Michelle Branch barely remembers her performance the night of Jan. 25 at New York's Bowery Electric, but she recalls embracing Patrick Carney at the end of it. The six-song showcase at the 200-capacity venue previewed Hopeless Romantic, Branch's first solo album in 14 years; Carney sat behind the kit, drumming live outside of The Black Keys for the first time in his career. Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley of indie group Tennis played keys and guitar, while Danger Mouse, who has produced the last four Black Keys records, jammed in the back of the audience to set-closer "Are You Happy Now?," a top 10 hit for Branch in 2003.
As the max-capacity crowd applauded the finale, Carney weaved around his drums and leaned in to hug Branch at center stage, a quiet grin on his face. Five weeks later, Branch is sitting on a red couch at New York's Vandal restaurant -- five blocks downtown from Bowery Electric -- and beaming while reliving the moment.
"This record wouldn't have seen the light of day had he not been involved," says the 33-year-old singer-songwriter of Carney. "That's why it was important for him to be up there -- when we were making it, it felt like it was us against the world."
Carney had signed on to produce Hopeless Romantic (out April 7 on Verve) in 2015, the same year Branch finalized her divorce from musician Teddy Landau. Halfway through creating the album, Branch and the 36-year-old drummer (who has divorced twice) "started realizing that we were completely falling in love," she says. Branch, who recently moved from Los Angeles to Nashville to live with Carney, says that they sometimes compare career timelines for fun. While The Black Keys were recording in a basement in 2002, for instance, Branch was a Total Request Live-approved star with hits like "Everywhere" and "All You Wanted." A decade after that, Branch was trapped in label purgatory while the Keys were headlining Coachella.
"Pat has said, 'I remember seeing you on MTV in the early 2000s and thinking you were really cute,'" says Branch with a laugh. "It's like, why couldn't we have just met each other in our 20s? We would have saved so much heartache! He said that we probably would have f - ed it up. And yeah, we probably would have."
A month after her 18th birthday, in 2001, Branch released her Warner Bros. Records debut, The Spirit Room, and the Sedona, Ariz., native became a guitar-toting pop-rock tonic to contemporary stars like Britney Spears and 'N Sync. "Everywhere," "All You Wanted," "Goodbye To You" and "You Set Me Free" were enduring sing-alongs that still sound excellent on adult contemporary radio and in too-crowded karaoke rooms; "Are You Happy Now?," the angsty lead single from 2003 sophomore album Hotel Paper, updated the pissed-off catharsis of Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill, an album Branch worshiped while growing up in the '90s. The singer-songwriter notched six top 40 hits over the next three years and toured the world, while The Spirit Room and Hotel Paper would go on to sell a combined 3.2 million copies, according to Nielsen Music.
Branch never expected such immediate success, or fully figured out how to deal with it. "It was isolating," she says. "Everyone around me was older. No one wanted to hang with their 18-year-old boss, so when we pulled into a town, the band was like, 'We're going drinking and picking up chicks.' A lot of those years were spent in hotel rooms, alone and jet-lagged."
Branch married Landau in 2004, and the couple welcomed a daughter, Owen, in 2005. The next decade found Branch recording and touring with The Wreckers, her country duo with Jessica Harp, and writing songs that would never be released; Branch had two albums shelved at Warner Bros. before she was able to get out of her contract. After inking a deal with Verve Records in 2015, the label gave her a budget to record four songs. Branch holed up with Carney -- with whom she had connected at a Los Angeles party in 2015 -- and Keys touring bassist Gus Seyffert to find a sonic direction.
"We wanted it to feel less pristine than what she had done in the past," says Carney. The combination of Branch's hooks and Carney's garage-rock production led to a collection of hard-nosed post-breakup songs in the vein of Jenny Lewis and Neko Case. Departing the gentle strums of The Spirit Room, Branch says she wanted the project to be "riff-driven"; indie troubadour Kurt Vile came on her car radio on the way to the first studio session, and she took it as a sign.
"I was looking around at what other women were doing -- women who I respected -- and how they fit in the musical landscape, because it's changed so much since I last put out a record," Branch explains. "Like, 'Are You Happy Now?' -- I didn't know where that would belong if I released that now. Listening to Haim, Beach House, Sky Ferreira, I was like, 'Okay, I think I kind of fit into that wheelhouse.'"
David Foster, then CEO of Verve, heard a sampler of the album and hated it. "He said the guitar was too aggressive, I didn't sound like myself -- that I was making a huge mistake," Branch recalls. She started to panic, and Carney offered to personally finance the album. "People wanted to roll the dice in the same exact way that those first couple of records were done," says Carney, "and you could see, as a musician, Michelle had no interest in that." Branch stopped answering calls and emails from Verve and focused solely on recording.
By the time they finished, Foster had been replaced at Verve by Danny Bennett, Tony Bennett's son. Branch turned over her album and prepared for the worst. "He listened to it," says Branch of Bennett, "called me and said, 'I love this album. Don't change a thing.' "
Branch has had to adjust to promoting an album in 2017 -- "I don't know how to work Snapchat," she admits rather sorrowfully. "Most of my emails I get are like, 'Don't forget the Facebook update. Don't forget to Instagram this. When I first got asked to do an Instagram story, I was like, 'Is this thing on?'" Yet she's ready for a robust tour in support of Hopeless Romantic that will include Carney as her touring drummer and live renditions of every early hit, including the one she doesn't know how to play just yet. "The song that will be the most tricky is the Santana song," she says of "The Game of Love," her 2002 collaboration with the guitar legend that reached No. 5 on the Hot 100. "I wasn't a writer on it. I told Pat, 'I don't know if we should play that song,' and he goes, 'Oh no, that song is my favorite one! I think it'll be cool!'"
Branch never wrote or recorded music with her ex-husband, who was a bass player in her band; looking back, she views that lack of collaboration as a red flag. Now, she often wakes up and brings mugs of coffee to the Nashville home studio she shares with Carney, who will be already hard at work on new ideas. They swap instruments and play solos that could work for the Black Keys, Branch's next album or some entirely new musical project. Carney tries to get Branch to change the bridge of "Are You Happy Now?" for the upcoming tour -- something she refuses, because the lyrics wouldn't make sense without it. Branch encourages Carney to sing more in general -- something he, in turn, refuses, because his sixth grade music teacher once made fun of his voice.
"There's such a safety being in a romantic relationship with someone who I work with creatively," says Branch. "You don't edit yourself. Patrick knows what I like, and I know what he's into. There's no bullshit."
Watch Michelle Branch talk about her musical household with Patrick Carney and her loyalty to longtime fans below:
This article originally appeared in the April 1 issue of Billboard.