To say that Michelle Branch has been through a lot the last 10 years is the very definition of understatement. The Nashville-based singer-songwriter has made three albums (two of which are still unreleased), been held hostage by her record label, went through a divorce, and raised her 11-year-old daughter, Owen.
Next week, on April 7, Branch finally releases her long-awaited fourth record Hopeless Romantic (and third major-label debut), on her own terms.
“I finally made a record that I can really truly stand behind and say, this was my album that I would’ve made whether I had a record label or not,” explains Branch. “I believe in it that much.”
Branch first burst onto the alternative music scene in 2000 as the “anti-Britney,” an artist more in love with guitar riffs and lovelorn lyrics than selling sex appeal and acting like a pop queen.
She initially released an independent record Broken Bracelet, before signing to Maverick to release the studio album that put her on the map, The Spirit Room. Following the success of her first major-label release, Branch dropped Hotel Paper and went on to found country duo The Wreckers with singer Jessica Harp in 2005. During that time she also got married and had a daughter, with the intention of continuing to release music.
In 2008, Branch’s flourishing career hit a wall in the midst of various hirings and firings at Warner Bros. Records, resulting in major delays—and later terminations—of her several planned albums.
At first, she intended to release a country album, but received record-label feedback for years that it wasn’t “country enough” or that it was “too pop,” and ended up releasing a six-track EP featuring a handful of the songs called Everything Comes And Goes. By the time it was released, Branch had left that album altogether, and decided to make a pop-rock record, which she announced as West Coast Time in 2010.
To support the LP, she released the anthemic rock single “Loud Music” to get fans excited for her comeback. But label changes soon made the release impossible. “There were meetings I took where label presidents would say, ‘I know what you should do: you should sing a song with Zedd or do an EDM collaboration.’ I’m like, ‘Do you know me? Do you think I should really be doing this?’ We know the answer here.”
After yet another failed album rollout, Branch got out of her contract with Warner Bros. She soon signed with Verve to make the record that will thrill her every fan, Hopeless Romantic.
After a long road of false starts, it should come as no surprise that we can thank the intervention of fate for Branch’s first LP since 2003: Branch met Black Keys drummer and producer Patrick Carney at a Grammys party in 2015, and the rest is history.
“Patrick has a weak spot in his heart for underdogs,” says Branch. “He saw this really unfair situation, and he was like, ‘How can I help?’ ”
Following their meeting, Branch and Carney began exchanging music and working on an album together, with Carney producing and co-writing alongside Branch. While making Hopeless Romantic, the two fell in love, and at the same time, tapped into The Black Keys’ bluesy sound, mixed with smoky melodies and moody, heartfelt lyrics.
Branch describes the recording process as pure catharsis; being in limbo with her label for such a long time took a toll on her that she’s still coming to grips with today. “That’s not just my record on a piece of paper,” she explains. “Not having the record released affected big things in my life: My daughter was three or four at the time, and I wanted to have another baby, but I didn’t because I thought, ‘I might have a record out in a few years. I should wait until after that record cycle.’ ”
During a winter afternoon at The Bowery Hotel, Branch filled us in on what happened to her “lost” albums, her new music and what she’s got planned for the future.
I have a lot of questions about “the lost years of Michelle Branch” because I’ve followed your career pretty closely. You were supposed to come out with an album, West Coast Time? I just recall a single coming out upon its announcement.
“Loud Music” was technically the single for that album. “Sooner or Later” was a single for a country record that actually didn’t come out, so I had two albums shelved, back-to-back.
Why did that happen?
So, I made The Wreckers album [with my bandmate Jessica Harp] and had no intention of our band breaking up. It was going incredibly well. Everyone was planning to make another Wreckers album and keep this going. Towards the end of the that year, I guess it would’ve been 2007, maybe, things started to get really rough between the two of us to the point where we asked [ourselves] if we could fix this.
There’s such thing as a band mediator. We hired a mediator to just basically come in, be therapy and the sounding board for us to see what was happening between us. We left the meditation and he reported back to management and the label saying, “These two can’t work together!”
