Junos 2021: COVID-19 couldn't break the career momentum of Calgary teen Tate McRae

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Tate McRae was quarantined in a Toronto hotel room with her family when she heard she had been nominated for two Juno Awards.

It was a gloomy March 9 and Toronto was in the grip of COVID-19’s third wave. So the 17-year-old Calgarian, who was in town to “film something,” went straight from Toronto Pearson Airport into quarantine.

“We were watching the Juno Awards (nomination announcement), the whole presentation, and my whole family was sitting on the hotel bed cheering, ‘ says McRae, in an interview with Postmedia from Los Angeles. “It was a very cool moment.”

McRae, who will be performing as part of Sunday’s broadcast of the Junos, is up for the Fan Choice Award. That pits her against heavy-hitters such as Shawn Mendes, Justin Bieber and The Weeknd. But she has also been nominated as The Breakthrough Artist of the Year, which seems a fitting category for the teen. Breakthrough is really an understatement when referring to the former Western High School student’s all-conquering arrival in the pop world. Just over a year ago, she was waiting out the pandemic’s first lockdown at her Calgary home and grousing good-naturedly about being weighed down with homeschooling. She had to restart all of her courses after career demands made attending Grade 11 classes at Western impossible.

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So COVID-19 could easily have become a momentum-crushing downer for the teen. For one, it meant a planned 15-city tour of the United States had to be shelved. McRae was looking forward to it, particularly after her first headlining tour saw her performing sold-out shows in Toronto, Brooklyn, Berlin, Amsterdam and London.

But she soldiered through 2020, backed by the considerable marketing muscle of RCA. The label knew it had a hot prospect. It beat out 11 record companies in the race to sign McRae after a YouTube channel featuring the teen singing fiercely DIY tunes from her Calgary bedroom caught fire and began to attract millions of subscribers and views back in 2017. Her debut EP, All the Things I Never Said, was released in January of 2020. By the spring, RCA was already releasing new material from the singer and continued to do so at a steady clip over the summer. You Broke Me First, which came with a video that McRae filmed of herself on a downtown Calgary rooftop, became a staggering success around the world. It reached platinum status not only in the U.S. and Canada but in Malaysia, Mexico, Norway, Austria, Sweden, South Africa, Taiwan and the U.K., among other countries.

Pandemic be damned, McRae was everywhere in 2020 and 2021. She appeared on Jimmy Kimmel twice. She did the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon twice. She delivered a beautifully choreographed show-stopping performance backed by masked dancers at the MTV Europe Music Awards in November, with Billboard reporting she made “one of the most lasting impressions of the ceremony.” Forbes magazine put her on its coveted 30 Under 30 list. A month after she learned she had been nominated for two Junos, You Broke Me First surpassed a billion streams worldwide on various platforms. It hit No. 1 on U.S. Top 40 radio. Kelly Clarkson covered it on her talk show.

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It all makes you wonder what McRae might have achieved if the world hadn’t been shut down due to a global pandemic.

“There was a lot that happened,” she says. “It still feels like a whirlwind.”

Still, when the story of McRae’s career is written years from now, COVID-19 will certainly be a part of it. In late March, RCA released her second EP, Too Young To Be Sad, which features You Broke Me First and five other songs that showcase a similar melancholic tone as McRae works through various dramas and romantic entanglements in a suitably gloomy fashion. If not for COVID, McRae would likely have been whisked around to various high-profile studios for her sophomore EP. Instead, it was largely a solitary endeavour.

“I wrote the whole thing in a pandemic,” she says. “I was working out of my dad’s office by myself with an engineer on the other side of my computer recording vocals. Over FaceTime and stuff, there’s only so much you can do and only so much you can write. I think I’m pretty proud that I could do that over a FaceTime call by myself with no other help. But it was quite the process. It was definitely difficult.”

“I wasn’t around friends anymore or people or situations,” she adds. “(Instead of) that whole idea of me observing people around me and getting ideas from that, I had to kind of just make it up in my head. Which is definitely more difficult as a songwriter… I write from personal experience. It was definitely grabbing deep down inside of me trying to figure out what to write about during the pandemic.”

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McRae was in Los Angeles during this call, where she is writing new material and working with various producers for a follow-up. She is also booked for several high-profile festivals throughout the summer and into the fall, including Wonderstruck, Lollapalooza, Leeds, Reading, Bonnaroo, Firefly and the Austin City Limits Festival.

All of which means she will not be returning to the life of an ordinary Calgary teen any time soon. McRae figures she spent a total of 10 days or so attending regular classes at Western in 2020 before the school’s principal suggested she make other arrangements. But McRae has been fully engaged in artistic pursuits since she was six years old, which was when she began dancing. So even before her music career took off, she was used to the spotlight. She placed third on the Fox reality show So You Think You Can Dance: The Next Generation in 2016 and danced professionally with Justin Bieber at the Saddledome, on Ellen and at the Teen Choice Awards.

“There’s a lot of sacrifices you make, obviously, when you’re going to L.A. all the time and spend time singing and dancing, but I feel like I’ve been doing that since I was nine years old,” she says. “So I feel like I’m used to it by now. Also, when I get to go home, I have really good friends and can have a bit of normal time.”

As for her upcoming album, McRae says it will be different than her first two outings if for no other reason than she is growing older. She wrote the songs on her first EP when she was 15.

“I think I’ve just changed a lot, I’m almost 18,” she says. “There’s a lot that can happen in that chunk of time. So that’s majorly different. Too Young to Be Sad was written in a global pandemic, so I don’t think it was my full potential. I feel with this album I can really dive in and make it perfect, which is exactly what I want to do.”

The Junos will broadcast on CBC Sunday, June 6. 

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