Michelle Branch

by Carl Wiser

On "Everywhere," "The Game Of Love," and her run-in with a Christian broadcasting network.

Before she was 21, Michelle Branch:

Released two Platinum albums
Sang on a Santana hit
Got married
Made Maxim's Hot List1
Performed on Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Charmed
Influenced Taylor Swift2

A true musical prodigy, Branch had a real sense for songwriting at a very early age. Raised on the music of Neil Young, the books of Jane Austen, and the rom-coms of the late '90s (10 Things I Hate About You), she could articulate the feelings of love and heartbreak long before she had a boyfriend. Signed to Warner Brothers' Maverick imprint, her first album on the label, The Spirit Room, was released in 2001 soon after she turned 18. The lead single was "Everywhere," a song she started writing at 15 that adapted meaning to the listener. Some heard it as a song to God, leading at least one network to believe Branch was a Christian artist (and ask for a pledge of devotion in exchange for playing the video).

The album sold 2 million copies and led the way for a wave of talented young women who could write their own songs and perform with gusto. In 2002, she sang "The Game Of Love," the lead single and biggest hit from Santana's highly anticipated Shaman album. As Branch explains, she had to audition for the gig and, after landing it, tried to change a lyric to give it more teeth.

After another solo album in 2003, Branch formed a country duo called The Wreckers with her friend Jessica Harp. Their first album was delayed until 2006 due to label dysfunction, but it was great; the first single, "Leave The Pieces," was a #1 Country hit and the album sold 500,000 copies. After a falling out with Harp, The Wreckers disbanded in 2007 and Branch moved to Warner Music Nashville. Still in her mid-20s, her debut country album seemed like a surefire success, but it was never released. Once again, the label let the air out of her tires; the songs she'd been working on for years were reduced to a lightly promoted EP issued in 2010. Somewhere in the Warner vault sits a cache of her unreleased songs.

In 2015, Branch signed to Verve Records and started work on Hopeless Romantic, an album inspired by her recent divorce. Her producer was Patrick Carney of The Black Keys, who became her husband in 2019.

The Spirit Room is a touchstone for many who found their way through adolescence listening to it. Branch is revisiting the album by re-recording it and performing a livestream where she'll play every song solo acoustic. The first of the new recordings is "You Get Me," which comes with a lyric video. We'll start there, but stay tuned to find out about her Memento-inspired music video and what it was like rising to fame in the early days of the internet.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): How do you feel about the new version of "You Get Me" versus the original?

Michelle Branch: I don't know if I have any thoughts versus the original. I wanted to re-record these songs as a fan, kind of a gift after playing them for 20 years. Over the years, people have requested live versions and wondered if I would do a live album, and I never have.

I'm a really big fan of Alanis Morissette's 10-year anniversary acoustic version of Jagged Little Pill, and I knew I wanted to do something similar for the 20th anniversary. I think the biggest difference is that my voice has changed a lot from being 16 when I recorded these songs, so some of the songs on the record are in a different key now because I just can't hit the same notes.

So the biggest change for "You Get Me" would just be the way my voice has changed. And I wanted to take out anything that was dated and 2001 about the songs, like the programming. I wanted to give a fresh, more live approach to all the songs.

Songfacts: Tell me about the lyric, "Some say I'm paranormal, so I just bend their spoon."

Branch: Well, the song was pretty much finished when I heard it. There's a singer-songwriter named Abra Moore3 who had an awesome song that hit the chart called "Four Leaf Clover" in the late '90s. She wrote the song "You Get Me" with Shelly Peiken, who had written Christina Aguilera's "What A Girl Wants."

So there was an almost-finished version of the song. The second verse was totally different. That was rewritten by John [producer John Shanks] and I when I came in. The line, "Some say I'm paranormal, so I just bend their spoon," was written when I got the song. I loved the line so much and I can't take credit for it.

It's one of my favorite songs lyrically, and a lot of that is because I had nothing to do with it. I heard it and immediately fell in love with it. Some lyrics were really different. I think in the second verse there was something about mashed potatoes with an ice cream scoop, so we changed some lines like that and tried to add some "Michelle" to it in the second verse.

Songfacts: Knowing you're from Sedona and that you have a fortune teller in your family, I thought maybe that line had something to do with you.4

Branch: No, but that's why it resonated with me. My favorite thing about the lyrics of "You Get Me" is, especially at the time being a teenage girl, it was saying, "I'm different, and you embrace the differences in me, and I don't have to fit in the mold to be accepted by someone." I think that's a really important message for younger people. But as I've grown older I've come to really appreciate the lyrics in a totally different way.

Songfacts: You said that's one of your favorite songs lyrically on the album. What's another?

Branch: "All You Wanted" is my favorite song on the album. I had showed it to John and it was not much different from the record version that you hear now.

I feel like everybody wants to find someone who you feel understood by and will be there to catch you when you fall, and that's what "All You Wanted" is about.

Songfacts: Did you cast the guy in the video?