It was really bad at the time. Suddenly, I had all this material I had written from The Wreckers and suddenly The Wreckers are most likely not going to happen. It was hard. Now, having been divorced, it was more heartbreaking than my divorce. It was really a devastating breakup for me—something I didn’t see coming.
So you guys don’t talk?
We text here and there. This year was the 10th anniversary of The Wreckers, and we talked about going on the road and doing a handful of surprise shows, but we just couldn’t figure it out on time. I was doing this album [Hopeless Romantic], so I couldn’t really do it. I’ve always said I’d do The Wreckers again one day, but I don’t know if I’d do it with her necessarily because it was so heartbreaking. Our breakup was devastating.
Were you guys friends before?
We were friends before, but met through music and only had been working on music. We weren’t childhood friends. I think it was from what she expressed to me when we were going through mediation, and what I tried to figure out was that she was a solo artist and when she was just about to sign and have her solo stuff out, I asked her to be in The Wreckers.
Did she resent you?
She never got her solo stuff out, and there were times on stage at shows when people would call out, “Michelle! Play, ‘Are You Happy Now?’ ” I think, she always felt like the one behind even though we were a duo. It was really important for her to try her own stuff, move on and have her own life, which I totally understand.
She ended up quitting the music business. I don’t know if she’ll do it again. So, I had all this Wreckers material, and decided I’ll record it, sing the harmony, and have my friend Hillary Lindsay that lives in Nashville sing on it. I made a country record and turned it in and was told by Maverick, “This isn’t country enough.” I took it to L.A., and they said, “It’s not pop enough for us. We don’t know what to do.”
Do you think that record would have been questioned as “country” today? Especially because country and pop have blended so much with Kacey Musgraves, Cam, etc.
No, it’s a country record. There’s a duet with Dwight Yoakam on it. What’s crazy is the president of Nashville now will be like “that [country] record is one of my favorites.” One of my biggest regrets is not releasing it. It’s just like, that’s my life. That’s not just my record on a piece of paper. Not having the record released affected big things in my life: My daughter was three or four at the time, and I wanted to have another baby, but I didn’t because I thought, “I might have a record out in a few years. I should wait until after that record cycle,” stuff like that people don’t think about. It really affected me.
The Wreckers broke up in 2010. The [label] kept asking me to re-record stuff. I was like, “You know what? This isn’t working, clearly. It’s music, it shouldn’t be this hard. I’m moving back to LA, and walking away from this album. I’m gonna go make the pop record, and maybe I’ll come back to this as The Wreckers.”
I was realizing that I had to move on with my life at some point. So I go to L.A. to meet with the president of the label on a Thursday. I’m like, “Hey, I want to do a pop record. Can we release five songs from the country stuff as an EP and let it go?”
He was like, “Yeah, we support and believe in you. Let’s do this pop record.” On the following Monday, they were fired.
Did it have to do with you?
No, nothing. It was a regime change, so then I had to wait for a new staff and a new president to be hired for everything. People in all of the departments were shaken up, people in marketing were pressed and everyone was moving around. Even artists were getting dropped. I survived that and waited for them to fire people, so I could get a new budget to go make a new record. Finally start.
So I start West Coast Time, and I make that record, Rob Cavallo is the producer and [label] president at the time. I release “Loud Music” as a single, I have the artwork done, I have the release date and I’m out doing promo for the record. Rob gets fired. Everything…it’s like hearing a record scratch. All of a sudden my marketing guy for 10 years…everyone gets fired. There’s a mass regime change.
At this point I’m like, “Am I going to get dropped?”
“Nope, not dropping you, keeping you.”
The new staff gets brought on and after all that, a year goes by and new people come in like, “Well, this is old stuff. Maybe we should start a new record.” That’s the cycle I was in, but the whole time, I was always writing, recording and trying to get a record out. I watched four presidents [get laid off] from 2007 to 2015.
That’s insane on an emotional and mental health level.
‘Cause at the end of the day, you start to go, “What’s the common denominator in this situation?” You start to realize the common denominator in this is me. So your confidence definitely really takes a blow in this situation, and I’m watching all my musician friends put out new records and go on the road. It was like, “Hey, guys, I’m over here. Can someone let me move in any direction?”
