Everyone wants Michelle Branch to play the hits. The Marlin Room at Webster hall is packed for her album release party; Hopeless Romantic is her first solo album out in 14 years. Everyone in the crowd is waiting for her.
When Branch does take the stage, the audience loses it. Sporting a Playboy t-shirt and shimmery silver eyeshadow, she picks up a red electric guitar and her band launches into the first song: “Breathe,” the second-biggest hit off her sophomore album Hotel Paper—if you’ve ever been to karaoke with a group of women who grew up in the early 2000s, you know it. Friends shout in each others’ faces—I’ve been driving for an hour, just talking to the rain—singing along to every word. In this room, it feels like the song came out last year. There’s just one problem.
When the audience goes to hit that high note in the chorus (If I just — breeaaatheee!), Branch doesn’t. The song’s in a different key. This is not the pop ballad that won the hearts of teenage girls and label executives alike. Branch has reimagined songs from her old catalogue and made them sound dreamier, moodier, more grown-up. It’s not that she’s running away from her old stuff—on the contrary, she plans to play all those songs on tour this summer. She’s just updated them. They sound different now. So does she.
For fans, Hopeless Romantic marks a new era of Michelle Branch. It’s heavily influenced by the style of the indie acts she was listening to in 2015, when she started recording: Tame Impala, Spoon, Kurt Vile, Jenny Lewis. It’s bolder and ballsier—in part because the songs on Hopeless Romantic, for a change, are autobiographical (at least a little). Branch co-wrote the album with Patrick Carney, the drummer of the Black Keys and now her boyfriend, while growing through a divorce from ex-husband Teddy Landau. (Branch has been open about how she and Carney were single when they started writing, and wound up falling in love in the process.) But the struggle to sound like herself has been a long one, fought mostly—until recently—behind closed doors.
“That first note in ‘Everywhere’ is pretty damn high,” Branch tells me in our Midtown office the day before her album release party. “Everywhere” is another karaoke favorite and another one of her biggest singles (off her debut album The Spirit Room), which peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100. She explains that even as a teenager, she wanted to play it lower when performing live. “I remember talking to [producer] John Shanks… and he was like, I don’t know Michelle, it’s really impactful when you sing it up there,” she says in a half-teasing voice. “I was like, yeah, but I’d rather be able to hit the note.”
When The Spirit Room dropped, Branch rose to fame in the blink of an eye—and in some ways, it’s thanks to the indelibly pop-rock sound on her first record. Even the sad songs are clear-eyed and bright. Branch tells me that going in to record Hotel Paper, she butted heads with Shanks over whether she could move the songs down from their original key. That shiny, spirited quality to her early music would set her apart from other acts—but would also follow her throughout her career and make it difficult to release new music. Which, she has been trying to ever since, even if you didn’t know it.
It seems like the first thing people ask Branch in interviews these days is “Where have you been?” (Notably, that’s also what Carney asked her when they first bumped into each other at a Grammys afterparty and Branch asked him to work with her on new material.) But Branch has been there all along—after Hotel Paper, she started a country band with friend and collaborator Jessica Harp called the Wreckers. Following their split in 2007, Branch announced a new solo album—Everything Comes and Goes—in the works; it took three years for that to come out. (She called it a “bonus album” on her blog when it finally did and said it had been finished for two years.) In 2010, she gave it another try and started working on a pop-rock album titled West Coast Time, but it was ultimately shelved. What was worse: Warner refused to drop her from the label.
“There were times I was afraid nothing would ever get pushed forward,” she says. Branch tried other pursuits: She briefly worked on a food show with friend and chef Michael Mina. But, she tells me, “at the end of the day, going to bed [I thought], ‘I need to go to music.’ Like, ‘How am I going to push forward?’”
In the summer of 2014, she got another way in: Warner dropped Branch from the label. “[That was] when I had a glimmer of hope,” she says. “It did feel like… I was going to have a chance a restart.” Branch pauses. “But there were some dark moments for sure,” she adds with a laugh.
The rest of her story is a straightforward fairy-tale: Branch signed with Verve Records a year later and played her demo of Hopeless Romantic for the label president at the time, who warned her she was making a terrible mistake. Disappointed, Carney offered to fund the record himself, and the band decided to record the damn thing anyway, by themselves. Luckily, by the time they finished, there was a new president at Verve, who listened to the record and loved it.
When I ask Branch how it felt to be doubted so much, she replies: “It was a mindfuck.” But the way she talks about it, it sounds like putting out another record was an inevitability. “At the end of the day, I’m never going to stop writing songs,” she says. Makes sense considering Branch wrote down “famous singer” in the second grade when the school paper asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She explains: “It’s just the only thing I ever wanted to do.”
Back at Webster Hall, Branch finishes “Breathe” and asks permission to ugly-cry. “Is there a way we can all group hug?” she says, (probably) joking. When the band starts playing “You’re Good,” one of her new singles (it’s about starting a thing with a new lover), she suddenly stops and yells at her band for playing too fast. “I’m just not gonna rush through it,” she shrugs. The audience cracks up. The band regroups. And they take it from the top again.