Live from Anne’s Backyard: Jensen McRae

Intimate performances, fresh sounds, and candid conversations with a view.

LA native Jensen McRae is a singer-songwriter, poet, and empath. At 24 years old, she’s already established herself as one of her generation’s most powerful emergent voices, accruing a devoted fan base during the pandemic. Wielding her pen, guitar, and full-bodied vocals in equal measure, her songs speak on mental illness, adulthood, race, and falling in love with a specificity that transcends into the universal. You’ll swear she’s been reading your diary. 

On the heels of last year’s breakout “Who Hurt You?” EP — which features the mega-viral Phoebe-Bridgers-vaccination-parody-turned-legit-anthem “Immune” — McRae released her debut full length album “Are You Happy Now?” at the end of March. In addition to fan-familiar tracks sourced from her early college era releases, the LP offers an unflinching document of the next bend on McRae’s artistic path with finely tuned phrasing and mercurial melodies.

“I think I saw God in the bathroom / Some pretty girl was holding her hair back / And I offered her fists full of tissues / She bit back tears and told me not to do that,” McRae sings on standout “Machines.” 

To celebrate the album’s release and the start of National Poetry Month, McRae joins us live in Anne’s backyard armed with her lyrical candor and a lightly amplified acoustic guitar to run through favorites like “Wolves,” “My Ego Dies At The End,” “Dead Girl Walking,” and, of course, “Immune.” She also sits down with Morning Becomes Eclectic co-host Novena Carmel for a freewheeling chat about her songwriting process, navigating success, her favorite wordsmiths, and why teenage girls are her “target demo.” 

Watch Jensen McRae live from Anne's Backyard.
Photo by Larry Hirshowitz.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

KCRW: When you're writing, what comes first, the words or the melodies?

Jensen McRae: It definitely depends from song to song. For the most part, I start from a lyrical standpoint … I love to write from titles first. People eat with their eyes. So if you're scrolling through Spotify and see an interesting title, then you’re much more inclined to click on that than something that you've seen before. Generally, a line will come to me and I will try to honor that line melodically. I'll sing as many melodies as I can until I find something that feels right, and then I'll just follow that impulse as far as it goes.

More: In Residence: Jensen McRae is an LA-based artist on the rise

Tell us about your debut single “White Boy.” I relate to that story, as a brown girl in a lot of white spaces. Is that autobiographical for you?

It's absolutely autobiographical. I wrote it when I was 20. But as I was writing it, I realized it was basically a recollection of my entire life up to that point. It's not about one person in particular. It's about every experience I ever had leading up to this moment of needing to write about it.

It’s a hell of a way to step onto the scene and introduce yourself. What made you choose that as your debut single?

It was the song that I feel was most transformational for me as a writer. After I finished it was when I felt a real clarity of purpose in a way that I hadn't before. And it was the song that I performed that ultimately got the attention of my manager and my producer. It led me to so many opportunities, opened up a lot of possibilities for me, and it felt like a very strong statement to make as a debut single for an artist. 

For that reason, it felt really important, because everything that was and is to follow is also very bold. I have a pretty strong stance about everything. And I wanted to make my point of view and perspective really clear. … It felt like an excellent opening statement.

Jensen McRae belts it out in Anne’s backyard. Photo by Larry Hirshowitz

You're often in the conversation as a “Best New Artist.Is there anything that's challenging to you about being seen as that?

The most challenging thing is just knowing how much more I have in the tank, how much more I have to say, and realizing that everyone who's discovering me now is really only getting the tip of the iceberg. I really see myself as having a long career ahead of me, and there’s so much that I [would prefer] to unfold slowly over time. 

A big factor is being patient and recognizing that the music and statements that I want to make might stretch a little farther into the future than I would like. Hopefully everyone who's discovering me now will stick along for that journey.

More: Live from Anne’s Backyard: Courtney Barnett

During your writing process, are you thinking of the people or person that you’re writing for? 

I’m definitely thinking about my audience, I'm thinking about my younger self needing to hear those words, but more than anything, my writing process is often just about stream of consciousness and catharsis. I've noticed that whether I'm writing about something that happened very far in my past or with any sort of immediacy, there's always a lot of feelings that need to come out. It always feels like a need more than anything.

I'm thinking about audience and perception and all that stuff much later, like as the song is getting ready to come out. I often forget that I'm even writing for anyone other than myself. And then, days before release, I realize that like hundreds or thousands of people might listen to it and I'm saying something deeply personal. Then I panic, and then it's too late, and the song’s already been uploaded to the distributor.

Jensen McRae’s performs live in Anne’s Backyard. Photo by Larry Hirshowitz.

What does it feel like when the songs do hit another person?

It's the best feeling in the world. It's the reason why I release the music instead of keeping it for myself. I love the craft and the process of writing. And I wouldn't really care if it went anywhere. I write so many songs that no one ever hears. But the reason that I do put it out is when I feel like someone's going to be impacted by it in a way that's either positive or just purely transformative. 

