Michelle Branch: ‘I’m Looking Forward to Standing on My Own Two Feet’

Michelle Branch’s new album comes entirely from home. “We have the luxury of having this really incredible studio here,” she tells Billboard, calling from her screen porch at her Nashville house on an early September afternoon. “It was one of those things where we were like, ‘What do we do all day?’” 

This was back in April 2020, at the heights of pandemic lockdown, and Branch and her husband, Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, were stuck at home along with their 1-year-old son, Branch’s 14-year-old daughter and Branch’s younger sister. Living room dance parties were enjoyed nightly; bottles of wine were polished off by the adults. At some point in the quarantine, Branch recalls, “Patrick was like, ‘Hey, you want to finish those songs that you had started?’”

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The result is The Trouble With Fever, Branch’s fourth solo album, a candid and captivating meditation on love and identity that continues the impressive artistic growth of the former teen star while arriving during a painful public moment in her adult life. On Aug. 11, a little over a month ahead of the album’s Sept. 16 release date, Branch announced that she and Carney were separating after three years of marriage, after she tweeted and deleted a note accusing Carney of infidelity while she was home with their infant daughter, who was born last February. Later that day, Branch was arrested by Nashville police for misdemeanor domestic assault for allegedly striking Carney at their home. Branch was released on bond, and filed for divorce on Aug. 15, citing irreconcilable differences; the misdemeanor was dismissed soon after.

Branch brings up Carney multiple times when discussing her new album – it’s impossible for her not to. In addition to recording The Trouble With Fever at their shared home, Branch and Carney co-produced the album and played nearly every instrument on it together, although Branch wrote the majority of its 10 tracks on her own. After breaking through in the early 2000s with winning pop-rock hits like “Everywhere” and “All You Wanted,” Branch started dating Carney while they worked together on her excellent 2017 album, Hopeless Romantic, which evolved her wide-eyed teen anthems into mature, dimly lit grooves. The Trouble With Fever is a more lush and strings-laden rock album – although its lyrical passages that gesture toward emotional damage and betrayal (“Some people never seem to learn their lesson / I guess I’m one of those fools,” Branch admits on the bluesy waltz “You”) can’t help but land with more of a wallop following the public fallout.

To be clear, The Trouble With Fever was completed last year, long before the tumultuous recent events between Branch and Carney. (“While things have recently changed drastically for my family, I’d like to recognize that special creative time we had together in our bubble during 2020 and 2021,” Branch writes in a new press release; Carney has yet to issue a public statement since their separation was announced.) This album does not unpack her still-fresh hurt – although she indicates that the next one very likely will. As she puts it, “I have a lot of shit I want to write about now.”

Until then, Branch will take The Trouble With Fever on the road (a two-week, eight-show tour begins in Boston on Sept. 15) and showcase a powerful project which, she tells Billboard in our below Q&A, she refuses to let be overshadowed by tabloid headlines.

[Ed. Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.]

This album comes out in a couple weeks. How are you feeling as the release date approaches?

It’s very strange having made this through the pandemic, and this album has been finished for so long. We were thinking of releasing it in 2021, and then I found out I was pregnant with my daughter, so we pushed it back. It kind of feels like this day was never gonna come, and it’s bringing up a lot of really nervous excitement. I feel like anyone who is sitting on finished work – they start to go like, “Should I have done this differently? Oh, I should have added this!” It’s never good for me to sit on stuff for this long, and it’ll be really nice to have it out in the world.

Hopeless Romantic was your first album in over a decade when it came out in 2017, and then you started working on this one relatively soon after. What lessons did you learn from that album that you brought to this one?

This time there was no co-writing – there was no other human really seen! Because we were early-COVID locked down, so it was really a such a different writing process. It’s been a long time since I’ve written by myself and wasn’t going out to sessions. I love collaborating with people, and had gotten in the flow of doing that ever since my Nashville days with The Wreckers, being a part of a songwriting community. And this was the first time that I was like, “Okay, I’m writing songs by myself.” And it was nice to use that muscle again, and force myself to finish things on my own.

