by Paul Fried
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
something there in that old music; a feeling that isn’t all
that present in much of today’s tunes,” she said.
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.
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
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.”
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
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.”
stay tuned: that bracelet may be breaking sooner than later.