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One day in 2012, Michelle Branch wrote a song called “City” that would turn out to be eerily prescient. “I was nearing my 30th birthday and I thought, ‘Something needs to change in my life,’ she says. “I felt stagnant in this weird holding pattern, but I never acknowledged it to myself until I wrote that song. A lot of huge things happened to me really young. I got signed at 17 and released my first album a month after I turned 18. I met my ex-husband when I was 19, got married at 20, and had a baby at 21. ‘City’ was a song about me realizing that I wanted to make a change. It was one of the first things I wrote that felt really honest and it was kind of an ‘A-ha’ moment for me. Once I sang it, I thought, ‘Oh, here we go.’”
“City” is now the closing track on Branch’s upcoming new album Hopeless Romantic, and Branch’s world has completely changed since she wrote it. The Sedona, Arizona-born singer, songwriter, and musician went through a divorce, changed record labels, moved from Los Angeles to Nashville, fell in love, and, in the process, made the album of her dreams with her producer and now partner, Patrick Carney of The Black Keys.
Not surprisingly, Hopeless Romantic is filled with songs about relationships. “They’re my favorite topic,” she says. “I love hearing human stories about people interacting with each other, and the title perfectly sums up the record. A lot of these songs are about heartbreak, but knowing that it doesn’t mean the end of the world, it just means letting go and moving on and knowing that you’re going to find something better, as hard as that is.” Branch also notes that Hopeless Romantic is her first truly autobiographical record. “My first album certainly was written without much real-life experience,” she says. “But this album is about adult, messy love and not teenage love. It’s been a couple of really interesting years. I mean, the last time I dated I was a teenager!”
Branch was 17 when she signed with Maverick Records. The label had heard her independently released album Broken Bracelet and was impressed by her obvious songwriting talent, powerful vocal delivery, and precocious guitar chops at a time when many young female artists were singing other people’s songs. In 2001, Branch released The Spirit Room, which sold two million copies in the U.S., thanks to the catchy, heartfelt hits “Everywhere” and “All You Wanted,” and ushered in a new era of young women writing and performing their own songs. She followed it up with 2003’s Hotel Paper, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard album chart and became Branch’s second platinum-selling disc in the U.S. It spawned the hit single “Are You Happy Now?”, which was nominated for a Grammy Award for “Best Female Rock Performance.” Branch also won a Grammy for singing on Carlos Santana’s “The Game of Love,” which reached No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and spent many weeks atop the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart. In 2006, Branch found success with modern-country duo The Wreckers, whose debut Stand Still, Look Pretty was praised by critics for breaking down barriers between pop and country. The gold-certified album spawned the hit single “Leave the Pieces,” which topped the Hot Country Songs chart for several weeks, as well as “My Oh My” and “Tennessee,” and earned Branch her fourth Grammy nomination. (She was also nominated for Best New Artist in 2003.)
“It all seems like it was another lifetime,” Branch says of her heady career. “But I’m 33 now and I look back at everything that I’ve already accomplished and it’s kind of a relief, to be honest. Like, ‘Okay, I did that. I got that out of the way.’” Though the last collection she released was the six-track EP Everything Comes and Goes in 2010, Branch never stopped writing songs (including several with her friend Amy Kuney, many of which appear on Hopeless Romantic). In February 2015, Branch ran into Patrick Carney at a Grammy party and a long conversation about her music ensued. “He said, ‘You haven’t put out any music in a long time, what’s going on? I’ve always loved your voice,’” she recalls. Branch sent him some demos and the two began sketching out a sonic vision of what a potential album could sound like. “I said, ‘I play guitar, I write my own music. It’s not that complicated. I want to get in with a band and make something I can get on stage and play. I don’t want to be doing all this on a computer.’ Patrick understood that immediately. I think it really became a cause for him, like, ‘We’re going to figure this out and I’m going to help you.’”
In June 2015, Branch signed with Verve Records and she and Carney recruited musician Gus Seyffert, who has played with The Black Keys and Beck, to play bass and other instruments. They holed up at Seyffert’s home studio in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. “The three of us took turns playing everything,” Branch says. “The first day we worked on a song called ‘Carry Me Home’ and Patrick handed me a guitar and said, ‘Here, you play it,’ and I said, ‘No, it’s okay. You play it.’ And he was like, ‘No, Michelle. I think you’re used to everyone in the past playing the guitar for you or not giving you the chance to actually do it yourself. This is your record, you know how it’s supposed to be played. Play the guitar.’ I remember skipping out of the studio that first day elated that I had found the two people who were going to have my back making this record.”
The result is a confident, high-spirited rock album that Branch says is the first one she’s made that sounds like music she actually listens to. “I told Patrick how much I love Beach House and Jenny Lewis and he said, ‘No one would ever know that you listen to indie-rock or that you have this knowledge of rock music, but you do and you’re passionate about it. Why aren’t you making a record that sounds like that?’”
The album’s sonics serve the sentiments of these relationship-oriented songs. “Fault Line” is about wanting a relationship to work but knowing it’s past the point of being fixed, while “Best You Ever” gave Branch the last word on a past relationship. “It felt good to say, ‘You don’t realize how good you have it. One day you’re going to look back realize that.’ I think a lot of people feel that way after a break-up,” she says. “’Heartbreak Now’ is an ‘I know you’re not good for me, but I can’t stop thinking about you,’ song,” Branch says. “I wanted it to sound completely obsessive.”
During the course of making Hopeless Romantic, Branch and Carney realized that their feelings for each other went beyond friendship. The song “Carry Me Home” will always remind her of the first days in the studio when, without realizing what was happening, she had set in motion a sequence of events that would change everything. “I remember saying to my sister, ‘I’ve met someone who’s going to be so important in my life. I don’t know if it’s a mentor thing or if it’s just purely a music thing, but I have never connected with somebody in that way,’ she recalls. “I truly believe everything happens for a reason. I made a record I’m enormously proud of and, in the process, found the love of my life, and it just feels like it was supposed to happen.”