Michelle Jacquet DeSevren Branch (b. July 2, 1983) is not a tragic figure. Her achievements in the recording industry — teenage stardom, multiplatinum certifications, mainstream crossover success, even a goddamn Grammy — are nothing to sigh for. It feels weird to look at the career of someone who experienced so much fame and popularity and say “Yeah, but she deserved to be even MORE famous and MORE popular”. And yet that’s exactly how I feel when I go back and listen to her early work.
I think the problem was, she was both ahead of AND behind the times. Arriving a few years too late to capitalize on the whole Lilith Fair/women in altrock thing, yet a few years too early to exploit the market for strong-yet-sensitive female voices occupying the space between intimate coffeehouse open mic and stadium-ready commercial pop (your Colbie Callaits, Ingrid Michaelsons, Sara Bareilles etc) that would be alllllll over the place right about the time she was falling off in a major way, Michelle always seemed not quite all the way there. At the time, her full-length debut The Spirit Room may have caused listeners to say “Aww, how cute, a watered-down Alanis”. Now, it’s almost impossible for me to hear this stuff and not say “My god, this girl was Taylor Swift before Taylor Swift”.
I don’t want to prolong this comparison TOO much, and I don’t mean to imply that Michelle deserved just as much fame as ol’ Swifty (arguably, no one does), but it’s all there — the girl-next-door strumming acoustic guitar in her bedroom vibe, the thin-yet-striking vocal style, the “writing in my diary” lyrics — hell, she even did the whole “country pop-adult alternative crossover” thing successfully first (The Wreckers’ Stand Still, Look Pretty beating Taylor’s debut to the punch by several months). Ultimately, her legacy (aside from the Santana songs) was that she established a path for younger artists to follow so they could become more famous than her. To me, that’s at least a little unfair, and I’m determined to give Michelle her due any way that I can, simply because I think she deserves a little more credit for subtly transforming the mainstream pop landscape, and for making some damn good tunes while she as at it.
The story of Michelle’s earliest forays into the music world could be the same as any number of young talented girls who don’t end up amounting to much — an early interest in singing, finally learning the guitar at 14, making her first attempts at composing and writing almost immediately afterward. The Internet hadn’t quite yet become a medium on which burgeoning artists can immediately find an audience, but she still had enough savvy and vision to post a couple of her songs to RollingStone.com, creating enough buzz for herself to eventually land an opening gig or two for Hanson.
Her independently recorded-and-released debut, Broken Bracelet, while bearing perhaps too heavy of a debt to female-fronted alternative rock of the 90s like Letters To Cleo, Hole and even The Breeders, showcased an advanced grasp of structure and emotional expression in songwriting for the then 17-year-old, and before long Michelle had inked a deal with Maverick Records to essentially re-record the album in a major-label studio with producer John Shanks.
The result was 2001’s The Spirit Room, with lead-off track “Everywhere” serving as about as spectacular a breakthrough as you’re likely to hear from this era. There’s a sense of propulsion and nervous-energy drama in this track that Michelle has STILL not ever quite recaptured, to this day. It’s important to remember exactly how DEAD alternative rock was by this time — The Strokes were about to blow up, System Of A Down were lingering on the fringes, for god’s sakes Nickelback had just broken through themselves and were immediately declared the Least Cool Thing Ever — for a new artist to absolutely explode onto the scene with a sound steeped in that tradition, yet delivered soulfully and passionately enough not to turn off any regular pop fans, was quite an accomplishment in itself, and the runaway success she immediately achieved was well deserved. The lyrical sentiment is nothing beyond basic (Michelle later called herself a “stalker” for writing it), it’s just an obsessive love song, but the production surges and swells the song into an absurd sense of grandeur, just before dropping out to close on just Michelle’s voice and fingerpicking, creating a lovely and intimate coda.
Followup single “All You Wanted” starts on an arpeggiated guitar pattern slightly reminiscent of the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Slide”, which resolves into another big, hooky sing-a-long chorus expressing young love in the simplest, most adolescent fashion possible. Whether it means to or not, this is a song to make young people happy. But perhaps this album’s most well-remembered track was “Goodbye To You”, an astonishingly mature ballad about trying to maintain your composure while kissing off the person who meant the world to you right up until they did you utterly wrong. My personal favorite track is the closer, an ambient new age/electronic groove called “Drop In The Ocean”, in which Michelle describes the mixed-feelings sense of wonder that comes with falling for someone unreservedly, over a backdrop of soothing synth beats and dreamy keyboards.