Were you trying to get out of your label contract?
I was trying to get out of my contract and couldn’t get out of it. And the thing was that there was too much money to be made if [my record] was successful. So they wouldn’t let me go anywhere, but they wouldn’t let me release anything.
How did you get out of it?
Finally, the way out was when the last president was brought in. He sat me down and was like, “You’re one of the main reasons I wanted to work at this label. I’m a big fan of yours and saw you on a roster, but now after I’ve seen what you’ve gone through, I can’t believe I’m saying this, you deserve a chance. I know you’ve been trying to get off the label, and you’ve been here since you were 17 years old. It’s time to let you have a fresh start.”
I left the label. And at this point, I had just turned 30, split up from an 11-year marriage. I was like, “Holy shit. What is happening in my life?” Everything got wiped clean, and it was the first time since I was a teenager, where someone just closed the book and started a new chapter [for me].
So, at that point, I had a mild panic about what to do and if I should even keep pursuing music. I was really reluctant to even meet with major labels because I was so terrified of being in the same situation again. There were meetings I took where label presidents would say, “I know what you should do: you should sing a song with Zedd or do an EDM collaboration.” I’m like, “Do you know me? Do you think I should really be doing this?” We know the answer here.
You can imagine how nervous I was to even enter into willing a situation like that again. When I met with Verve, there was an independent spirit to it. There were like three people in the office to answer to, and I got the feeling I was going to do whatever I wanted. All I want to do is release music when I wanted to, tour when I wanted to tour and not worry about the genre of [my music] wherever it falls.
I signed with Verve in July of 2015. On July 25, I started the record with Patrick. I had met Patrick at a Grammy party the previous February of 2015. We knew we had common friends and had met before, but I walked in and he was in a corner sitting because he recently broke his shoulder, talking to Mark with a brace. They said, “Hey, Michelle, come over here. Why haven’t you had music out? We’ve always loved your voice and music, what’s happening?”
I told them the situation and they were like, “We’ve never heard of such things.” Unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more common with bands.
Do you look at JoJo or Kesha’s situation and see a comparison?
Literally like being held hostage by your record label, not being able to release music and not being able to get out of your contract is so awful. Patrick has a weak spot in his heart for underdogs. He saw this really unfair situation, and he was like, “How can I help?”
I was like, “Can I send you music? I’d love to work with you. I’d love to have your opinion, and I know you’re a producer.”
At that point, we started exchanging songs, and I sent him demos. He was like, “I’m really into this, I’d love to help.” So, by the time I signed that July, I went in the label and was like, “I want Pat to produce.” I got a budget for four songs to see how it went. We got into the studio by the end of July, and by the end of August, we turned in the finished four songs and the label had turnover since then.
They said, “It doesn’t sound like Michelle. The guitars are too aggressive, and I want it to be more acoustic guitars. At that point, we were all in the studio, and we were all just like, “What the fuck?” He left, and I was practically in tears, like, are we crazy? We’re really into what we’re doing.
It would be crazy for the record to sound the same as it did when you were 17 or 19.
Exactly. So at this point, Patrick was like, “Listen, guys. I believe in this project. Michelle, emotionally, you need to finish this, and get it out. I’m gonna finance this record. Don’t answer to this guy anymore, he’s an asshole. Let’s just make the record ourselves. Worst comes to worst, we turn it in and they hate it and you’ll own the record. This is bullshit, you have to move on with your life.”
I was like, “You’re right, I believe in this record, let’s move on and make it. I’m not gonna sit around and wait, this is insane.” I fired my manager, and I stopped talking to the label president. We went on to finish the record and just after the new year, 2016, we finished the record. The label president had just been fired and a new president was brought in. I panicked. Like, great, now this label president heard we finished this record. What the fuck do we do?
I emailed them that we recorded this record on our own, and I just wanted to take it and go. [The new president] was like, “Wait, I need to talk to you. Can I fly into Nashville?” He flew in and sat me down, saying, “This record is amazing, I want to release it as it was. Please stay.”
