“What did I do to deserve to be alive at the same time as Jensen McRae?!”
This is just one of the many glowing reviews that appears in the comments section of Jensen McRae’s live EP, It Wasn’t Supposed To Be Like This… (2023), and it certainly rings true for anyone who has been lucky enough to discover this gifted artist’s discography.
McRae is a 26-year-old singer-songwriter from Santa Monica who describes her style of music as “folk alternative pop.” On her 2022 debut album, Are You Happy Now?, she emerged as a once-in-a-generation artist with an abundance of talents. Her voice is timeless—as deep and haunting as it is raw and vulnerable—while her songwriting deftly explores her struggles with identity, self-worth, and desirability, garnering critical acclaim from NPR, Rolling Stone, and Pitchfork.
Her latest release, a five-song live visual EP released exclusively on YouTube in late September, shows a new level of artistic maturity. McRae has always been incredibly talented, but on this project her voice reaches new heights as she belts with more power and emotion than ever before. Her vocals have always been her strongest instrument, and so by stripping this EP down to an electric guitar and raw emotion, McRae allows her voice to be in the spotlight.
McRae is an immensely intentional artist crafting each piece of her projects with careful consideration for the listener’s auditory journey. In this collection of songs, its specific order embodies that purposefulness. With each track, McRae holds the audience’s hand as she muscles through multiple forms of heartbreak and betrayal, ultimately coming out alive on the other side, head held high.
The EP’s opener, “Fever Dream,” is an impassioned ballad describing a painful breakup which McRae hopes to move past. Leaning on McRae’s pop expertise (she has a bachelor’s degree in popular music performance from USC Thornton), this track’s bouncier beat and relatable narrative make lines like “At least you won’t hear this ’cause you never listened to my songs” perfect for screaming out loud with friends in the car. McRae’s voice complements the story, with raspier belts that exude pure female rage accompanying the chorus contrasted by a beautiful falsetto during the bridge where she admits, “I’m bigger now, I just forgot.”
“Sing For My Supper,” a commentary on the hardships of rising talent in LA and the culture among those who achieve stardom, is a lyrical standout on the EP. McRae compares herself to the idea of what a successful singer-songwriter looks like—“Heroin chic / lips as real as the words in her mouth”—and reflects on whether she herself must adopt the deceptive appearances and dishonest attitudes ever-present in the music industry. She uses carefully crafted language to draw a stark contrast between herself and the image she simultaneously aspires to and despises. While this “other” is represented in allusions to the ’80s and ’90s era of rock—“Models with guitars / sex and drugs and violence”—McRae sees herself as something much older and more grounded, “the oracle, genuine article” who “beg[s] for chances to sing for [her] supper.” This comparison exemplifies the quality of her lyricism, implicitly relaying that McRae feels like an outsider forced to conform.
McRae has described “God Has a Hitman” as “one of the best songs [she’s] ever written,” and she could not be more right. Throughout the track, she effortlessly dances through impressive and complex riffs while simultaneously strumming her soft waltz backing guitar. The song utilizes rich, folk-style storytelling to detail McRae’s experiences losing a lover and feeling like God is out to get her with this “hitman with fine golden hair.” Although appearing at a surface level to comment on the hitman, the lyrics actually reveal much more about McRae’s relationship with herself and her appearance. McRae, a Black Jewish woman, often writes about her experiences of feeling undesired compared to the white women around her and her tendency to compare herself to them when faced with discrimination. Previous songs like “White Boy” and “Headlock” detailed these feelings before, but this track breaks new ground with the aspiration that closes out this track: “one day, I won’t even care.”
On “Colma, CA,” McRae strays from her typical confessionals with a story about the real but unusual town of Colma, a necropolis where the dead outnumber the living 1,000 to one. In an Instagram post promoting the track, McRae explained that she found the inspiration for this song while browsing Wikipedia for unusual articles during a period of writer’s block. McRae writes of finding comfort among the silent dead, belting over and over, “It’s great to be alive in Colma, / It’s great to be alive.” Despite its fictional premise—McRae has never herself set foot in the town—the song is the perfect metaphor for her reluctance to let new people into her life. She instead resolves to reside among the lackluster but familiar rather than the exciting and new things that have burned her many times before.
Prior to the EP’s closer, “I Don’t Miss You,” the soft yellow lights in the studio dim as a voicemail recording plays and Jensen selects a different guitar. String lights are replaced with candles and sunlight pours in through twhe windows, spotlighting her face and reflecting off her guitar. These visuals signify a tonal shift for the EP as McRae expresses her commitment to moving on and reminds her muse that she does not miss him but does miss their relationship. With a more upbeat chord progression and vocals dripping in honey rather than hurt, she plays out this stripped-down coming-of-age concluding song with the ghost of a smile on her face.
McRae closes with a peaceful finality, satisfied in the sense that she has grown an immeasurable amount in the last nineteen minutes of music—and she has. Her head held higher than ever before, her confidence and charisma seep through the screen as the audience watches the most formative years of a rising superstar.