After one of the worst nights of her life last month, part of which she spent in jail, Michelle Branch did something that generally makes a bad situation worse: She went on the internet. And then read the comments.
First, Branch would like to clarify that she’s “horribly embarrassed” by what happened. “Violence is never the answer,” she said in an interview this month; the incident occurred just before the September release of Branch’s first new album in five years, “The Trouble With Fever,” resulting in a suddenly very personal press tour. “I do not condone violence. That’s the biggest thing I want to say.”
But also, Branch was taken aback by the online reaction — in what may be a Twitter first, the comments actually helped. “I was reading the funniest tweets about like, ‘Oh, I would have done much worse,’ ” she said. “I think my favorite thing was someone was making ‘Free Michelle’ T-shirts with my mug shot on it and saying how they saw me wearing the ‘Free Winona’ shirt in 2001. … I was like, ‘Wow, the internet does not disappoint.’ ”
A sampling of what was out there:
“Legally what @michellebranch did was wrong. But I will ride at dawn to protect her.”
“I will go to war for Michelle Branch.”
“‘Everywhere’ by Michelle Branch was the first song I learned on guitar, and I will defend her until my dying day.”
“Who in their right minds would cheat on angel MICHELLE BRANCH.”
One tweet in particular captured the underlying reason for the intense support:
“I suspect those hurting the pop stars who personally sculpted the emotional dimensions of millennials are unprepared for the Ride or Die with Nothing to Lose power they are unleashing.”
It’s true — millennial adoration of Michelle Branch is fierce and unapologetic, and the opening notes of her hits such as “Everywhere,” “All You Wanted” and “Are You Happy Now?” (the yearning soundtracks to countless teenage crushes and heartbreaks) will cause certain people from the ages of 26 to 40 to go feral. The acoustic guitar combined with Branch’s crystal-clear vocals instantly transport a significant portion of the population back to the simpler times of watching MTV after school, dramatic AIM away messages and piling friends into a car fresh off getting a driver’s license and cranking up the radio.
Early 2000s nostalgia fuels our culture — just look at the most recent Super Bowl halftime show — and Branch is a perfect vehicle for it. She rocketed to fame as a teen musical savant who co-wrote her entire 2001 major-label debut album, the multiplatinum “The Spirit Room,” followed by the smash “Hotel Paper” two years later. She’s well-aware of the importance those albums have for a particular age demographic. On a brief cross-country tour that concludes Tuesday in Los Angeles, she’s the opposite of an artist who hates playing the hits that made them famous.
“I will never get tired of the way that an audience reacts when I play the first few notes of ‘Everywhere,’ ” she said. “That will never get old to me. I love those songs.”
And after everything that happened in the past month, and surviving the last 2½ years of the pandemic as a mother of three, she was eager to be in an emotional yet friendly space. “It felt good to see that people were so supportive,” she said. “I feel like people are going to show up to the shows so ready to sing along. And that will just be extremely cathartic.”
Branch’s tour stopped in Washington last week at 9:30 Club, and as expected, the venue was packed with fans in their 20s and 30s, scream-singing their old favorites at eardrum-shattering levels, a 90-minute escape into the glorious nostalgia of youth.
“They were just the quintessential songs of high school — a tiny bit angsty but also super catchy,” said Alyssa Green, 36.
“We were in late elementary school, early middle school, and I feel like those were critical times where you just remember everything,” said Rebecca Bailey, 30.
“Her voice is so unique,” Marissa Bricker, 27, added. “It’s not overproduced, it’s simple. When you do hear it, it takes you back to your roots.”
Michael Cadoch, host of the “Planet 2000’s” podcast, devoted an episode to “The Spirit Room” last fall after receiving many requests from listeners. He theorized one reason Branch still stands out is that she arrived amid the spate of young female pop stars — Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore — who seemed “prepackaged.” Branch, who wrote her own music and taught herself to play guitar growing up in Sedona, Ariz., seemed truly authentic and artistic.
“I didn’t feel like there was any ‘This is what she has to wear, this is what she has to do,’ ” Cadoch said. “It was the first time I had seen a female singer like that.”
At 9:30 Club, every person interviewed had seen the news of Branch’s personal life upheaval, and it changed none of their feelings toward her. Branch didn’t allude to it at all, and kept her between-song banter casual (“It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a room with sweaty strangers … I’m never going to take it for granted”). She smiled at the explosive reaction to her older hits, including the wrenching “Goodbye to You” and a slow jam version of her Grammy-winning collaboration with Santana, “The Game of Love.”
“You hear those songs over and over and it’s cemented in this era of life … that time is very important to people, and she’s associated with that,” Cadoch said. “She wrote those songs — she still does — and we’ve got to protect her.”
One new track that got the biggest cheer at the concert was “I’m a Man,” which includes the line, “I’m so tired of being told by everybody / That I can’t make decisions ’bout my own damn body.” There was rampant speculation that she wrote the song in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe v. Wade, but she actually penned it in 2020.
“It’s crazy how we haven’t made much progress in the grand scheme of things,” said Branch, recalling that after she had her third emergency C-section earlier this year, her doctor advised her not to have more children. But when she asked about getting her tubes tied, she found out her Catholic hospital didn’t allow the procedure.
“I know that there are so many people who have story after story after story, and it’s to me the most shocking that we’re here in 2022 and this is happening,” Branch said. “As a writer, I think when I was younger, I would have maybe shied away from hitting some of those topics. But as I’ve gotten older, you can’t afford not to anymore.”
One complication of “The Trouble With Fever” is that Carney co-produced the entire album with Branch when they were isolating during the pandemic — Branch had to play most of the instruments as they recorded in their garage-turned-home studio. With Carney as her creative partner for seven years, she can’t talk about the album without talking about him.
“In a perfect world, you know, I wouldn’t be in this situation. And in a perfect world, I’m hopeful that we can figure out a way to move forward and stay together. How I feel changes by the hour,” Branch said. (She and Carney have two children together; she also has a 17-year-old with her ex-husband, musician Teddy Landau.) “But I will say that the relationship I have with Patrick creatively is so important to me. And our drama of what’s going on in our marriage doesn’t overshadow our work.”
A major theme of the record is self-examination, as Branch reflected on her younger days. After back-to-back hits with her first two albums, her success continued with a country album in 2006 made with her friend and singer-songwriter Jessica Harp as the duo the Wreckers. After the duo split, Branch got stuck in record-label limbo and didn’t release her next album until 2017.
As she looks back, Branch wishes she could tell herself to try to soak everything in, even during the whirlwind of sudden fame. And that no matter what the industry dictates, the best way to maintain a career and connection to the audience is to stay yourself.
“When I was coming up, people were so quick to try to kind of pit people against each other as a competition, especially young women singer-songwriters,” she said. “If I could tell anybody younger: Do what makes you uniquely you. And there’s room for everybody.”