Was that nerve-wracking?

It was, and I really procrastinated on finishing the lyrics for some of them. Patrick would be like, “Michelle, we’re doing vocals tomorrow, have you finished those new lines?” And I’d be like, “Uhhhh… I guess I have to do this!” [Laughs.]

But I found inspiration in a very unlikely source. David Berman, from the Silver Jews, has a book of his lyrics that’s up in the studio. And he passed away in 2019 before I ever got to meet him or got to know him. But I attended his service, and heard all the amazing people there speaking about him – and I was crying so hard, even though I never met him. 

And for some reason, he felt like the patron saint of this record lyrically, because I would sit there as we were working, and just kind of thumb through that book. Just the cadence, the way he writes, was really inspiring to me – the way that he’s just so direct. I feel like, especially in writing sessions with songwriters, you’re always trying to be clever, and find a metaphor or whatever. And I was like, “What am I actually trying to say? I should just say it.” I just feel like I learned so much by reading the lyrics, and I would often find myself, as I was writing, saying, “What would David do?”

The Trouble With Fever sounds very different from Hopeless Romantic – your last album was a more stripped-down version of your pop style, whereas this is more exploratory, with these opulent parts with a lot of strings and cello.

It was really amazing not having the option to call people in to play stuff, because it forced us to figure it out for ourselves. A lot of times I would be like, “Hey, I’m hearing this part,” and our engineer Marc Whitmore and Patrick would be like, “What are you hearing?” It forced me to find the words — “Well, I think it’s like a marimba? And it’s doing this thing?” Trying to find the language to communicate with other people, “This is what’s in my head,” was really fun and really challenging. 

I went to town on the Mellotron doing string parts – I could not contain myself. If I didn’t have young children, I could probably just sit in a room with a Mellotron and score something, because I just enjoyed it so much. And at the very end of our session, we invited this woman here in town, Casey Kaufman, who plays cello, to come over to the house and play over some of the string parts to make it feel less synth-y, and she showed up to the studio with a mask on and homemade hand sanitizer, because that’s what we were dealing with then. 

But there was a moment when we were doing the song “Not My Lover” where I was like, “God, I really want pedal steel on this.” And Patrick was like, “Well, do you want to try it?” That was one of the funniest days, because I was sitting there for so long trying to figure out how to play this part in tune, and we were just laughing hysterically at some of it, because I’d have a pass that would be okay, and then I’d have a pass that would be so terrible. It was fun to be able to create in that way, because I think you just get so used to being like, “Oh, we should call so-and-so, because they do this, and they’re gonna be great.” Instead, it made me feel a lot like when I first started playing music and recording it – “Okay, I don’t know how to do this, but I’m gonna figure it out.”

You mentioned that this album has been done for a while – I’m sure you’re anticipating that when it’s released in a few weeks, listeners are going to pore over these lyrics and try to contextualize them and guess what they’re about. And some of these lyrics are pretty unflinching and raw. What was your mindset like when you were writing them?

I’m always kind of struggling with – when a record comes out and people want to do a track-by-track, like, “What’s this about? What’s that about?” Sometimes I like there to be a mystery around what certain songs are about – someone who’s listening to a song will find a meaning in it that I find more compelling than what it meant to me when I wrote it, because everyone is going to interpret a song differently. But I mean, I always try to pull from personal experiences, because that’s just how I’ve always written. 

I have also found this weird thing that happens sometimes with songs, where I’ll write something that is kind of… on the outskirts of something that I feel going on. And then, you know, a couple of years go by, and I’m like, “Oh, wow, I actually wrote that. And it happened.” Like, I could sense that it was going this way or that way, and it became true. I don’t know. I guess it is partially an intuitive thing, of saying something that maybe you wouldn’t want to directly come out and say in day-to-day life.

