We haven’t heard a solo track from Michelle Branch in 14 years, but that doesn’t mean she’s put down the guitar, an instrument that’s been synonymous with her name since her 2001 hit “Everywhere.”
“I’ve been continuing to work on music during the gap,” the singer-songwriter told The Huffington Post. “I hear it, I always get to hear it, but to actually have other people hear it outside of my circle means it’s real.”
After soundtracking teenage love and heartbreak with her early releases “The Spirit Room” and “Hotel Paper,” and later joining forces with Jessica Harp to form the country group The Wreckers in the mid-aughts, it seemed Branch had dropped off the musical map somewhat. Over the years, she split with Harp, got married, had a daughter, and was ensnarled in a creatively stifling contract that wasn’t working out. Through it all, Branch kept creating.
Finally, fans will see the fruits of her labor. Her upcoming album, “Hopeless Romantic,” is out April 7 — a project she recorded after her divorce and while starting a new relationship with Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, also a co-producer. Fans of Branch’s earlier music will recognize common themes in her subject matter: falling in love, feeling vindictive toward an ex, returning to a connection you know is bad. Yet now Branch is approaching them with 33 years of experience rather than 18 or 20, giving the lyrics more nuance and assuredness. The more you love, and the more responsibility you begin to take as an adult, she seems to say, the less sure you are of anything. But, as a self-proclaimed hopeless romantic, it’s territory she’ll trawl again and again.
Below, hear about Branch’s new sound, how she’ll incorporate her early hits into her set list, those constant Vanessa Carlton comparisons and more:
This is your first solo album in 14 years. How does it feel to finally be able to give fans new music?
Oh, my gosh. This has been like ... I still feel like I won’t actually fully believe it until release day. It’s ‘cause I’m just holding my breath. It’s been a long time coming and I’ve been so eager to get music out. Those fans who have been like, really, really impatient — yeah, it’s not only exciting for me but more to have it out in the world to hear.
You had the album “West Coast Time” that ultimately didn’t get released. Was it difficult to creatively shelve that project and move on to the songs that became “Hopeless Romantic”?
In a way, the timing of it all became like a nice, clean, fresh start. When I decided to move on from “West Coast Time,” I had finally gotten out of my contract with Warner Bros. and I was newly divorced, so literally everything in my life that kind of was a constant for a decade was out of the picture. It felt appropriate to kind of leave that project behind. It felt like baggage, in a way.
What inspired you while you worked on the album, and what was it like to work with Patrick on it?
Oh, it was amazing working with Patrick. I guess what inspired it really was finding myself entering my 30s with no record deal, a marriage that was ending, and dating for the first time since I was 17 and kind of finding my footing. It really ultimately is about romantic relationships — the ending of a relationship and finding love again.
On the album, you tackle all these ways love can be fun, as well as painful. Do you view being a “hopeless romantic” as a good thing?
Being that I am a hopeless romantic myself, I think it’s a positive thing. I am a dreamer, I am an optimist, and I always want to believe that things will work out, but when they don’t, I always find beauty in them somehow.
When you write these songs, are you taking from direct life experience?
For me, my first two records were a little more fictional, because I was so young and hadn’t had much experience in the ways of adult relationships. This album definitely has direct inspiration from situations and people. That being said, I had so many amazing co-writers on this album. For instance, my really close friend Amy [Kuney], who wrote a lot of songs on the record with me, she was going through a breakup herself. And since we’re such close friends we’re kind of able to turn [songwriting] into therapy hour. There’s songs where I remember being in the room with her and having her say something that directly related to her situation. It’s kind of a patchwork of whoever collaborated on it.
It’s great that you can be like, “Breakups are terrible, but let’s turn it into art!”
It is the one positive thing that comes out of pain or being in a bad situation when you’re a writer, it just gives us more to write about.
What feels different about singing about love when you’re 18 and then when you’re in your 30s?
Well, unfortunately not much. I think there’s something that happens when you’re entering your 30s, when you feel like, “Am I an adult yet? Shouldn’t I have this figured out by now?” But the truth is that, myself included ... a lot of my friends and I, we still don’t really have it figured out. You know, we’re paying a mortgage, and we have a job, and we have bills, but we’re still kind of faking it till we’re making it. And I feel like that’s very much how I felt as an 18-year-old entering my 20s. I don’t think it’s changed much, but what has changed is you know a lot more about yourself. You’re more confident with what you show up with, whereas in your teenage years, it’s like, “Um, what does this person think about me?” and fortunately, that kinda goes away.
This idea that you’re supposed to feel “grown-up” by a certain age but you discover you never really arrive there — that reminds me of the song “Carry Me Home” on the album.