Michelle’s newfound prominence in the pop world led to a collaboration with Carlos Santana (back when that was just about the hottest ticket a young artist could land) in 2002 called “The Game Of Love”. Although this ended up becoming probably her most recognized track (and won her the Grammy), I’m not too fond of it. It’s a fun, playful ode to rounding the bases, combining innocence and sexiness in a way that few at the time were even attempting, so it’s easy to see why it caught so much fire, but to me it has little of the dramatic “I am HERE/Where are you?” urgency of The Spirit Room to it.
That urgency would return with a passion on her 2003 follow-up Hotel Paper. Kickoff single “Are You Happy Now?” leaned harder than ever into Michelle’s angst-rock roots, even throwing in a “Stairway To Heaven” guitar fill in the choruses. Meanwhile, on “Breathe” Michelle went ahead and unleashed a new dimension of herself — just as suggestively playful as “The Game Of Love” but with a more powerful sense of purpose and control. In general, Michelle gets a bit more fierce on this album (from the adulterous confessional rock of the title track to the kick-you-to-the-curb schadenfreude stomp of “Empty Handed”), and you can almost witness the sweet young girl from the previous album transforming into a your-shit-not-taking women of worldly experience in real time as she finally enters her early 20s.
Perhaps sensing that a reinvention was in order, Michelle’s next recorded project was a collaboration with friend and singer-songwriter Jessica Harp, joining forces to form country-pop crossover act The Wreckers (as in “homewreckers”) and releasing the album Stand Still, Look Pretty in 2006. At the time, country wasn’t as hot of a commodity as it would later become (there we go with the bad timing again), but minor hit “Leave The Pieces” did cross over to the general FM formats for some time, and tracks like “Crazy People” with their twanged-up harmonizing and traditional bluegrassy instrumentation suggest a precursor to subsequent crossover acts like The Band Perry. A second Santana collaboration, “I’m Feeling You”, also broke into the charts around this time, and to be frank I like this song even less than “The Game Of Love”.
Following the breakup of The Wreckers in 2007, the Michelle Branch story starts to get a little rocky. I’ll just come right out and say it — being a woman in the music industry is tough. Not everyone is cut out for it. In an age where Twitter meltdowns are all the rage, entertainers lashing out online is something that’s seen as almost endearing. But when she became frustrated with the indignities of dealing with her label and wrote a blog post blasting the forces that had held her back, it didn’t go over so well with the fanbase. Dealing with career change, young motherhood, and difficulties even getting her music released, Michelle Branch struggled to get back on track as an artist and alternated between sporadically-released official tunes and frequently interrupted hiatuses. The years from 2007-to about 2015 were something of a lost period for her, during which (often very good) tracks would erratically see the light of day while a full-fledged comeback never quite materialized.
In 2015, Michelle hooked up with Patrick Carney of The Black Keys, who was instrumental (pun perhaps intended) in assisting Michelle with finally releasing an actual, official new album, this year’s Hopeless Romantic. There’s a bit of a conscious effort here to update her style for the (kill me for saying it) Millenial music audience, with dancier beats and more club-oriented production than before. But then again, Michelle was always something of a chameleon, and tracks like “Fault Line” and “Hopeless Romantic” show that she hasn’t lost either her melodic touch, her way around a hook, nor her grasp on melancholy. “Knock Yourself Out” even hearkens back to full-on Old Michelle, and for a few minutes, it’s like she never missed a beat since The Spirit Room.
Whatever comes next from Michelle, I just hope she continues to find her means of expression. She has always struck me as a genuine soul, and even if the songwriting hasn’t always been stunning, it’s a voice that I feel a lot of passion and honesty and (for lack of a better term) “realness” from. A heartfelt, down-to-earth singer who can tap into universal themes of loss and searching seemingly at will is something that will always have a place in my rotation. I leave you with this clip from Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, in which Michelle serenades pseudo-human Ted Cruz with a customized rendition of “Goodbye To You” as he announces he’s dropping out — in light of what eventually happened, perhaps not as triumphal of a moment as it was at the time, but regardless, it stands as her most current moment of pop culture prominence.
…..God, I hope she comes back somehow. Best wishes, Michelle. I still see you everywhere.