I’m sure the past few weeks have been a trying experience – 

[Laughs.] You can say that again.

Has it been difficult to focus on this album release and arranging this tour? Or has it been a positive distraction?

It has been the best distraction ever. I think if I didn’t have this record coming out, I would probably be in bed crying all day. 

It’s actually made me more excited about going out on the road and playing these shows in the next few weeks, and being reacquainted with who I am on my own, without a partner. It’s been a while since I’ve not had that creative partner with me, as far as like – going on tour, planning, rehearsing and figuring out sounds through live shows. All that stuff is so intertwined.

And seeing the amount of people who are so supportive, and ready to come out and hear these songs, it’s made me really excited to go out. I’m weirdly looking more forward to it now than I probably was, like, two months ago. Because I’m like, “Yeah, this feels good. I need this for my heart.”

I was going to ask about how much you’ve felt the very passionate support you’ve gotten online over the past few weeks — not just for everything that’s been going on, but for your music and songwriting as well.

I have felt that. And I’m really hoping this new record — I feel like there are people who still just love, love, love my first record, and keep waiting for me to redo The Spirit Room. And I’m like, “Gosh, I hope you can find a song on this new record you like!” I hope it’s not too far out there for some people to get into! Because I really loved making it, and it was really a special time for me. I’ll always think back on making this record with such fondness.

And it’s also great to get it out of the way now, because I have a lot of shit I want to write about now. This is finally leaving the nest and making room for new stuff, and that’s always exciting, too.

Picturing you playing some of these songs live, I can’t imagine how cathartic it’s going to be for you.

It’ll be like an emotional exorcism [Laughs.]. I’m really trying to figure out how to make a setlist for this tour and touch on my first two records, and the Santana song [“The Game of Love”], and some Wreckers songs, and Hopeless Romantic, and now the new record. How do I whittle down what songs I want to play? We’re on the road for such a short run this time — it’s different than if I were out for like a year with a band, and the sets could change, and we could learn every song. I just realized the other day, ”Shit, I only have two songs off of [2003 sophomore album] Hotel Paper, do I have to add more old songs?’ Because I do know that people are so connected to some of those songs.

Has your relationship to some of those songs changed in the past few years? Have you stumbled back into any of them like, “Oh wow, actually, this one is pretty great”?

We went right from making this album straight into making The Spirit Room 20th anniversary re-record. It was really interesting to go from writing original material to revisiting material that is so embedded in my brain. I would go to re-record it, and I would have this sense of, “Oh, this is what it sounds like, this instrument’s on there, this part goes like this.” And then I would go listen to the original and be like, “Whoa, that’s not on there. Why did I think that it sounded this way?” I had not sat down and actually listened to The Spirit Room in so many years. 

And knowing that I was close to my daughter’s age when I wrote it was a complete mindf–k. I’m looking at my 17-year-old daughter going, “Oh my God, I was writing all these songs when I was your age, it’s crazy.” But going from this brand new project to that re-record project made me just so proud of what I did at that age, what I did on my own. That’s probably the last album that I had written as much by myself until this record, so it was a really cool way to keep everything in perspective. And yeah, a lot of the songs it was like, “Hey, I really liked this song, I forgot about this.” “Here With Me” is my favorite song off that record now. I was like, ‘Oh, I never need to play that song.” And now I love it.

Considering the album release and tour coming up, and new writing ideas forming, is there anything that you’re hoping for yourself over the next few months? Any specific goal you want to achieve in the near future?

I just really feel like, having two young kids and being a mom, that’s isolating in itself, and coming out of a pandemic which was incredibly isolating, and coming out of a creative relationship that’s so intertwined – I’m looking forward to standing on my own two feet and reconnecting with myself, as cheesy as that sounds. I’ve been in mom mode, I’ve been in wife mode. I haven’t been in Michelle Branch mode for a while. And I feel like that’s gonna be really healing, and cathartic, and fun. So I’m really looking forward to it.

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