When Michelle Branch burst on the scene with her 2001 debut album The Spirit Room and its smash single "Everywhere," she was all of 17 years old. Remarkably, many of the songs on the CD were written years earlier, when she was only 14. And it wasn't all kids' stuff -- Michelle possessed considerable insight into life and love by the time she left junior high.
But as catchy and powerful as The Spirit Room is, Michelle's follow-up Hotel Paper is an even stronger effort. With a deeper groove and a warmer sound than its predecessor, Hotel Paper brings Michelle closer to her roots in the classic acoustic-guitar-based rock of the '70s, while still maintaining a modern edge. Just listen to Michelle, now 20, let 'em have it on the rocker "Empty Handed," and you'll find a singer who's only now nearing the top of her game.
Women.com tracked Michelle down as she was being swept up into the publicity whirlwind behind Hotel Paper, currently out on Maverick Records. We found a person who, despite her millions of units sold, remains unspoiled by fame and is really and truly in it for the music. That's a good thing, too, because she'll be on the road for a long time: "It's really funny when you have your life scheduled into the next year," Michelle says with a laugh. "I know what I'm doing in 2004, to the day!"
I'm curious about the time after Spirit Room and before Hotel Paper. What did you do after the first record came out, and how did you know you were ready to make the next one?
All I was really doing was working my butt off -- being on tour, traveling around. Most of the songs on the first album I wrote when I was 14 and 15, so there were new songs being written.
I was just dying to make a new record. Everyone had this impression of me at 19, but they were hearing these songs I wrote when I was 14. I would say, "No, this isn't how I write anymore. I want you to hear the new stuff."
Was it different writing songs after the success of Spirit Room, knowing people were going to hear them, as opposed to writing when you were 14 and 15, before you had a record deal?
No. When I write songs I never think about people hearing them. I'm just writing them for myself. Actually, the song "Hotel Paper" wasn't even going to be put on the record. There are a lot of songs that I have like that, that people will probably never hear.
In the lyrics to that song, you actually say, "my thoughts will never leave this room." You really didn't think anyone would hear that song?
[laughs] Absolutely. I keep to myself a lot when it's dealing with personal stuff. I'm very shy and private. Then there's my career side, and I'm very outgoing. It's kind of like two different personas.
Has your life changed as a result of your success?
I lucked out. I don't have too many people who are intrusive. I'm not one of those people who get followed around by paparazzi or anything like that, so I walk down the street and do what I do and nothing has really changed. The only thing is that sometimes when I'm in the grocery store, my song comes on the radio! [laughs]
That must be pretty cool.
It is cool.
Let's go back a bit and talk about how your musical life began. Do you play instruments other than guitar?
Yeah, I play a little bit of piano and a little bit of drums.
How did you start playing, and when?
Right before my 14th birthday, I asked my mom and dad for a guitar. I've been singing since I could talk, and I'm just obsessed with music. So I got a guitar, and immediately started teaching myself how to play and write songs.
Did you later get some training?
I started guitar lessons and quit 'cause I hated it. But I took voice lessons from around eight years old, and I still take them once in a while.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks... All kind of '60s and '70s rock and singer-songwriter stuff.
Speaking of Fleetwood Mac, your song with Sheryl Crow on Hotel Paper, "Love Me Like That," struck me as having a Fleetwood Mac-type vibe.
Yeah. Actually, before we called Sheryl, I said, "Should we call Stevie?" And we're like, "No, let's just call Sheryl." [laughs]
So you just called her up and she came to the studio?
Well, we had been on tour together for a few months at the end of last year. She told me to call her if I wanted anything for my new record. So I called her and she came down and said, "Cool, I wanna sing on it."
Your voices blend well together and sort of flow into each other.
Thanks. A lot of people don't realize it's Sheryl.
What do you like to do in your downtime?
I haven't had downtime in a really long time! [laughs] Downtime for me is...
Music is a funny thing because it's my job, but I also do it to unwind and relax. So if I have time on my hands I'll sit and play guitar or I'll go to a concert or I'll hang out with my friends and listen to records or I'll sit at the drums. That's just what I do.
Right now, on the road, you spend a lot of days in strange malls in strange cities and going into Abercrombie & Fitch and watching movies at the movie theater. [laughs]
Okay, a few quick questions before I let you go. What was the first concert you ever saw?
Well, everyone thinks my first concert was New Kids on the Block, but it was actually the Jets. At the state fair, in Arizona, when I was like five or six. [laughs]
What was the first record you bought?
This is really embarrassing. I know I had records before this, but the first time I remember being so excited about going into the record store and picking up a record, it was the single "Mercedes Boy" by Pebbles. I got it on vinyl. I later bought some Beatles stuff, and Frankie Valli, but I remember that was my first record.
What's the last record you bought?
I went in the store and I got a few things -- the new Radiohead, the new Annie Lennox and the Maroon 5 Songs about Jane album because one of my friends stole it. [laughs]
What's your favorite record?
My favorite record? Oh, that would take forever to try to figure out... [long pause followed by big laugh] I don't know! I'd have to say maybe Abbey Road by the Beatles.
Excellent choice. And my last question: What song is in your head right now?
Um, someone's cell phone just went off and the song was "Get Ur Freak On" [sings melody in beeps], so that's what's in my head right now.
Check out Michelle in 12 Women Who Rock!