I was like, “What? Are you kidding me?” It was like 360. I was in fight-or-flight mode, so my instinct was to run. It’s crazy, having gone through all that. I think back to the beginning of the record, and the old president wanted me to make the most pop record I could. Had I gone and done that, I don’t know where that would’ve even left me. Would [the album] have been finished, or would have I been dropped from the label?
In the process, Patrick and I completely fell in love and started a relationship. There used to be obstacle after obstacle, but for the first time there were green lights and everyone was into [the music]. It was moving.
For the first time, it was like, everything happens for a reason. I finally made a record that I can really truly stand behind and say, “This was my album that I would’ve made whether I had a record label or not.” I believe in it that much.
Do you feel like the other two records are like that…? Are you O.K.?
No, it’s just a lot.
I totally get that. Do you feel like your other two records weren’t as genuine to some degree?
No, no. The country album that I had was called Everything Comes and Goes. It ended up as an EP.
I loved that. I was so stoked.
Thank you. I’m so immensely proud of that album. I have writer friends in Nashville that are still today like, “Holy shit, those are some of my favorite songs.” That was a record that ended up circulating internally in Nashville through writing communities and artists for years.
Are you not allowed to release it?
No, I’m not allowed to. I could re-record them, but I’ve had people that wanted me to cut old songs, and I won’t let anyone have them because I still might want to do something with them someday. The pop record I made was misdirected by the label. I’m relieved that didn’t come out. The country album, I would stand with until the end of the day. No one was checking in. That was a little more haphazard. That [pop] record I didn’t release either.
Over the years, I’ve leaked songs from that record. You can probably find them somewhere on YouTube or something. Here and there I put songs up there, and who cares? It was important for me, starting this album, that I leave all the past in the past. There are a couple of songs I loved that I almost re-recorded and put on this record, but I didn’t want any creative baggage. I just want a fresh start, and I think what was going on in my personal life, I just knew.
How did your divorce impact making Hopeless Romantic and the way you release music?
The writing was impacted. I had a plethora of things to write about. For the first time since I was 18 years old, I was single. Suddenly, I was in a world of online dating in L.A. I was like, what happened while I was married? This is insane.
Did you join Tinder?
I didn’t join Tinder. But I was on Raya, it was not for me. I suddenly was like, I feel like I did everything backwards. I got married and had a baby in my early 20s. Suddenly, I woke up at 30 and was like, what the fuck? Everything happened in my life in my early 20s, and here I am. I guess it was like an early mid-life crisis or something, but I didn’t want my life to be like that, and I needed to make a change. I think it was immensely inspiring to my writing. I had a lot of stuff to write about.
Where do you see the emotions of going through your divorce shining through?
“City” was probably the most personal song on the record. I wrote it the moment I realized that I had to make a change. And I was going to finally have the courage to say to my ex-husband at the time that I knew I didn’t want to be in that relationship anymore. And having our daughter, I was like, do we just stick it out? It’s for better or for worse…you just aren’t trying enough. We never had the kind of relationship where we were fighting. He was 19 years my senior.
And of course when everyone said, “What are you two doing with your age difference? This isn’t going to work out.” We thought we were immune to it, and you enter it with the best intentions. But slowly over time we drifted apart. So, fortunately it was really amicable.
I wrote “City” in London in a cab on my way to the studio, and I was just like, oh shit. There’s a line in it that says, find the courage to start over and I was writing it, and was just like, I know what I have to do. When I get on the plane, go home, I have to man up and leave this relationship. So, that was that song was immensely personal to me.
There are other songs, like “Best You Ever,” and there’s a song, “Not a Love Song”, that are definitely breakup songs that were cathartic for me to write.
Was it ever strange working with Patrick on this stuff?
It’s more strange for him now, I think. Initially, he was listening to them with the ear of a producer. Now he listens to the record with the ear of a boyfriend. Sometimes he’ll ask what a song’s about. And I’ll just say, don’t worry about it, it was all before you, sweetheart. This album definitely has breakup songs from my marriage, it has songs while falling in love with Pat and songs in-between when I was dating and God knows what else. It’s all over the place.
