Singer Tate McRae Talks Balancing Life as a Teen with Her Newfound Fame: 'I Feel Like I'm Hannah Montana'
Tate McRae is getting the best of both worlds.
Despite having more than three million followers on TikTok and a Top 20 single under her belt, the 18-year-old alt-pop star — who is featured as one of PEOPLE's 2021 Ones to Watch in this week's issue, on newsstands Friday — says she still feels and lives life "like a normal teenager."
"I go through regular problems," she says. "It's funny — there's still two sides to me: the normal one and the work one. I feel like I'm pulling a Hannah Montana!"
McRae's career blew up earlier this year when her hit "You Broke Me First" cracked the Billboard Hot 100. But she got her first taste of fame at age 12 in 2016, when she placed third during season 13 of So You Think You Can Dance.
"I think getting put under that much pressure at that young of an age prepared me for a lot of things," she says. "I didn't know how to be in front of a camera, and I didn't know how to act in front of a whole bunch of adults. Honestly, it prepared me for everything that comes with being an artist: the stress and the pressure and everything. I feel like I can handle it all a lot better now."
Prior to So You Think You Can Dance, McRae danced backup for Justin Bieber in 2016 during his Purpose World Tour show in her native Calgary, Alberta, Canada, after being chosen from an audition process that selected four kids in each city to dance to his song "Children."
"There's this big rumor that I was a backup dancer when I was 11," she says with a laugh. "Not true! But it's interesting because I performed in my first ever arena the other day, and it gave me flashbacks to performing in Justin's arena. I was like, 'This can't be real.'"
It's not an unusual feeling for McRae, who says she often finds herself in disbelief ahead of her shows.
"My band always laughs at me because at least once a week, when I'm at festivals, I'll be like, 'Wow, I sing!' They're like, 'Shut up!'" she says. "It hasn't clicked for me that I'm actually getting to perform in front of so many people and that people know my lyrics and my songs. I can't process that the majority of the time. It's very crazy. It feels like a dream."
McRae first got noticed for her singing talent in 2017, when she started her "Create with Tate" video series on her YouTube channel to showcase original songs written and recorded in her bedroom.
"Since I danced really intensely, singing was more just something that I enjoyed," she says. "My writing was very much like my diary, and I just put it out there to put it out there because I didn't really know what I was doing. The fact that people related to the songs made me feel less alone in a lot of situations."
After the first song in the series, "One Day," went viral, McRae was signed to a record label. She then released her debut EP All the Things I Never Said with a lead single, "Tear Myself Apart," written by Billie Eilish and Finneas.
"I was very grateful to get a song like that right at the beginning," she says. "I'm a huge fan of Billie and Finneas, and I just got to see Finneas the other day and write some songs with him."
Since moving to Los Angeles full-time, McRae has been hard at work on writing and recording her debut album between her live performances. "It's been crazy busy," she says.
As to what's been inspiring her writing lately, she says it's simply her life as a teen.
"As an 18 year old there's a lot of stress," she says. "You go through a lot of different situations with friends and guys, and I have to write those feelings down in songs. It's been an emotional roller coaster writing this album."
In addition to completing her new album, McRae is also gearing up to go on tour with her fellow Canadian Shawn Mendes next summer.
"Shawn has always been such a big idol of mine, so I'm genuinely so grateful that I have the opportunity to go on tour for two months straight with him," she says. "I met him the other day, and he's like the sweetest man. I'm really excited. It's so cool."
As she continues to grow her career, McRae says she's been reminding herself of one thing: "trust your gut."
"I've had a few of my mentors and idols tell me that you can't listen to everyone's opinions," she says. "Like, no matter how many opinions you get, you have to ignore it and trust your initial instinct on things."
Despite what she's accomplished so far, McRae says she still doesn't feel like she's "made it."
"I think I have a lot of moments where I'm like, 'My life is crazy, and I feel like a rock star," she says. "But I don't think I'll ever feel like, 'Wow, I've made it.' Maybe I will one day, but not yet."
For more from Tate McRae and the 2021 Ones to Watch, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.
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