Why Michelle Branch Almost Quit Music (Exclusive)
With a new album on deck -- her first solo effort in eight years -- the Grammy-winner, mom and chicken farmer opens up to THR about hitting music business bottom and her path to recovery.
“I was nervous for a minute there, I’m not gonna lie.”
Michelle Branch is referring to the moment in 2010 when it looked like her career could stall. The 27-year-old singer had spent a decade in the music business, breaking out in 2001 among a flood of female newcomers including Avril Lavigne and Vanessa Carlton. Branch’s Maverick Records debut, The Spirit Room, sold a staggering 1.9 million copies, while her second album, 2003’s Hotel Paper featuring the stinging hit “Are You Happy Now?” was another platinum seller. She even won a Grammy, for Best Pop Collaboration. The song: "The Game of Love," with Santana.
Things continued to look up after a move to Nashville, where Branch released the album Stand Still, Look Pretty with her country side-project, The Wreckers, in 2006. But a year later, the duo disbanded and her label, Warner Music Nashville, who hadn’t supported the Wreckers venture in the first place (Branch financed the recording and recouped within months) was hell-bent on making a country star of the singer-songwriter.
A follow-up failed to materialize, and when a slew of firings hit the label, Branch, who still owed Warner Bros. Records (WBR) four more releases of a five-album deal (the Wreckers album didn’t count and her post-Maverick renegotiation reset the obligation clock), was secretly hoping she’d be given a pink slip. “There was a moment there when it was getting really bad and everyone was being let go,” Branch recalls. “I was, like, ‘Can I get fired, please? Can I move on with my life?’”
Branch acknowledges that WBR is all she’s ever known, so she had to make a go of it regardless of how the staffing shaped up. As it turned out, new WBR chairman Rob Cavallo, who took over in September 2010, had a history with Branch, both as a collaborator and friend. The result of the new regime’s arrival is a proper Branch solo record, at long last. West Coast Time will be released this September, eight years after the release of Hotel Paper. The single, "Loud Music," is currently available on iTunes.
Branch sat down with The Hollywood Reporter for a revealing interview about the struggles she faced as she transitioned from pop-rock to country, became a mother and had to decide whether music -- or perhaps, a bakery -- was in her future.
The Hollywood Reporter: Before we get to the heavy stuff, let me ask about something that’s occupied much of your non-music-playing time. You have chickens at your home in Burbank?
Branch: That’s right. The zoning in Burbank says I can have up to 25 chickens, we have three right now. I adopted them from a family in Long Beach whose kids are in 4-H. A friend of mine has chickens and I saw that it wasn’t as hard as I thought. I would have goats in two seconds. Eventually my goal is get a place in Ojai where I can have animals and a big garden. Just drink wine all day and hang in my garden. Wouldn’t that be a nice life? But touring is going to be interesting because I don’t have a chicken sitter.
THR: And the purpose of the chickens are eggs, clearly…
Branch: Yep. I don’t eat eggs, but I bake a lot. I think my family [husband Teddy Landau and five-year-old daughter Owen] has kind of OD’d on them. When we first got the chickens, I was making omelets every morning. Now Owen’s, like, “Can I have oatmeal please?” But I’m opening a bakery in L.A. hopefully between January and March of next year.
THR: In this time between albums, people have learned a lot about your home life from your many tweets. What is your Twitter philosophy?
Branch: I actually got reprimanded by Stevie Nicks, who was like, “You’re sharing too much! You need to leave an air of mystery.” I’m not even joking. And I get that, but one thing that’s hard for me about being in the public eye is hearing misconceptions about yourself. I suppose I could be a big girl and ignore stuff, but it just drives me nuts. Twitter is an easy way for people to get an idea of who I really am. The funny thing is, the label started my Twitter and I didn’t know what it was at first. When I finally went on and saw that it was basically a giant ad, I was like, “That’s stupid, I don’t want it to look like that.” Now I’m on there so much, my daughter will walk into the room and say, “Mom, are you on Twitter again?” “Yes, I am.”
