Pop

How Tate McRae Wrote a Breakup Song — Without Ever Having Her Heart Broken

Tate McRae
Amy Gardner

The 17-year-old Calgary, Alberta, native’s first Hot 100 entry also helps her reach a new No. 5 high on the Emerging Artists chart.

While we were all trying to make casual eye contact with our crushes in middle school, Tate McRae wrote a song about her crush and uploaded it to YouTube. Four years later, the 17-year-old has landed her first charting single on the Billboard Hot 100, thanks to the melancholic “You Broke Me First.”

After initially releasing the song in April, it has slowly gained popularity across the United States, with the track most recently reaching a new No. 55 high on the chart dated Nov. 6. All the while, McRae has been back home in her native Canada and "playing on my OG piano that I played when I first started," she says.

Even amid the pandemic, the Calgary-bred teen — who signed to RCA Records in Jan. 2019 — has reached new career heights. In September, the classically trained dancer paired the hit with electric choreography at this year's pre-show for the MTV Video Music Awards. She performed the track a month later on Jimmy Kimmel Live! for her late-night TV debut. Though McRae has come a long way since her YouTube days, this year's quarantine has felt like "going back to [her] roots" as she keeps busy with songwriting, collaborating with other artists, and — like many other Gen Z-ers — TikTok.

Below, Tate McRae talks growing up with social media, what it’s like to be an emerging artist during a touring shutdown and how she writes about heartbreak — despite never having her heart broken.

How did “You Broke Me First” come together?

I wrote it right before the pandemic hit — it was my last in person writing session. I was in an emotional mood that day but had a lot of ideas going through my head. I had written down: “I don’t really care how bad it hurts because you broke me first,” and shaped it into a toxic relationship story. I took experiences from multiple people, friendships and any feelings I’ve had in the past. The crazy part is that I’ve never been in a relationship or had my heart broken.

How are you able to empathize so well with feelings of heartbreak then?

I’m really good at envisioning things. Even when I haven’t experienced something, it doesn’t mean that I haven’t felt it before. There are so many situations when you feel like your heart is breaking. I keep those emotions pent up, so I can create stories around them and shape what I would say from another perspective.

When you’re talking to someone, how do you cope with waiting for a text back?

It’s the worst thing ever. There are so many different mind games on social media nowadays. You know those little talking relationships that never go anywhere on Snapchat? Those are the worst. You dedicate so much time and energy to one person just to find out that they’re talking to 50 other girls at the same time.

Do you think that growing up with social media has helped you feel more comfortable with connecting with your fans online?

Yeah, I started on YouTube. I posted videos every Friday and wrote new songs every week. Back then, I was in a very vulnerable place with all my fans. Now in a pandemic, it feels like I’m going back to my roots and playing on my OG piano that I played when I first started.

Which social media platform have you been engaging most with during the pandemic?

TikTok. It’s so addicting and a great marketing tool, especially because I can create trends to my songs. It’s easy to feel really close to your fans. The videos you post every day are of your real life. No filters, no nothing.

Do you preview your songs on TikTok first?

Sometimes I’ll record a voice memo with the clip of the song a week before I drop it. When Ali Gatie and I released “Lie To Me,” we did this video that started me with me asking him, “Do you wanna write a song?” Everyone was super into it.

Why did you shoot the music video for “You Broke Me First” on your iPhone?

We were about to film when we went into the pandemic — two days before, I got sent home from L.A. My label told me [to] improvise. I drove up to this rooftop [in Calgary] with my friends, taped my phone to the front of my mom’s car and propped it up with tissue boxes. I pointed the phone towards the sky with a bit of me in the frame. Then, my friend drove backwards down the rooftop as I sang. We got it in one take. The label added some special effects and it ended up being the real thing.

Originally, I wanted to do something dance-based, but I’m happy that didn’t happen. It could’ve taken away from the rawness of the actual song. I wasn’t sure how great the quality was going to be, but it ended up being filmy and grainy and cool.

How has your promotion strategy shifted amid the pandemic?

We’ve been trying to roll with it [and] seeing what connects best with the fans. Every artist has had to work under the circumstances. It’s been weird because I’ve been doing interviews for Australia and Germany while I’m sitting in my bedroom in Calgary. It’s a strange experience.

What do you think is the best way to keep in touch with your fans?

Releasing music continuously is important because live shows aren’t going on. Make sure you’re still challenging your brain, writing, putting content out there, as well as being creative with videos. Now that we can film music videos with masks, it’s really [about] pushing creativity.

What is it like being a young, emerging artist right now?

There are a lot of challenges because we can’t connect with people in real life, but there are also a lot of blessings. We can use this time to figure out what we want our sound to sound like. That’s huge to figure out when you’re young — when things are moving quickly, it’s hard to stop and think about it. I’ve had the time to drill in on what I want to say and what I want to put out there. You gotta work with what you got. The fact that we can’t do live shows means that we just gotta keep writing [and] creating.

How supportive have your parents been on this journey?

My parents are my best friends. I love them. They’re the most supportive people ever. They’re always gonna have my back no matter what. They will tell me if a song sucks. They’re very honest with me. They hype me up, but tell me when I need to work on something, which is exactly what you need in a role model.  I’m very grateful to have parents like that.

Can we expect new songs from you soon?

Yes! Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been able to crank out a lot of songs and different collaborations. We have a lot of songs we plan to release for the next little while. They’re under wraps right now, but I can say that I’m most definitely super excited.

How did “Vicious” with Lil Mosey happen?

It came together really fast. I DM’d him and a couple days later, he was like, “I just tracked a verse on your song.” We released the song a week later. It’s funny because I went to his concert last year, never thinking that I would actually meet him. And then we ended up doing this song together months later.

How do you think you’ve changed since you wrote “One Day” at 13 years old?

That feels like an eternity ago. Since then, I’ve been in a million writing sessions with a million different people. I’ve analyzed every person’s thoughts and energy and put myself into a million different shoes over the past couple of years. That’s improved my songwriting so much. I can look at things from a perspective now.

What advice do you have for 13-year-olds dreaming of a career in music?

Do what I did: write a song in 20 minutes, put it on the Internet, and see how it does. It’s so important to be confident in your work. I used to think that no one would actually listen to what’s going on in my life. The more I release, the more my listeners prove me wrong. You just gotta do it. Put your music out. Don’t sit on it forever. Don’t overthink things.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Nov. 14, 2020, issue of Billboard.