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michelle branch
Local singer/songwriter
is “Everywhere”

by Paul Fried

The music business can be a cruel taskmaster: many, if not most, aspiring musicians toil away in quiet desperation, often for years, looking for an opening, a connection, “a break.”

Now comes Sedona’s Michelle Branch who, having just turned 18, is nearly a veteran and now almost famous, and seems poised to leave a rather large mark on pop music.

It started just a few years ago with Branch filling in at a hometown Sedona restaurant called the Javelina Cantina. Fast forward to the present - Branch’s video single is now in regular rotation on MTV and VH1.

Branch’s recent rise has been nothing short of meteoric. Her mom, Peggy, was told a few months ago to “fasten your seat belts, you are in for a wild ride,” and she confirms that the ride has not stopped yet or even begun to slow down.

It was around Christmas, 1999. Enamored with the teen group Hansen, Michelle posted two of her songs on the Website rollingstone.com, which attracted interest from the Hansens as well as her later-to-be manager, ex-Rolling Stone Magazine writer Jeff Rabhan (a friend of the Hansens with his own management company). Ironically, Rabhan was here in town taking a timeshare tour and mentioned he was a Los Angeles record producer. A friend of Michelle’s put the two of them together.

Two months later, Rabhan called back. The result was two spots opening for the Hansens last August, one in Los Angeles and one in Phoenix. Two years later, Branch has a debut CD on Maverick Records, with an option for five more, all on the same label as The Deftones, Alanis Morrisette, and Candlebox. And yes, Michelle has met Madonna.

 Many years ago, parents of children who indicated interest in playing or even listening to the newly emerging art form called “rock and roll” often went to great lengths to discourage, even prohibit, their offspring from involving themselves in that musical world. Thirty or so years down the line, things have changed dramatically, and nowhere is there a better example of this than in the story of Michelle Branch.

She began singing at age three, followed by voice lessons when she was eight, and a first guitar at 14. Combining the effects of her supportive parents (David and Peggy), a strong Internet presence (www.michellebranch.com), several right-time/right-place fortunate coincidences, and some serious raw talent, this 17-year-old, seven-year Village of Oak Creek resident is right now beginning a part of her career that has exposed her to a much wider audience. Destined to appeal to teen music fans disillusioned with a vapid pop scene where sexuality is more important than the songs; where Brittany, Christina, J/Lo, Ricky and a host of others seem narcissistically concerned more with clothes, skin, and provocative dance moves than musical substance, Branch’s emphasis on well-crafted, coming-of-age pop lyrics and music is a breath of fresh air: she is a singer/songwriter, not a dancer masquerading as a musician.

 Her infectious, hook-laden, ripe-for-radio debut effort for Maverick Records, “The Spirit Room,” was produced by John Shanks, who has also produced studio sessions with Melissa Etheridge and Stevie Nicks. The two players “clicked immediately,” said Michelle’s dad. They co-wrote a song on the very first day, and then recorded it in a single take.

The CD was named for an infamous ghost town bar in Jerome, about 30 minutes from Sedona. Branch has an old black and white photo of her bona fide gypsy fortune-teller great grandmother standing in front of that watering hole.

Folk-inflected and guitar-driven, the CD literally oozes with a kind of pop entirely different from the show-some-skin, lyrically empty releases on the current Top 40 scene - in this arena, Branch really is a new deal. There are odes to teen love and initial attachments, as well as gotta-say-goodbye-even-tho’-I-don’t-want-to refrains.

The vocal melodies and her voice are both brilliant, and the song structures, while perhaps not the most complex or innovative, are memorable, expressive, and highly unusual for pop. The disc recently received 4+ stars (out of a possible 5) in Rolling Stone Magazine’s Reader’s Rating chat room.

She lists Aerosmith (“Éany Aerosmith albumÉ”), the Beatles (“Sgt. Pepper’s” and “Abbey Road”), Led Zeppelin (“ÉI love Robert Plant’s voiceÉ”Led Zeppelin III” is a great recordÉI could listen to John Bonham play drums all dayÉ”), and Queen (“ÉA Night At The Opera,” I love that albumÉ”) as her classic influences; Alanis, Jewel as her contemporary inspirations; and the bands Train, Creeper Lagoon, Lifehouse and Coldplay as the sounds she’s listening to now.

 When asked about other musical influences, she listed Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac, Cat Stevens, and a host of others more from my generation than from her own.

“There’s something there in that old music; a feeling that isn’t all that present in much of today’s tunes,” she said.

Branch is charming and warm, with a magnetic energy and an unpretentious outlook. Branch recently expressed, “Even though I’m just 17, I want people to know that I’m serious about my music - I’m not just a flash in the pan - I eat, sleep, and dream about music; it’s everything I do.” She writes on both guitar and piano, and sometimes collaborates with bassist and co-writer Jennifer Hagio, as well as working with her sister Nicole, who at just 13, plays the drums.

Branch self-produced her first CD, “Broken Bracelet,” in June of last year. She calls herself a “singer/songwriter in the pop rock/folk tradition.” The “Broken Bracelet” session is more rock/blues than “The Spirit Room,” but both efforts showcase lilting melodies and romance-laden lyrics that belie her tender years.

And as to the name of her independent CD? “‘Broken Bracelet’ refers to the bracelet pictured on the front of the CD,” said Branch. “It was given to me at a Lisa Loeb show by Steven Poltz (who co-wrote “You Were Meant For Me,” with Jewel). He told me to put it on and not to take it off, since if it ever broke, that would mean I would be famous.”

* * *

But this is much more than a local-girl-makes-good story, there’s a couple of lessons here that are as large-as-life itself: first off, yes, luck and being in the right -place at the right time has a lot to do with it, but the really great things happen to people who do more than just show up; they first believe that they can, then they see it as if it were already real, and then, away they go. Branch has done all of that already.

And secondly, if Michelle Branch is able to bring some real substance to radio rock, that will be a rare and wonderful contribution to the pop music scene. As she puts it, “I’m digging that I can write songs that can affect people. I play the guitar and I write my own music and I let the music speak for itself.”

So, stay tuned: that bracelet may be breaking sooner than later.

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