THR: Now let’s go back: The Wreckers had a huge country hit with the album Stand Still, Look Pretty, but a year later, you and Jessica Harp both announced that you would be pursuing solo projects…
Branch: We weren’t planning on breaking up. It wasn’t something that Jessica and I saw coming, and we had both been writing material together and separately for the next Wreckers album, planning on going down that road and making another Wreckers album, having a lot of success. Then we decided we weren’t going to work together anymore. And I was sitting on all this Wreckers material, living in Nashville and that’s where my head was at. So I thought, I’m going to record this myself and make this country record.
THR: What happened to that album?
Branch: That’s a loaded question. I started working on the record in Oct. 2007 and I was pretty much finished the following February. There was one song on that Warner Nashville was over the moon about, then people started getting fired left and right, and once some new person would get hired finally, they’d come in and give their two cents on my record. Somehow it just halted the process entirely. It was a really emotional time for me because that record took almost three years out of my life. Not that I minded being home and having time with my daughter, but new music is only new music for so long.
It got to the point where everyone in town kept saying, “You don’t have a country single.” We made that record because we loved that record and it wasn’t necessarily, at the time, a Nashville record to make. It was a little left of center, and that’s why people reacted to it. Everyone at Warner Nashville wanted to me to sing a country song and it seemed so disingenuous. Like I was trying so hard to fit into that format. I had songs pitched to me that were great songs, but it just didn’t seem real. I was, like, “Let me write the songs.”
It was hard to keep perspective on everything, and in the end, it was heartbreaking to walk away from so much hard work and not have the record released. The thing that’s so frustrating is that because it never got released, it had this stigma of not being a great record. And that was never the case. It’s a beautiful record. But as much as I try, I could never sing like Carrie Underwood.
THR: That was four years ago, what came next?
Branch: We ended up releasing six songs as an EP [called Everything Comes and Goes], but there were another 10 that will never be heard. I finally got to the moment when I raised my white flag and I went in to meet with [then Warner Bros. CEO] Tom Whalley. I told him, “I’m feeling so creatively stifled, I need to get away from all this. If I have to try and write one more country single, I’ll lose my mind. I just wanna be inspired by something else and maybe make a pop record.” It was a long meeting and at the end of the day, I got Tom’s blessing to go ahead. That was a Thursday; on Monday morning, he was fired.
Not only that, my product manager of 10 years, David Grant, was let go. All of my people who were there for the Wreckers were gone. They fired the head of radio two weeks into my single being released. It felt personal for a time... I cried a lot. I would go to bed and be like, “Really? Should I go get a job?” And I kept telling myself that everything happens for a reason. I still believe that, because I learned a lot about myself and I think I was supposed to make the record that I just made.
THR: You’ve said that West Coast Time leans less on acoustic instruments and integrates programming and synths, how did this change in sound come about?
Branch: I watched the documentary It Might Get Loud and was so inspired by it, I was almost in tears. I said to Teddy, “That’s what I need to do. For my next record, I want to rent a house, go to England, be completely out of my comfort zone, play with people I’ve never played with, writers I’ve never written with, go to the corner store and not see someone I know…”
When I got the green-light to work on the pop record, the label was between executives -- Tom was let go and Rob [Cavallo] was coming in -- and no one really knew what I was doing. I had heard the song “When I’m Alone” by Lissie, which she wrote with these two British guys, Jim Irvin and Julian Emery. They happened to be coming to LA for a minute, we met, hit it off and wrote an amazing song together that first day. I was, like, “Can I go back to London and write with you?” I ended up writing half the record with them.
Julian has more of that dance-y background, which is a very fine line for me because I do not want to make a dance record. There are guitars on there, the song were written on an acoustic guitar. But they definitely have a lot of programming and that influenced the sound.
