Remember how exciting it used to be – when we were younger, and less measured about such things – to discover an emerging band or artist that sounded like they were making songs just for you? And how much of a thrill it was to finally get your hands on their debut album, after weeks and months of hearing the first couple of singles on the radio? Ten, eleven, maybe twelve tracks to get to know them. I miss CD liner notes, you know. I always used to be disappointed when bands chose not to include their lyrics. I always wanted to have the exact words in front of me, straight from the songwriter’s head.
I played Michelle Branch’s first record (The Spirit Room) endlessly on a CD Walkman. It was late 2001. Maybe you remember Branch – maybe you’re one of the seemingly few people to recall this pop-rock anthem from 2001, or maybe you’re a Buffy fan:
The Spirit Room is a reasonably solid pop album – as well as ‘Everywhere’ and ‘Goodbye To You’, there are more than a handful of tracks that bear returning to. Though it failed to make much of an impact in the UK, it went platinum twice in the US. But it’s Branch’s follow-up that’s forever lodged in my heart. Released in summer 2003, just before Branch turned 20, Hotel Paper is one of those albums that on the rare occasion I play it in order and in full, I know exactly which intro I’ll hear next as each track fades out. In other words, because this record came out when I was 13, I know it like I know my own reflection. It’s in my blood because it soaked through my skin at a time when I was most permeable.
Hotel Paper storms in with the question we’ve all wanted to ask every lover who has ever let us down. ‘Are You Happy Now?’ is a snarling break-up anthem, with cool, controlled verses, and choruses where Branch lets her voice soar. That’s a word I’ve had to delete a few times while writing this, because there isn’t a better way to describe her powerful vocals. Soaring is what her voice does – at least on her two first records. But more on that later.
‘Tuesday Morning’ is a gorgeous ‘morning after’ song; a track you can’t help but turn to in times of romantic uncertainty. “Tuesday morning, in the dark / We were finding out who we are” ventures the chorus, and it’s the perfect thing to play when you wake up alone with their scent still on your sheets and their taste still in your mouth. There’s a slight melancholy to it, as there should be in all great love affairs, but it’s only the fourth full-length track on the album, which is a good sign. We may yet get a happy ending.
But not right away, because next up is piano ballad ‘One Of These Days’. You only really need three chords to write a song – you can chuck in one or two more for the sake of interest, but the basic architecture of most great songs is three chords. And ‘One Of These Days’ makes this case beautifully; stick a capo on the first fret of your guitar and play Am, Dm, G. No, slower than that. Perfect, isn’t it? “Did I make you nervous? Did I ask for too much?” sings Branch, lyrics that resonate more with me now than they did 17 years ago.
And Hotel Paper is a surprisingly mature album overall, especially when you remember that Branch wrote it before she turned 20. Compare it with Avril Lavigne’s sophomore effort – and don’t get me wrong, I can defend Lavigne at length – and you’ll see what I mean. Lavigne turned the teen angst up to eleven on her second record, while Branch sounds wiser for having loved and lost, rather than tortured by the fact. Branch is also more open to experimenting; witness ‘Love Me Like That’, a country duet with none other than Sheryl Crow, and the moody ‘Til I Get Over You’, with some of its lyrics sung in French.
The second single off Hotel Paper was Breathe which, somewhat strangely given its huge chorus and radio-slick production, didn’t chart highly. Sure, it’s a little formulaic, but it’s also pure sunshine, and Branch’s vocals are gutsy enough to elevate it beyond mere pop landfill. It’s The OC’s Ryan and Marissa on the Ferris wheel; it’s every heavily-built-up-to kiss on every CW show ever.
The album closes with tiny, shimmering ballad ‘It’s You’, and if there’s a neater synopsis of what love feels like than the lyric “the light changes when you’re in the room”, I’ve yet to hear it. We do get a happy ending, after all. Briefly.
In a way, the most significant thing about this record is the long silence that followed it. Hotel Paper ended up having to do a lot of work; it was all we had of Branch for well over a decade. From 2004 to 2007, she performed as part of country duo The Wreckers, but she then spent the next few years stuck in what you might call ‘label hell’. Between 2010 and 2012, announcement after announcement came – the next album would be called West Coast Time, and it was pretty much ready to go. It would be released soon. It was coming. Then the updates stopped. It later came out that a combination of staff changes at her label (Warner Bros.) and executives not wanting her to change musical direction meant that Branch simply wasn’t able to release the music she was producing.
But in 2015, she was finally dropped by Warner Bros. and met Black Keys’ drummer Patrick Carney at an industry party. He asked why she hadn’t released anything for years, and when she told him, agreed to finance the recording of new material. Because that way, if she was dropped again, she still owned the songs. They became a couple during the making of Hopeless Romantic, her new label gave the album the go-ahead, and the record was finally released in spring 2017. It had been 14 years since Hotel Paper.
Hopeless Romantic is an altogether more low-key listen; there are far fewer acoustic guitars and a lot more synths, and Branch takes a more laissez-faire approach to the vocals. There’s less belting and swooping; it feels like she’s letting her powerful voice work with the music rather than trying to sail above it. This is in part thanks to Carney – he told her not to sing so hard. ‘And the minute he said that, a light bulb went on,’ she told Spin.
Branch played one date in London in March 2017 to celebrate the release of the record, an intimate show upstairs at the Lexington in Islington, and there was no way I was missing it. The atmosphere at that gig was unlike any other I’ve experienced; the sense that everyone in the room had been waiting years for this moment was palpable.
She closed the show the only way she could, with the hit she broke out with back in 2001. But this was new Michelle; she stood alone and played a deliciously fuzzy, almost grungy version, turning the pop-rock smash into something altogether darker, sadder, and somehow sweeter. Reader, I sobbed from start to finish.