Branch: I remember having a choice of head shots. His name was Josh, I think. He had been in a Pink music video - I think he was like a music-video boy on the circuit.

Liz Friedlander, who directed the "Everywhere" video and "All You Wanted" video, came to me with a bunch of Polaroids from casting and said, "Which one do you like?" And I was like, "OK, Josh."

Songfacts: Another song that has held up very well is "Goodbye To You." When you wrote it, you hadn't had a boyfriend yet, but now you've experienced many of those emotions you're singing about. Can you talk about that?

Branch: Growing up, being as obsessed with music as I was, when I first started writing songs, I was just emulating what I had heard in love songs, read in books, and seen in movies. I used a lot of teenage daydream stuff to find inspiration for song lyrics. It's been interesting as I've gotten older actually being able to relate to certain parts of certain songs or being able to look back and say, "Oh, that's weirdly relevant now," although maybe it wasn't at the time.

But that's the cool thing about music: You don't have to necessarily experience something verbatim to find yourself in a song or relate to it. I often get asked what songs mean, and I think what a song means to me isn't what it will mean to someone else listening to it. Everyone's going to have a different interpretation and a different connection based on who they were when they listened to it and where they were in their life. So I think we all interpret it differently, and now I definitely have a lot more life under my belt.

Songfacts: Well, a classic example of what you're talking about is "Everywhere." I've seen a lot of comments on that song, and some people find religion in it. Some people think it's an imaginary friend. There's all these interpretations, but you've explained that you didn't have any of those interpretations. Can you talk about how that song has evolved for you?

Branch: Yeah. If I think back to what that song was about, it's that feeling when you can't stop thinking about somebody. They literally permeate your thoughts and drift into everything that you're thinking about, or every little thing reminds you of that person.

Still to this day, people ask what it's about and try to find a deeper meaning than a high school crush, and I'm flattered that so many people have different applications for it.

I actually have a very funny story. When I first did "Everywhere," I was approached by a Christian music video channel - I think it started with a "C" [possibly the Christian Television Network (CTN)]. They approached me and said, "We'd love to play the song 'Everywhere' on our channel," and I was like, "Cool. You can."

They said, "Did you write it about God?"

"No, I definitely wrote it about a boy I have a crush on."

They said, "We'll only play it if you do a liner5 saying that you accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your savior," and I was like, "Hmm. No. I'm not going to do that. Sorry."

They were pretty nasty about it. The woman was like, "OK, well when your career is failing, don't come to us to play it because we're the only people who will play." And I was like, "Wow, that's really Christian of you."

But anyway, it cracks me up when people ask if it's about God, because I always think of that instance with it almost being a Christian radio hit.

Songfacts: You did tour with Lifehouse at some point.

Branch: I toured with Lifehouse and I guess they have their roots as a Christian band.

Songfacts: So, we talked about your Liz Friedlander videos, but what's going on with the goldfish in that crazy "Goodbye To You" video, which I think was done by the guy who later did The Hunger Games.

Branch: Yeah, Francis Lawrence directed it. I'd seen the movie Memento and I fell in love with that movie. I love how it played backwards. We came up with the idea to have the video start at the end to tell the story, and the goldfish was one of his cinematic ways of tying scenes together. And just so you know, we did not release that goldfish into the lake. It was swiftly scooped back up and saved.

Songfacts: You said earlier that books and movies were an influence on your lyrics. Can you remember any specific ones that influenced the songs on The Spirit Room?

Branch: Oh gosh. I was watching some pretty crappy, sappy stuff when I was 15, 16 writing this record. There's a movie I love called Serendipity that I watched about 500 times. I love the movie 10 Things I Hate About You, the retelling of Othello.

But I'm a sap. I love Jane Austen. I've read Pride And Prejudice and Sense And Sensibility and watched every version of the films. If you were to go on my Netflix queue and see what it recommends to me, it's like period-piece romance dramas, and that's kind of me in a nutshell.

Impelled by the marketing might of Clive Davis, Santana's Supernatural album won nine Grammys and sold over 15 million copies after it was released in 1999. It did so by pairing contemporary singers like Rob Thomas and Lauryn Hill with the group, which by this point was essentially Carlos Santana and his magic guitar. When work got underway for the next Santana album, Shaman, the guest vocalist spots were so coveted, even very famous singers had to audition.

Branch landed the lead single, "Game Of Love," which was an especially big deal. She sang it with conviction and looked great in the video strumming her acoustic while Santana bent some strings on his electric. Predictably, it was a huge hit, but also another heaping portion on Branch's overstuffed plate. She not only had to shoot the video, but also do promotion for the song and make appearances on Santana's tour.

When Santana made another album in 2005, Branch didn't have to audition. They once again asked her to sing on the lead single, a song called "I'm Feeling You." It was still a great opportunity, but by this time, Santana fatigue had set in and Branch had other priorities.
Songfacts: How did you feel about the lyric to "The Game Of Love"?