THR: What are the biggest differences between working in Nashville and London?
Branch: In London, it was great to be that far away where I didn’t run into 10 people I knew every time I left the studio, which is very much what was happening in Nashville. It’s what I love and what can drive you crazy about Nashville: you’ll go to the market and someone will stop you and go, “I heard about your single.” That’s when I’d think, “I have to get out of here.” In London, I’d walk the streets in the rain, not know anyone. It was incredibly inspiring.
THR: You’re now living in L.A., what do you miss about Nashville?
Branch: That camaraderie between artists. I’ve never been friends with other artists as much as I was when I was in Nashville. Everyone knew one another and was supporting one another. That was really fantastic. In L.A., it’s harder to let people in. People won’t call up artists they don’t know and invite them out to dinner. That happens in Nashville.
THR: Tell us about the album’s title, West Coast Time…
Branch: It’s a song I wrote in the thick of trying to finish my country record. It sounds like a song about a guy, but it’s my love song to Nashville. It’s basically saying, “I’ve tried everything, why am I not right for you? I love you and you don’t love me back.” It was me living in Nashville and always feeling like I was on west coast time. I was longing for my days in L.A. making pop records. That pull is what the song is about.
THR: There’s now a new team at Warner Bros., led by chairman Rob Cavallo and co-presidents Todd Moscowitz and Livia Tortella, what was the transition like for you?
Branch: When Tom was let go, there was this moment when panic set in. As frustrating as some moments were with Tom, it’s the devil you know. When I found out Rob was coming in, I was through the roof ecstatic. We had worked together on my second record a little and we knew one another musically. I knew right away that my life would be made easier having someone who was creative and understood musicians and artists. I knew that I was going to be OK. Then I was told my new A&R was Mike Elizondo, who’s a family friend and an amazing musician, I can trust that they’ll get my vision. That’s been the best part of making this record so far: having them trust me and being able to have creative conversations. I told Rob, “Wow what a concept, having music people in the music business.” There’s actual music playing in the office. It’s a completely different atmosphere in the building and it’s inspiring to everyone.
THR: Pop music has changed so much since a decade ago when Sprit Room came out. What do you make of, say, Lady Gaga?
Branch: I love that she writes, I love that she plays. I couldn’t name one song of hers, but if she’s on TV, I’ll watch because I’m intrigued.
THR: Your thoughts on the radio hits of today?
Branch: It seems like there’s a lot more women now, which is exciting. When I get in the car lately, I’m blasting “Teenage Dream.” I love what Katy Perry does, and I totally get it. I’m not going to make a record like that because it’s not who I am, but I appreciate it. Personally, I do wish there was a little more room for singer-songwriters on pop radio, but I think it’s changing a bit. I ran into John Mayer when I was in New York a few weeks ago, and we hadn’t seen each other in eight years. He was like, “Wow, class of 2000… Look at what’s happened since we came out with our first records, who else is around and making records still?” Music is definitely more urban and dance -influenced today.
THR: Why do you think that is?
Branch: Everything goes in waves. It’s partly because of technology and how records are made these days. You don’t call up musicians for sessions anymore. You sit in a room with a handful of writers and you can make a record without having one live instrument. I get some of it. I’m not a big fan of it, but what can you do?
THR: Do you consider shows like American Idol and The Voice as shortcuts?
Branch: I know the Idols work their asses off, so I don’t want to take that away from them and call it a shortcut. But the power of television doesn’t hurt. You finish [watching] The Voice or Idol and whatever song was playing that night is on the iTunes Top 10... In the grand scheme of things, it’s everyone’s desire for real music -- searching out for something to feel connected to, who you can be inspired and moved by. I was obsessed with “Star Search” when I was little.
THR: Have any of those shows approached you to be a judge?
Branch: I got asked to be part of The Sing Off, but I was in the thick of making that record and it wasn’t on my agenda, not that I would mind hanging out with Ben Folds every day…