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Michelle Branch Breaks Free

The singer-songwriter talks about ‘Hopeless Romantic,’ her first solo album in 14 years

Do you remember Michelle Branch? You know, the singer-songwriter who made the classic early-2000s pop-rock albums The Spirit Room and Hotel Paper, won a Grammy for a Santana collaboration, and could also casually stop time? That Michelle Branch. After 14 years without a solo full-length release, the artist returns this April with a strong new album, Hopeless Romantic. Cowritten and produced by her new beau, Patrick Carney of The Black Keys, it's an alternately bubbly and weighty set of rock songs chronicling the last decade or so of Branch's life, which has included a divorce, a baby, and a whole lot of label trouble.

MTV News spoke with Branch about Hopeless Romantic, how much she's changed since 2003, and where she thinks she fits in music today.

This is your first album in a very long time. How does it feel to finally release it?

Michelle Branch: It's been a long time coming. I had been put through the ringer at my old record label [Warner Bros.], and I kept turning in music that never saw the light of day. So even though I haven't had music out, I've been actively writing and recording music this entire time. I started to feel like the boy who cried wolf. I kept promising fans that [my next album] was on its way, and I would get a release date from the label. We would have artwork done, I'd be out doing press, and suddenly the whole department would change and everything would just go to a screeching halt. Now I'm on a new label [Verve Records], and it's, like, green lights everywhere I'm looking, and it's actually moving forward. It's been very cathartic for me. There was a long time when I was like, I'll believe it when I see it. Now that it's happening, I can finally exhale.

That kind of situation — where an artist is at a label, they're recording all this material, but it's not coming out — seems to be more of a public occurrence lately.

Branch: I think it's just happening more. I hear of so many bands being in similar situations. I think it's just the growing pains of the music business, I really do. I think the old days of record labels are [gone]. People can release music without a record label now, and I think everyone is trying to figure out how to adjust to that. Unfortunately, artists get stuck in weird situations with record labels because of that.

Was there ever a moment during that period when you were thinking about leaving music entirely?

Branch: I'm a musician, and I will be making music and writing songs until I die. This is who I am. I [was] writing songs as a kid — before I realized I was writing songs, I would hum melodies. So I can't change that about myself. But I wondered often why I was willingly putting myself into that position. It was heartbreaking. [I thought], Maybe I had my day in the sun, maybe I need to work on some other creative passions of mine and let it be. Because when you're seeing that situation repeat itself over and over again, you start to realize, Oh, hey, the common denominator is me. All these variables are changing — new label presidents are brought in, new music is recorded — but it's me that this keeps happening to. It really fucks with your confidence, and you start to really doubt what you're doing.

How does it feel to have all that material behind you that's never been released?

Branch: It's been mentally freeing. I felt like I was carrying this creative baggage and now I have a fresh start. Also, this all happened in a place in my life where I was newly in my thirties, suddenly divorced from an almost 11-year marriage, and off the record label that I've been on for almost half of my life. I just needed to put [the old music] in the past and leave it there. I have so much material off two albums being held, and I hope at some point, one day, I'll be able to make that accessible to people, but I don't know what will happen with it.

What is Hopeless Romantic about for you?

Branch: It's about the arc of me leaving this really prominent relationship in my life and breathing for the first time since I was a teenager, and then finding love again. There [are] breakup songs on this record, and there are songs about falling in love on this record. It really went through this whole spectrum. You know, a lot of my friends are my age. We're all in our thirties and waiting for the "aha" moment where we feel like we have our shit together, where we've figured it out. I've learned a lot more and I feel wiser, but there's still the same feeling I had when I was a teen. Like, will I ever figure this out? A lot of this record is written with me trying to figure out my way as a 30-year-old woman. I have more life experience to draw from [now]. Not only do I have this adult, messy love life — I'm a mom, which has completely changed my life. My daughter is going to be 12 in August. I'm such a different person than I was when I wrote The Spirit Room in my bedroom and on my guitar. I didn't really know what was going on outside that door.

When did you know it was absolutely time to sit down and release a new record?