Branch: "Game Of Love" was finished when it was brought to me. Gregg Alexander, who is one of my favorite writers, wrote it. I basically auditioned for "Game Of Love" and thought there was no way in hell I was going to get it. Tina Turner sang it, Macy Gray sang it, and I just got called in. Some of the guys that were in my touring band had played in The New Radicals6 with Gregg, and Gregg asked if I would go in and sing on it. So I have to thank Gregg for suggesting me on the song.

I went in and sang it and thought, That was cool. I called my parents and I was like, "I just sang on a Santana song. I wish you guys could have heard it."

I didn't think I got it - I was really nervous. I went on tour and thought that was the end of it, and then I got a call saying they loved my version and they had decided that I was the singer.

The next thing you know, I was going to Chicago to film the music video. The first time I met Carlos was on set for "The Game Of Love."

I had some lyrical changes - or suggestions - for "Game Of Love," and no one was really into them. The lyric is:

A little bit of laughs
A little bit of pain
I'm telling you my babe
It's all in the game of love

And I said, What about:

A little bit of lust
A little bit of pain
I'm turning in my bed
It's all in the game of love

And they were like, "No, we like it the way it is." I was like, "OK, it's fine."

Songfacts: You wanted a little bit of lust?

Branch: A little bit of lust, because I was like, "'A little bit of laughs?' I don't know."

Songfacts: That's some hutzpah being, what, 19 years old.

Branch: I was thinking of being lovesick, unable to sleep, turning in the bed. Like lusting after someone. But they wanted it a little more lighthearted. But I love the song and I'm honored that I was chosen to sing it.

Songfacts: Not only were you chosen, that was the big hit, the first single, and then they asked you back for the next album, and I don't think they asked anybody else back. On that one you sang "I'm Feeling You." You may have written that.

Branch: Yeah, "I'm Feeling You" I did have a hand in. I was asked to sing another Santana song and I had just finished The Wreckers album and was like, "Well, I'm focusing on The Wreckers record right now. I don't know if it's the right time to do another Santana song because I really want to pivot and do The Wreckers." And they were like, "Well then Jessica can sing on it too, to make it The Wreckers."

That one was with John Shanks and Kara DioGuardi. John called me in and he was so excited. He was like, "I had a chance to produce a song and you're the only person who can sing it. Come in and finish it with us." I was pregnant with my daughter during that whole second song and I think I was six months pregnant with her when we filmed the video. And it was really gracious of them to allow Jess to be a part of it too.

Songfacts: You were influenced by the likes of Alanis Morissette, even Led Zeppelin, but is there a specific song that when you were learning how to write songs you spent a lot of time deconstructing?

Branch: That's a good question. I was given my uncle's guitar and he gave me a Cat Stevens songbook, a Neil Young songbook, and a Mel Bay chord book, and that was how I first started playing guitar.

I'm a massive Neil Young fan. I love his guitar playing and I definitely spent a lot of time learning "Old Man," "Needle And The Damage Done," "Heart Of Gold." I think "Heart Of Gold" is one of the first songs I really obsessively learned how to play and deconstructed.

I was a huge Lisa Loeb fan, so I religiously learned all of her songs. And I had a Fleetwood Mac songbook too, but it was always frustrating for me because there's no one to sing the harmonies.

Songfacts: The early days of the internet were right when you were coming up, and it was very different than it is now. There was no social media, so fans would go on michellebranch.com and let you know exactly what they were thinking. Can you talk about what that was like?

Branch: I had a message board back then and had a very, very active group of fans. I'm always surprised years later to meet people and hear them say, "We met on your message board." To still see them out and supporting me is amazing.

But it was the early stages of the internet and very organic, grass roots, and really kind of sweet. Now people run their social media, but this was really organic. I think my dad would even go on there from time to time. It was a nice, sweet time before the internet blew up. I think a lot would be different if I had released my first record in 2021.

September 1, 2021

The Spirit Room livestream is September 10 at 9 p.m. Eastern Time. Get tickets and more information at Moment House.

More interviews:

Lisa Loeb
Jagged Little Pill producer Glen Ballard
Shelly Peiken with the "What A Girl Wants" story

Photos: Joshua Black Wilkins (1), Shervin Lainez (2)

Footnotes:

  • 1] At #20 in 2004, just ahead of Elisha Cuthbert and Cameron Diaz. (back)
  • 2] Swift learned Branch's songs when she was learning to play guitar. In 2011, she played Branch's song "All You Wanted" on her Speak Now tour. (back)
  • 3] Abra Moore tells us: "I recorded and wrote a few songs with producer John Shanks up in Laurel Canyon. He worked with Michelle and I remember she put her touch on that one and recorded it, which was really cool – a collaboration but we never actually met." (back)
  • 4] Sedona, Arizona, is filled with clairvoyants and mystics. Branch says her grandmother was a fortune teller. (back)
  • 5] A "liner" is brief on-air statement. Radio and TV stations often ask artists to do them for promotional purposes. Like, "This is Michelle Branch and you're listening to Fun 107, playing today's hottest hits!" (back)
  • 6] Known for their 1998 hit "You Get What You Give." (back)

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