After Years of Record-Label Limbo, Michelle Branch Can Tell You That She’s Happy NowMusic Features Michelle Branch
Sometimes when Michelle Branch goes out for coffee, the barista recognizes the name on her credit card. Assuming that said server was alive and watching MTV or VH1 in the early aughts, they’ll almost certainly ask Branch what she’s been up to since the release of her platinum-selling 2003 sophomore record, Hotel Paper, which is home to rotation-heavy singles like “Are You Happy Now?” and “Breathe.”
The singer-songwriter, 33, is accustomed to this type of well-intentioned third degree; if every career decision had been hers, she explains over tea at the Bowery Hotel in New York, she’d have put out additional solo work a long time ago. Instead, it’s 14 years later, and she’s at last able to release her long-awaited third record, Hopeless Romantic (out on April 7 via Verve).
So, to echo her fans and the occasional server, what was the hold up? Well, with the exception of her time spent in country-pop duo The Wreckers from 2005 to 2007, much of the time between Hotel Paper and now has consisted of a seemingly endless cycle of promotional fits and starts, personnel changes at Warner Brothers (which put out her 2001 commercially lauded debut, The Spirit Room and its aforementioned follow-up), and the fact that, after every setback, her label still refused to drop her.
“There was too much money to be made off of me,” she says matter-of-factly. “It wasn’t personal. I had relationships with people who are still my friends [at Warner]. [We’d] rally the troops and get the right team and everyone would be excited and we would move forward and suddenly it’s like, “Oh, somebody bought Warner Brothers and this guy’s fired and this guy’s going and this new person’s coming in. And as you’re waiting for a new president to come in, he’s gonna make his new hires and he’s going to do some firing. And every time a new person would come in, they’d be like, ‘Well, these recordings are old, maybe you should go in the studio, start writing again.’”
Understandably, the extent to which Branch felt caught in a major-label web caused her to start questioning the very quality of her work. “At the end of the day, you start thinking, ‘I’m the common denominator. Maybe none of this is good enough.’ It was a complete mindfuck.”
Despite the red tape and vault-locked recordings (she came close to releasing an album called West Coast Time in 2011), Branch has managed to keep busy. She says that she’s played a selection of private acoustic shows; she’s “worked on a food show with a friend,” she spends time with her 11-year-old daughter, Owen. And throughout all of this, Branch has always been recording, forever optimistic that her solo music would see daylight.
Finally, more than a decade after the release of Hotel Paper, she got her chance. In the summer of 2014, a few months before finalizing her divorce from ex-husband Teddy Landau, Warner did drop Branch. The following winter, she bumped into The Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney at a Grammy party. Like everyone else, he immediately asked where she’d been. “He was sitting in the corner and everyone was doing their whole obnoxious L.A. party thing,” she says. “I kind of walked in not knowing anyone, and he was like, ‘Michelle? What’s going on? Why haven’t you put out an album?’
“The thing about Pat is that he’s a sucker for the underdog,” she continues. “I told him about being stuck at Warner Brothers and not having music out, and in his mind it was as if I had dropped a puzzle in front of him. It was like, ‘Okay, the pieces are here, why hasn’t anyone put them together?’ We started talking about music, and I was like, ‘Listen, I’m a huge fan of yours. I don’t know if you’d ever be open to it, but I’d love to send you music and maybe you could produce?’ He was really self-deprecating and said, ‘I don’t know, are you sure you want to ask me? I might ruin it.’ And I was like, ‘No, no, I really would love your opinion.’”
Coincidentally, Branch had thought about reaching out to The Black Keys before. But (of course) her label was on the fence. “My A&R guy at the time was like, ‘Uhhhh, I don’t know if that collaboration would work. That’s kind of weird.’ And I think they reached out to Dan and not Patrick. I never heard back, so I figured they weren’t interested.”
Despite his trepidation, Carney listened to Branch’s demos, which she describes as “everything from iPhone recordings to bad, half-assed recordings with built-up tracks.” Carney saw where Branch’s mind was, and he sent back references for her to consider—bands Branch’s old label probably would’ve balked at. Bands like The Cardigans and Beach House.
At this point, you might think Branch had completely come out of the woods in terms of record-label mismanagement, but she wasn’t there yet. Signed to Verve in the summer of 2015, Branch played a few new songs for her new label, who weren’t quite sold on the idea of her working with Carney. “The label guy came to the studio, and we were all sitting around and ordered lunch and turned on the music. At the end he was like, ‘Michelle, I think you’re making a huge mistake. This doesn’t sound like you.’ It was really frustrating, because here’s this middle-aged guy who doesn’t play music, who’s from a radio-promotional background, and he was like, ‘You’re this.’ But I’m like, ‘That was 15 years ago.’”