What were you listening to when you made the record?
I was listening to everything from Spoon and Tame Impala to a lot of Beach House. I love the band Heart. I was listening to Hinds. I was trying to find things in 2014 and 2015 when I started writing this record. When Hinds came up, it was like girl-rock band that’s harmony-driven. So like stuff like that, I was super into.
Which genre does Hopeless Romantic fall under? After all this genre talk.
I don’t know, it’s funny. I think this is an alternative record more than a pop record, so I guess I’d say alternative pop. I was a little timid to say that initially because the record label asked which genre to list this under when we release it. I guess it’s alternative? I’ve seen people write about the record and say my old stuff initially was alternative pop? It’s funny looking back. I always found success when I was doing something that wasn’t the norm. Like, in 2001, when I was the anti-Britney. When I did [my first] record, it was like, this is a pop singer doing a country record. What is this?
I think I told you this before, but it’s very Hotel Paper meets The Black Keys.
So how did you come up with the title, Hopeless Romantic?
I didn’t have a title, and it’s funny because usually I know the title right away. I kept circling back to the song “Heartbreak Now.” I loved that line, “From heartbreak, now great depression.” I was gonna call it “Great Depression,” and everyone was like, “Michelle, that’s so bad. This album is more hopeful than you think it is.”
I was like, “is it?” I kept going through the songs and looking through lyrics. It’s Hopeless Romantic. I am a hopeless romantic, and this song is about looking for love and trying to find love: the good, the bad, the ugly of it all. It was a no-brainer. It was the idea that kept coming back, and I couldn’t think of something to beat it.
What would a future record look like for you?
You’re the first person to ask me that, and I’m really glad you asked me that because for the first time, I already have new material I’m working on for a new record. I think having this album move forward is like taking the wine cork out of the bottle for the first time in a long time. It’s given me hope and the permission to be creative again in a way that I know it will actually be heard.
Pat and I have moved in together, and we have a studio in the house. We’re constantly working on music. He and I have talked about doing a project together, which is really exciting. I don’t know if it will happen, but we always talk about it and joke around. At our house, he’ll go to the studio, and I’ll hop in to check on him from running errands, and he’s playing bass. I’ll be like, what are you doing? Wait, can I record something? It’s been exciting.
I think [my music] will continue on the rock road. I finally feel permission to experiment in a way where l don’t have the pressure of “needing to be commercially successful” breathing down my neck, so that’s incredibly freeing. I always said, I’d love to do a Wreckers-type of record again one day. I don’t know when that would be or in what capacity. You never know, I might do it with Jessica one day. But I do know that I will never ever allow myself to be in that position that I was in for the dry years. I will never ever sit around and let a record label dictate my life anymore.
That’s so heartbreaking. What does your daughter think of your music? Has she listened to your first albums?
I listen to a lot of mixes in the car, mixing and mastering stuff. It’s to the point where one morning we were driving to school, and she was like, “Mom, can we just not do this today?” I was like I’m so sorry because I primarily listen to music in the car now since I’m working. And it’s funny because I started bringing her on tour from the time she was four weeks old, so she’s been around it her whole life, and her dad is a musician.
What’s funny is that it’s so normal for her what mom and dad do, she has no interest in it. She did just get a record player for Christmas, and she’s so into the Beach Boys. I went upstairs and she was cleaning her room, she had Pet Sounds on. I was like, “yes!” She has good taste because being under our roof—she only hears what we have playing. She likes everything from The Strokes to Pollock. Owen doesn’t know any modern pop music really. She has friends at school who are into Justin Bieber and One Direction, and she’s like, “I don’t get it.”
You spoke before about how you had to put having another child on hold? Do you think that now that you’re kind of getting the green lights…that would be a possibility in your future?
Oh lord, yeah. I’ve always wanted more kids. The idea of having one now that my daughter is soon to be 12 is kind of daunting. Just ‘cause like you forget about the bottles, car seats and all of the stuff it takes. I am so out of the woods for that stuff, and it’s so easy to have an 11-year-old. She travels easy, and we can talk about anything. So yeah I think if it were to happen, it would be soon.