‘Hopeless Romantic’ Michelle Branch Finds Hope With New Album, New Patrick Carney Romance

Photo: Joshua Black Wilkins
Photo: Joshua Black Wilkins

Additional reporting by Steve Baltin

Back in 2011, Michelle Branch told Rolling Stone she was working on a record for Warner Bros., West Coast Time, which was supposed to be her first new pop album since 2003’s Hotel Paper. But then … West Coast Time never came out. Recently she signed with Verve and is finally releasing an album, titled Hopeless Romantic. But she’s understandably battle-scarred by the music industry, and is nervous about the new record’s fate.

“I have PTSD, and I will not believe it until I see it,” she says of Hopeless Romantic’s April 7 release. “[But] the fact that a song has been released, there’s another one coming out next week, I have a release date, I feel like I can finally take a breath.”

Even on a new label, getting Hopeless Romantic out to her fans hasn’t been an easy process for Branch. “There was a point when we were making this record that we had turned in the first three songs to [Verve],” she recalls. “And the record label president at the time said, ‘This doesn’t sound like you; this sounds nothing like you. I think you’re making a huge mistake. I’m not approving the budget for the rest of the record.’ And of course. coming off the Warner Bros. years of not being able to release music, I immediately went into panic mode.”

This time, however, Branch — now six years older and wiser — was in a more secure place both personally and professionally, thanks to the support of her boyfriend and producer, Patrick Carney of the Black Keys. It was Keys who convinced her to go ahead with Hopeless Romantic.

“Patrick was like, ‘You have to make this record for you. I think it’s important emotionally that you move on with your life and finish this project and get it out. If you believe in it that much, just make the record. I’ll pay for it, let’s just make the record. The worst thing that can happen is you turn it in and he hates it and you get dropped. Then you own the record ‘cause we paid for it,’” Branch says. “I was like, ‘OK, I believe in it that much. Let’s do it.’”

Unlike her troubled Warner Bros. situation with the forever-delayed West Coast Time, this time the production went smoothly. “By the time we finished the album, that guy got fired and he was no longer working for the label. There was a whole new regime and new president, he heard the record from top to bottom, and said, ‘Oh my God, I love this record. I’m so excited about this — don’t change a thing,’” she recalls. “So that’s a lesson I’ve learned: You have to bet on yourself and do things for yourself.”

Branch, now a 33-year-old divorced mother, says she had the confidence and strength to handle any possible rejection and push ahead in a way she couldn’t have before. “If I was 17 and in that position, I don’t think I would have acted the same way,” she explains. “I would have been pretty terrified and I would have said, ‘OK, what are your suggestions? Who would you like me to work with?’ So it’s interesting and it’s really nice to be at that place where, at the end of the day, what’s important to me is my family and I have that. I know I’ll always be making music. And really, all I want to do is put out records when I want to put out records, and tour when I want to tour.”

Branch’s 11-year-old daughter is a driving force behind this newfound confidence, but Branch also credits her relationship with Carney for inspiring her musically as well as personally. “There’s a safety in being that close with somebody,” she says. “And by the time Patrick and I realized our feelings for each other were skewing romantic, it completely opened a total other door of possibilities. We’ve talked about doing other projects together; we have a studio here at the house, so it’s such a fruitful, creative relationship for me and it feels really exciting to have someone who is on your team and rooting for you. … It allows you to discover new stuff; we listen to a lot of music in the house, so it’s been super-inspiring.”

Branch also has the support of several big-name female musicians who have become either social media friends or expressed their fandom for the singer’s early work.

“There are a couple of artists in particular who I know have always been fans. [Paramore’s] Hayley [Williams] was a big fan of mine she was younger, when I was first putting records out. It’s nice because social media has allowed that wall to be broken, where before I would have never really had the relationship with people like that. Like Best Coast, we’re all following each other, and Tegan and Sara and Hayley, so we’re able to see what one another is doing and cheer each other on. That’s been really nice and supportive. And I know Taylor Swift has been a huge fan in the past; she’s covered my songs in concert. We’ve met a handful of times where she’s always been like, ‘I listened to you growing up!’ So it’s wild for me to see people who are successful in the same field as me, knowing they have this kind of nostalgic soft spot in their heart for me. It’s kind of nice.”