agency in pop, McRae is likely up next — her sophomore LP, “Think Later,” came out Dec. 8.

    “My fans have seen me writing songs in my bedroom since I was 13,” McRae said. “I don’t think I realized then how much I was in the public eye. Your perspectives and tastes change so much. I’m realizing the repercussions of people looking at you through a microscope.”

    McRae’s hometown is often needled as Canada’s Texas, best known for its annual massive Stampede rodeo. Pursuing art made her an outlier growing up in Calgary.

    “In our town, I think it was a little frowned upon,” McRae said, dressed in L.A.’s Gen Z starlet uniform of pristine athleisure wear. “We got a lot of strange looks when I first started traveling for dance and putting myself out there.”

    McRae moved to Los Angeles when she was 17, with her mom (a ballet instructor) in tow. Her TV and dance fame helped her already-compelling songwriting blow up on TikTok, and she was highly sought after in the L.A. pop firmament. But within days of settling in here, she did not trust this city.

    “I looked put together on the outside, but I was really confused and lost,” McRae said. “I was in a place where I was like, ‘I absolutely despise it here, but I have to stay here because of work.’ I was used to Calgary, where people don’t have other intentions than what they’re telling you.”

    She signed to RCA and found chart success when her seething ballad “You Broke Me First” hit No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100. Her songwriting reflected the hopes and disillusionment of that time — titles included bummed-out sentiments like “Too Young to Be Sad” and “Feel Like (Expletive).”

    Her debut LP, “I Used to Think I Could Fly,” reached the Top 20 last year. The lowercase-only, sad girl pop wave was still in full swing, but McRae wore it a little uncomfortably.

    “People are just very critical of young women, they get attacked as soon they share their passions,” McRae said. “They expect women to be perfect and also constantly be evolving and saying the right thing, dating the right people, putting out the right image. When I first started going into writing sessions, I remember people doubting me a lot, because they’re like, ‘What does this 16-year-old know?’ I would look at myself and be like, ‘Well, what do I know?’ There’s like six 30-year-old men around me and I have no idea if I’m doing the right thing.”

    So McRae made a vow to get back to the unself-conscious, physically exuberant performer she’d grown up as. “Think Later,” her new album, is a pivot back to a nimble, confident sense of herself. This time, she worked in close quarters with writer-producer Ryan Tedder, the One Republic frontman and A-list collaborator for Adele and Taylor Swift.

    She’s as meticulous about production notes as she is about her dance routines.

    “It’s psychotic. I’ll go through like 27 mixes and I’m like, ‘The snare sounds like pots and pans, change that,’” she said. “But a girl’s intuition, I think it’s is the coolest thing to watch.”

    Tedder took it all to heart on singles like the reverse-flirty kiss-off “Exes,” and “Greedy,” a lithe and brash single where McRae taunts a leering dude that “I’m runnin’ this room around and I’m still half your age / You’re lookin’ at me like I’m some sweet escape / It’s obvious that you want me, but I would want myself.”

    A song like that requires moves to match, and Tate worked with acclaimed choreographer Sean Bankhead (Lil Nas X, FKA Twigs, Victoria Monét) to craft the indelible images in the “Greedy” music video. There, McRae hits a perilous arabesque pose on top of a weight bench and moodily drives a Zamboni over an ice rink.

    “Where do you go when you know she can almost do anything?” Bankhead wrote in an email to The Times. “It’s really refreshing when I can work with an artist who can understand not only my more intricate timing and musicality, but push them to really find a place where they are in command of the camera and the stage. I’m glad she trusted me and was open even if I asked to see her dolphin dive out of a tilt,” he said, using technical terms for the dance moves McRae aced.

    Her new LP also finds her grappling with the cynicism and loneliness of young fame, most pointedly on a pair of songs — “Calgary” and “Plastic Palm Trees” — that find her disconnected from her past yet not fully arrived in her future, either. Like Eilish, she’s finding that the spotlight can wreck a young woman’s confidence, even if she’s fairly certain of her abilities.

    “I hate taking photos, and I hate seeing myself on video,” McRae said. “I would spend all day getting glammed up and have 50 people staring at me on a set, and then you’re filmed, and then I would always think I looked horrible. People are always looking at women and trying to see what’s wrong, and never looking at just the performer in you. Guys go onstage, and they have the best time ever. A girl does that and it’s like, ‘Her outfit sucks, her hair is bad.’ I had to really get over that barrier of being so self-destructive.”

    Her personal life hasn’t changed much since “Greedy” took off, though, even if her gal pals now include artists like Rodrigo, who texted McRae asking her to be in the video for “Bad Idea Right?”

    “I’m really lucky I have friends that are in the industry that are normal people. But I don’t know if I’m very fond of L.A. dating,” she said. (McRae last dated NHL player Cole Sillinger).

    When she tours next summer, the stages will be much bigger — McRae headlines the Greek Theatre in July and caps off with a Madison Square Garden show in August. Just as important to her, she’ll headline her first Calgary show. (The venue is unannounced, but the July 5 date coincides with the kickoff of her hometown Stampede.)

    If there are any childhood haters in the audience, they’ll have no choice but to applaud this time.

    “I know way too many people in Calgary,” McRae laughed. “I just don’t want all my brother’s friends staring at me.”

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