Calgary's Tate McRae on rising to global pop fame in a pandemic

·3 min read

TORONTO — Calgary pop singer Tate McRae is finding global success by thinking outside the box, even if COVID-19 has forced her to live in one.

While she’s hardly left the bubble of her family’s home in Western Canada over the past several months, the 17-year-old performer has become a bonafide star of the lockdown, propelled by her moody single “You Broke Me First.”

The song rose to No. 3 on the United Kingdom’s official Top 40 chart last month, fuelled by a music video she filmed in the early days of the pandemic by strapping her iPhone to her mom’s car and recording herself singing underneath the Calgary Tower. 

Her clip inspired thousands of TikTok users to vamp their own interpretations of the song and helped McRae rise onto Spotify’s Top 100 most-streamed artists worldwide, currently ranking at No. 97.

The reality hasn’t quite set in yet for the singer, because she's living her newfound celebrity mostly through a webcam and occasionally performing inside cavernous studio spaces.

When she sings at the virtual edition of MTV's European music awards, which air Sunday on MTV in Canada, she won't be in the company of fellow artists Sam Smith, Doja Cat and Alicia Keys. McRae shot her part in Toronto under COVID-19 precautions.

That's one reason much of her success feels intangible, she admits on a Zoom call.

“I still feel like I'm myself,” McRae said.

“When you're in your room, and your mom and dad next door are like, ‘All right, you're in normal life for a normal kid.’ Nothing feels like it's actually happening,”

Most days McRae tries to stay focused on what comes after the pandemic. 

She works from a dedicated office next to her bedroom, recording new songs with other artists over FaceTime, including her latest, "Lie to Me" with fellow Canadian singer Ali Gatie. 

In her spare moments, she makes small leaps towards finishing homework assignments for her last year of high school. In the evenings, the ballet dancer slips over to mom's dance studio for rehearsals, making sure she maintains the skills that made her a 2016 finalist on "So You Think You Can Dance."

With her tour dates of North America and Europe postponed, she's thinking about the days when she'll eventually be able to play in front of thousands of fans. By then, they will have been waiting for months, or maybe even much longer, to see her live. 

It's one of the many dreams she's laid out for herself in the future.

"I have this thing where I write all my goals in my notes," she said.

"I still have New Year's resolutions being like: 'You're going to get into the Top 10 of the charts, you're going to perform at an awards show.' I've had these in my notes for so long, so it's cool to look back at them."

For now, she'll check those ones off her list and look to what else is possible in these uncertain times.

"No one's stopping me from releasing music or creating music videos," she said.

"The only thing I can do right now is put my head down, write and record."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published November 5, 2020.

David Friend, The Canadian Press