Carney and Branch felt deeply discouraged. Was this really happening again? Another record-label exec telling her that her music wasn’t authentically her? “We were so bummed,” she says. “Patrick was like, ‘You know what? You’ve been through the wringer, and you need to get music out. You can’t wait around for a label anymore.’” Carney was so frustrated on Branch’s behalf that he offered to finance the record himself. “Let’s finish the record,” she remembers him saying. “The worst thing that could happen is you turn it in and they won’t like it and they’ll drop it and you’ll own the record.”
In a strange turn of events, by the time Hopeless Romantic was done in May 2015, Verve’s label president had been fired and replaced. The new one was, thankfully, more on board with Branch’s new direction, telling her, “Don’t change a thing.”
“It was a huge lesson in betting on yourself,” she says. “Had I listened to the old president and gone and listened to the pop-writing team he wanted to put me with, I don’t know if I would even still be on the label, I probably would have been dropped. And that record would have never been finished. Not only that, but my relationship with Patrick turned romantic towards the end.”
Branch’s relationship with Carney eventually brought her to Nashville, where he lives. Although initially she had been planning on spending a year in England, a moment she describes as “a little Eat, Pray, Love.” Either way, whether it had to do with her divorce or simply a symbolic break from her past with Warner Brothers, she knew that she needed to move.
“I’d wanted out of L.A. back before I met Patrick,” she recalls. “My ex-husband—who I’m thankful it was an amicable split, all very Modern Family—he had kind of given me the green light where all this stuff was happening in my life. I was like, ‘What if I move to England for a year?’ I was like, “I know it’s far away, but I need to go somewhere where I don’t know anyone and I don’t have anything familiar.’”
Ultimately, though, her relationship with Carney did bring her to the South, an arrangement she admits works out well, as Owen can see her dad with more regularity than a move to Europe would have allowed.
After relocating in the summer of 2016, she did more than just ready her new material. In the lead up to Hopeless Romantic, Branch and Owen proudly participated in the local Women’s March in January. ”[Owen] wrote on poster board, ‘A Racist Pig Is Not My President,’ and she had his face with like a pig mask,” she recalls. “She knew what she wanted to say.” Branch (naturally) suffered some social-media pushback when she posted her daughter’s sign to Instagram, but she brushes those comments off. “Being a mom, I can’t let shit slide by,” she says. “It got to the point where I literally had to post like, ‘If you don’t believe in these basic human rights that should be a no-brainer, then unfollow me now.’” (It’s not the first time Branch has been outwardly political—in May of last year, she sang an updated rendition of “Goodbye to You” as “Goodbye Ted Cruz” on Full Frontal With Samantha Bee.)
In addition to inspiring a move to The Music City, Branch’s feelings for Carney, who plays percussion in her live band, also openly affect Hopeless Romantic, which not only edges her pop-rock aesthetic into moodier territory, but its content captures the emotional peaks and valleys that occur as one relationship ends and another begins. Each track shudders with equal parts excitement and vulnerability: On the moaning “Best You Ever,” Branch addresses her ex, singing, “We used to be for real / But now you make me feel / Like I’ll never be enough.” Yet on the next song, the sensual “You’re Good,” she sighs in ecstasy at having found a new lover: “I know the way you feel in the dark / Move in the dark / So slow / Like a song, I know you by heart.” On the springy “Heart Break Now,” she shrugs, “You can’t help who you love,” as if reassuring herself that it’s safe to take a chance on partnership again.
Longtime Branch fans will also notice a direct shift in musical style. Where her earliest hits—the skittering alt-pop jam “Everywhere” and the piano-tinged “Goodbye To You”—feature a post-adolescent Branch singing her lungs dry in a high-pitched bubblegummy voice, the tracks on Hopeless Romantic demonstrate maturity in songwriting and sound, with Branch downshifting in octave and experimenting with grooving, minimalist arrangements. “A lot of people don’t know this, but your voice changes when you have a baby and when you get older,” she says. “So when I play ‘Everywhere’ or ‘All You Wanted’ live, now, they’re down a half step.”
When I ask Branch what her relationship is to her oldest material, she says that she’s happy to play songs like “Everywhere” live, but she chafes somewhat at hearing those tracks on the radio. “I can’t sing in that register anymore, and there are production choices I wish we didn’t make.”
She continues: “That was a time in my life that was crazy. I went from small-town Arizona to literally traveling the world before I was even 20. Now it’s really fun because I’m going on tour this summer, and we’re working in these old songs with the new ones and it’s like breathing new life into them and trying to find a way to make them modern and fit with the new stuff. It’s been a lot easier than you’d think. We did a showcase in New York in January and played six songs. One of them was ‘Are You Happy Now?,’ and you wouldn’t even know that it was out of place. But if it came on the radio while I was in a car alone I would change it. If it’s on in, like, a CVS while I’m buying tampons, I’d be like, ‘Oh, god!’”