The breakout musician shares a playlist of emotion-inducing tracks that informed her artistic evolution on ‘Are You Happy Now’
In early June, 24-year-old singer-songwriter Jensen McRae played to a small crowd at a secret show in Shoreditch, London at SoHo House’s Tea Building Studios. Swimming in crystalline light, McRae helmed a slow, intimate exchange with the crowd, leaving her audience emotional, yet invigorated. Her first full length album, Are You Happy Now? is the product of a lifetime of experiences, having started what would become the album five years ago, as a student at USC.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, McRae was not granted the privilege of living in the same state of starry-eyed delusion as the people around her. In McRae’s LA, the dust is never settled, the light never burns more golden one day than the next, and, as she distinguishes, “For me, the disenchantment [in LA] began very early.” While the hope of opportunity is perpetual, McRae recognizes it was never guaranteed; “As I aged, I didn’t have to acclimate to that. It’s cliché to say, but I feel more like an observer or a narrator than the main character of any given story.”
With catchy production by Rakhi, artfully threaded storylines, and a voice with a sobering depth, Are You Happy Now? allows the listener to indulge in and escape from the pain McRae sings about. The “Headlock” interludes, for instance, face the past of growing up and turn towards the early dawning of adulthood.
McRae creates a sense of timelessness in her writing, in part, achieved from her use of Biblical imagery. “I’ve always believed that the stories of religion, even ones I’ve never meaningfully engaged with on a spiritual level, were beautiful,” she explains. Those themes, which are purposefully overwhelming in “Adam’s Ribs,” “White Boy,” and “My Ego Dies at the End,” both foster the myth-making of relationships and dispel the romantic idea of a given person. McRae is bound by desire, and released by a lack of reciprocity.
These threads are ubiquitous, fraying into each other in and across songs. In “Good Legs,” “Wolves,” and “Dead Girl Walking,” she embodies the numbness that is a consequence of absorbing everything around you, realizing the greatest heartbreak is losing yourself to other people, and often the only solution is to outrun them.
McRae resists the pop-star makeover producers and collaborators like the ones she’s worked with could offer, a resistance she determines that keeps her audience coming back. She reflects, “I’m really happy that I made the music for myself because the people who are finding it now are extensions and variations of me.”
After opening for Corinne Bailey Rae and ahead of accompanying MUNA on their North American tour, McRae shares a playlist with Document encompassing the artists she hopes to emulate and the songs she wishes were her own. “They capture the kind of artist I’ve wanted to be at various stages of my development and the kinds of feelings I want to inspire in my own listeners. They cross genre lines and traipse through time but regardless of theme, they all make me think, wow, I wish I wrote that.”
“In Your Atmosphere” by John Mayer
“The entire first half of my college experience was spent in pursuit of writing a song like this. The jangling guitar and opening lyrics are equal parts gentle and urgent.”
“High and Dry” by Radiohead
“Gives me the same feeling as ‘In Your Atmosphere.’ It’s the end of an era and I’m a little older and a little sadder, but I know a lot more, and I’ll never be able to unlearn the things I know now. The chorus is a plaintive wail that you can’t help but double with your own angst in the car.”
“715 – CRΣΣKS” by Bon Iver
“I listened to this song on an endless loop through most of 2017. It was the rainiest LA winter of my lifetime and every line of this choked, warped ballad cracks the heart. If only I could cut to the core the way Justin Vernon does in this song.”
“Hide and Seek” by Imogen Heap
“One of my favorite sad songs for robots. The soundtrack of everything. A song so good it devoured itself and became a meme. A glittering diamond of ache.”
“Cruel” by Monica Martin
“Deceptively simple and buoyant. Listen closely and every line will make you wince with recognition. Monica has one of those voices you cannot tear your ears from. ‘I’m clean, I never promised, but what if I’m cruel?’ is a question I will never be able to cogently answer.”
“Moon Song” by Phoebe Bridgers
“‘You couldn’t have stuck your tongue down the throat of somebody who loved you more,’ is a line that makes me almost hang it all up and pick a new career path. The fact that Phoebe’s name literally means moon just adds insult to injury. A luminous and gutting confessional of love and dreams and drowning in it all.”
“Love Love Love” by The Mountain Goats
“The audacity of John Darnielle to pen the most brilliant lyrics I’ve ever heard over and over again. This song is a particular favorite. I often seek to tangle historical imagery with a present resonance, and this song does it expertly. Darnielle name checks the past in politics and pop culture with such effortless, encyclopedic ease. It’s a skill a few possess, and one I am often trying to hone.”
“Re: Stacks” by Bon Iver
“My love for Bon Iver is well-documented, but this song—another tornado that has destroyed my cardiac house of cards. A dizzying and dazzling chain of cryptic poetry, only to end with the world’s most tender promise: ‘Your love will be safe with me.’ A masterclass.”
“Like a Star” by Corinne Bailey Rae
“Soft and sweet and persistent—this song burrows under the skin and warms you from the inside out. Corinne Bailey Rae clusters images so colorful and sticky you’d swear she works in oil paint. For a song so relaxed, it’s remarkably structured and precise. ‘I don’t argue like this with anyone but you.’ We’ve all known this person and this song is for us.”
“White Ferrari” by Frank Ocean
“Frank’s spacious, airy melodies and lyrics live outside of time and narrative and gravity. To listen deeply to his work is to cede control of your breath. I don’t know a more devastating line than ‘I’m sure we’re taller in another dimension.’ Every day I try to write a line so painful and weightless, but I do not touch the hem of his lofty garment.”
“Like You’ll Never See Me Again” by Alicia Keys
“The reason I am a musician at all—[Alicia Keys’s] As I Am sticks with me the most from many, many childhood listens. This chorus is one of her best, and her vocal delivery cracks and gasps with every line. ‘Every time you hold me, hold me like this is the last time’—the plea beneath every love song, no matter how ornate the surface street you take to get there.”
“Cruel Summer” by Taylor Swift
“I had to sneak a fun one in. It’s only recently that I’ve become a full tilt Swiftie, and ‘Cruel Summer’ is Taylor at her Swiftiest. Perhaps one of her most infectious melodies in a song made up of hooks is the line ‘and I scream for whatever it’s worth / I love you / ain’t that the worst thing you ever heard?’ It’s the single most satisfying thing a person can shout along to.”