Yeah, and [the line, “Growing up is make-believe”], that was a line directly kind of pointing to what we’re talking about here. I feel like somehow, adulthood, a lot of it is faking it. You pretend that you’re a responsible person, and you learn as you go. I’m very curious to find out if that ends, like, does that end when we’re 40, or do we still keep doing this?
You still perform hits like “Everywhere” and “Are You Happy Now?” at your shows. What’s the experience like to sing songs you wrote as a teenager and have fans still singing the lyrics back to you?
I just had a show in London, and it was my first show there in years, so people were, like, very emotional that I was there, and singing the lyrics back, which never, ever gets old, really.
We definitely went into rehearsals and really made it a point to breathe some new life into the songs. We didn’t change melodies or arrangements, but we just wanted them sonically to fit with the new material. “Breathe” turned out to be one of my favorites; it feels grainier. I feel like it fits right with “Fault Line” or “Heartbreak Now” on the album. It’s interesting to see that just with some elbow grease on the music side of things, that the writing still kind of goes along with the new album.
Does Patrick get a kick out of being able to have a part on your older songs and play the drums on them?
Yeah, it’s weird, like — “Are You Happy Now?” is still a rocker, pretty much. I think that one is the one I have the most fun watching Pat play. He really gets into it, and actually, weirdly ... one of our first rehearsals, Alaina [Moore] from [the band] Tennis was in my first band when we were doing a small test run — unfortunately, they’re not in the band anymore because they have their own tour this summer — she was a huge fan of mine as a teenager and she made it known at one of our first meetings. She was like, “I can’t believe I’m playing these songs that I grew up with, it’s crazy.”
So we were in rehearsal testing these old songs, and when we started getting into “Are You Happy Now?” she turned to me and she said, “OK, wait a minute. I can’t believe I’m watching Patrick play ‘Are You Happy Now?’” and he’d made it completely his own. We were like, “Patrick, that’s so cool whatever you’re playing on the chorus,” and he was like, “Oh, I was just playing what’s on the recording,” and we’re like, “No ... that’s not, you totally put your own thing on it.” I think he gets a kick out of it. He’s like, “I remember watching this on ‘TRL.’”
You also were on “Buffy” and “Charmed” during that “TRL” era, right?
Yeah! Any supernatural show, I was like, “Yeah, I’ll do it.”
How does it feel to look back and be a part of of these two shows that have encapsulated this nostalgic feeling we have for the early aughts?
Well for me, it was my first time being on a television set. I watched “Charmed” religiously. So I was just freaking out like a fangirl. I still have some catching up on “Buffy” to do. I was just — for a young girl coming from small-town Arizona, it was a big deal.
I mean, “TRL,” “TRL” was probably the most mind-blowing because I would come home from school and that would be the first thing that would come on. To be in Times Square and look out the windows and see people holding signs for me was like, “What?! How did this happen?” It was a really exciting thing.
Was “TRL” sort of the benchmark of success once you decided you wanted to be a musician?
Well, that just seemed like, “If I get on ‘TRL,’ that means I’m famous.” It just felt like, MTV, even in the time of being 7 or 8 years old, my mom wouldn’t let me watch MTV because she thought it was inappropriate. I had an older brother, and the minute my mom and dad would leave the house and he was babysitting us, the first thing we all did was like, listen for the garage door and run for the TV to turn MTV on. Still to this day, I love watching music videos in that old original format of the show.
MTV was still one of those things that was a really big deal to me. It was kind of one of those things where you’re like, “Oh, my God, do I get to make a music video? What if it gets played on MTV? That means I’ve made it!”
“TRL” was the show where I made my transition from watching exclusively cartoons to “OK, I’m an adult now, I have to watch teen things.”
I was doing press in New York a few weeks ago and had to wake up early, and had hair and makeup people getting me ready for a shoot in the hotel room, and we just put on MTV Classics or something. It was playing in the background and we all three just sat there, just saying like, “Wow. We miss music videos, like, watching it on TV,” and we started talking about how we discovered music that way. I think of my daughter, who’s 11 and watches her music videos on YouTube, and it’s such a different thing. I’m so grateful that we were part of that before it started changing.
What do you make of the many comparisons you’ve gotten with fellow musician Vanessa Carlton over the years?
It happens too regularly, it astonishes me. I think that, especially when we both first came out, people were so eager to pit us against each other. It was always, Britney vs. Christina, Michelle vs. Vanessa, and honestly, we never really even crossed paths. We never even really played shows together but we would constantly get compared to each other, constantly get mistaken for one another. And it’s become kind of like, it’s just funny at this point. It never bothered me.
We ended up meeting in the early 2000s and were both like, “Hey!” You know, “Sorry we always get confused with each other!” We both have dark hair, I don’t know what it is. But I know a lot of our fans are similar, and love both of us equally. I’ve always just thought it was funny.
“Hopeless Romantic” is out April 7.
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