Branch: When I got out of Warner Bros. and was taking meetings with other labels, I [felt] like an abused girlfriend. I didn't know if I wanted to put myself in this situation. I'd meet with these major labels and I would just leave questioning why I would do it again. I was afraid that every record company I met with was Warner Bros. in new clothing. It took me a while to realize that I was in charge of my own destiny and I wasn't going to allow that to happen anymore. When I started talking to Verve, I knew right away that that was where I was going to end up being. I realized I had a handful of songs that I really love, and that I would continue writing, but it was time to write a record.

Hopeless Romantic plays a bit poppier than your older records. How did you want this album to sound when you went into it?

Branch: I really wanted to make a rock record. I wanted it to be guitars, drums, and bass. I wanted it to be something that I could take on tour and it would have a live energy to it on the recording. I wanted there to be a real backbone throughout the songs, because it is an album about love. I wanted there to be a strength to it. That's one of the reasons why I asked Patrick [Carney] to produce this record. I knew having him on the project would balance out some of those things, because when I'm singing love songs I never want it to sound weak.

What do you mean by weak?

Branch: I want there to be a strength to the vulnerability. I don't want it to be too soft, I guess. Even if it's a breakup song, I want it to sound like you still know you're going to be OK at the end of the day.

You're in a romantic and now working relationship with Patrick. How has that experience been?

Branch: It's been incredible, actually. There's some safety in being in a creative relationship with someone you're intimate with, because creative relationships are so intimate anyway. There has to be a level of trust in order to share ideas with someone and try things and [dare] to shock, I guess. He knows what I like and what I don't like so well. We have a studio at our house, and I'll go in the studio and ask him if he wants coffee or something. He'll be playing bass, and then I'm like, "Oh, what's that?" Next thing you know, we're recording — and that happens often. We've talked about working on another project after this. I think after being stagnant for all those years, having a combination of finally having an album out and having this relationship is inspiring. Patrick has been so instrumental in helping me get my confidence back about what I am doing.

How does it feel to write material and release songs that are about a relationship, but the person that you're in the relationship with helped you make those songs?

Branch: There are certain songs on the album that Patrick is like, "I don't wanna know who this is about." He never wants to figure them out. And there are definitely songs that he'd ask, "What is this song about?" And I'm like, "It's about you!" That's been a new experience for both of us. He said, "I've never had a song written about me and then played on that song." So it's definitely interesting for both of us.

Are there any songs on the album that you're particularly proud of?

Branch: "The City" was a really hard song for me to write emotionally. It took a lot of time. Sometimes I won't realize I'm feeling something, or I won't realize the severity of the situation, until it's on paper. I'll start to reread lyrics and see what I'm writing about and I'll go, Oh shit, this is in my subconscious. "The City" is the song that closes out the album, and it was one of the first songs I wrote for the record. It was a lightbulb moment about needing to find the courage to leave my marriage. It was much longer initially when I wrote it — there were three other verses, and it felt too honest to put [on the record] initially. Now that I've had space and [the marriage] ended so amicably, I was able to put the song on my album. It was healing to have that out.

Obviously the music industry is very different now than it was in the early 2000s — particularly in the sense that there aren't a lot of rock acts charting popularly. Was that something you were thinking about at all while making this album, as someone who's traditionally made pop-rock music?

Branch: I've always been a believer that things go in cycles. If you look back to the ’90s, there was grunge, then what followed was all teen pop. I think back to my first record, and I don't know where those albums would belong if they were released now. They were on pop radio then, but I don't think they belong on pop radio now. They had guitars all over them!

Historically, I've always found success doing something that was just a little left of the norm. When my first record came out, everyone would point out that I wrote my own music and played my own instruments, when some of my peers were dancing to music that was written by guys in Sweden. Then I went on to do the The Wreckers record [in 2006] and everyone thought I was crazy. People would say, "Why would you do a country project? Pop singers don't do country records." That was different at the time. I think going in to make this record, I [still] have no idea where I belong, but this is the music I want to listen to.