I've been so so grateful for the way that songs like “Wolves” and “White Boy” have been received by people and the way that they feel seen by it and … like they've been able to process their own emotions. As a songwriter, the greatest thing you can do is be able to verbalize something for someone who can't find the words. I'm really grateful for that opportunity.

More: Live from Anne’s Backyard: Arlo Parks

You played a big event at Sundance where the band after you was really big in Utah. And yet, you got up there and all of these young girls, teenage girls started watching you, and were eventually reduced to tears. What was that like?

That was one of my favorite early experiences, getting to put my music in front of new people and play it live in front of people who didn't know me. I think that's one of the exciting things about getting to be an opener for someone. For the most part, the people in the audience aren't there for you, but hopefully they come away being glad that they found you there. 

Getting to play for a group of teenage girls is a full dream come true. That's my target demo, one thousand percent. I'm so excited about older people who say that they see themselves in me, and people that feel seen by me, people that say that I'm wise beyond my years. I love those comments, but my dream and my goal is to be a guiding light for young women. I just want to be the artist that I needed ten years ago, so getting to do that is just a dream.

Photo by Larry Hirshowitz.

You call yourself a “word girl.” Who are some of your favorite “word” people?

One of my favorite authors is Elif Batuman, who wrote a book called “The Idiot.” That's my favorite book of all time. It’s about a girl who's a freshman in college. And I feel very seen by that character. That book has a huge influence on my music and who I am as a person. I love Sara Bareilles, Phoebe Bridgers, Bon Iver, SZA. There's so many artists that tell stories in such a specific way and I always admire people the most who [when] I hear their songs, I know they're the only person that could have written it.

You’re an LA girl as well as a word girl. What makes the perfect LA day?

You have to go to breakfast at Square One. It's a hidden gem in East Hollywood, and it is so good. It's the best breakfast place in Los Angeles, and I don't know why more people don't know about it. Then you’ve got to hit a nice little exhibit at LACMA. Griffith Park and a picnic at Cedar Grove is a must. Make sure you’re there, or somewhere else good to watch the sunset. And then in the evening, you gotta go to the Hotel Cafe and catch a show of some up and coming artists.

You’ve also got to go to Book Soup [in West Hollywood], Stories [in Echo Park], and The Last Bookstore [downtown]. Three very beautiful independent bookstores in LA that I frequent.

Photo by Larry Hirshowitz.

Speaking of iconic LA places, you recently performed at the Greek Theatre. How was that?

It was so surreal because it was my first show since February 2020. … Then I emerged and was opening for Rufus Wainwright and Aimee Mann. It was completely baffling to me. I’ve been performing around LA for a while now, and for the longest time I was playing to literally a bartender and my mom. So building a following during the pandemic and then getting to play such an iconic LA venue opening for such iconic songwriters completely felt like a dream come true.

The last year or two have been a period of tremendous growth for you. What stands out that you learned about yourself that you didn't know before?

I've definitely learned that I am capable of sticking up for myself when I need to. I've always self-identified as a feminist and a very opinionated person. But when it came down to it, there weren't a lot of occasions where I really had to stand up for myself, or when [I did], I sort of let them pass. 

I realized that I have a very strong vision for who I am and the things that I stand for. I had plenty of opportunities to reassert that and clarify my own identity and the things that I want in my personal and professional life. I don't know how much of that would have happened if I hadn't had the big opportunities for career growth or meeting some of the people that I met. 

A lot of my music talks about growing up and coming of age, and I realized the biggest part of that is really knowing who you are and consistently asserting it, even if other people don't want to hear it. 

More: Live from Anne’s Backyard: Gabriels

Looking forward, what are you excited about?

I'm really excited to put out the music I have that’s in the can, ready to go. And I'm excited to write more music. It's been so great getting back to in-person sessions and making music with people that way. 

I'm opening for Amos Lee in April on the East Coast, and then I'm going overseas to play some festivals, which is going to be amazing. I have not had a lot of experience playing shows outside of California, so I'm really excited about getting the opportunity to play there. And I'm just excited to keep growing up. 

I feel like I'm finally coming into myself. My mom tells me that I've had the personality of a 40-year-old since I was four years old, so it's nice to feel like my emotions are meeting up with the rest of me. I'm ready to continue to go out into the world, and to use my platform for good. I’m ready to connect with more teenage girls that make their way into the pit at my shows.

KCRW Music Director: Anne Litt
Video Director/Editor: Angie Scarpa
Director of Photography: Vice Cooler
Camera Op: Leslie Bumgarner
Producer: Melanie Makaiwi
Sound Engineer: Paul Smith
Artwork: Gabrielle Yakobson
Digital Producer: Andrea Domanick

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