One Day, Michelle Branch Will Write a Happy Love Song

Not today, though.

Photo: Sonya Jasinski
Photo: Sonya Jasinski
Photo: Sonya Jasinski

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Nashville law enforcement just wanted Michelle Branch to be comfortable in jail. “I had a really cute dress on, and one of the police officers was a woman. She was like, ‘You’re not going to want to wear that,’” the singer says of her arrest for domestic assault on August 11. “Wait, I didn’t even think about that. She’s like, ‘It’s going to be cold in there. You should probably throw on some sweats or something.’”

In her mug shot, Branch’s hair is disheveled and her mascara smudged. What appears to be bruising around her eye is actually the port-wine birthmark she covers onstage and on the red carpet. “I just wish that I hadn’t been crying all night, so my makeup was at least intact,” she says now. “Someone made ‘Free Michelle’ shirts with my mug shot. I’m like, Wow, I’m going to buy someone’s mugs with my mug shot on it for my parents for Christmas.”

It’s been a few weeks since the Grammy winner, 39, was charged for slapping her husband, Patrick Carney of the Black Keys, after learning of his alleged infidelity on tour. In a Zoom call from her porch in Nashville, scheduled around her child-care arrangements, she’s wearing a white tee that reads “Tom Waits for no one,” which she bought on Etsy. She sounds drained, yet readied with a long list of remorseful talking points. “I’m not happy about a lot of the ways that shit went down that night, but I’m happy that — I don’t even know if it’s been a month and I can now be laughing about it,” she says. “It wasn’t ideal, but here we are.”

“Just found out my husband cheated on me,” she tweeted and deleted that night, before naming the woman and her workplace, “while I was home with our 6 month old daughter.” Then came the slap, which she readily admits to. According to the police report, the call came around 2 a.m., though it’s unclear who made it. After making bail, Branch released an emotional statement announcing their split, and within the day filed for divorce. (The domestic-assault case was later dismissed.)

It was a short episode of rock-and-roll drama from the woman most remembered as an earnest singer-songwriter from the early aughts, performing on TRL with a blue guitar that matched her Converse. The little sister who just missed the moment of Lilith Fair, she occupies a sunny space in the millennial heart, her Snapple-sweet voice scoring rom-com trailers and road trips.

Which might be why, when she posted about the alleged affair, 30-somethings circled the internet wagons. “You fuck with the Branch, you get the whole tree,” warned one Twitter user. Said another: “Michelle Branch hive we ride at dawn.”

That the incident came just before the release of her new album, The Trouble With Fever, and amid a summer of celebrity theatrics so complicated they require TikTok explainers, carried the whiff of a promo. That’s never been Branch’s style, though, and her impassioned statement that day — “To say that I am totally devastated doesn’t even come close to describing how I feel for myself and for my family” — was a rare thing, neither icily deliberate legalspeak nor woo-woo conscious uncoupling.

“I’m the kind of person that probably overshares. If you met me at a party, I would be telling you too much personal information in the first 15 minutes,” she says. “And that makes the internet a really hard place to be. But in that moment, I felt so overwhelmed with what was going on, and it was just my sounding board, I guess, for how I was feeling.”

Branch and Carney met at a Grammys party in 2015 — where, she’s said, they were the only ones not taking drugs — when he started a conversation wondering why she hadn’t made music in so long. At the time, she hadn’t released a solo studio album in 12 years, as she’d been locked in a battle with her label over their demand for more pop. Carney urged her into the studio and helped produce a set of songs working through her recent divorce from her first husband of 11 years (her former bassist, Teddy Landau) — and when her label predictably hated them, he offered to fund the record himself.

That intense collaboration led to love. “There’s nothing more romantic than telling someone that they’re going to finance your album,” Branch said, semi-seriously, in a 2017 podcast episode.

The album Hopeless Romantic was released to rave reviews in April 2017, and Carney proposed that summer. They welcomed a son, Rhys, in 2018, married in 2019, and, following a miscarriage in 2020, had a daughter, Willie, in February 2022. Following the explosive events of last month, they have suspended divorce proceedings for six months and are in therapy that Branch says is long overdue. She’s not ready to give up just yet.

“This doesn’t happen in solid marriages, does it? Maybe this had to happen in order for us to actually deal with our shit that we’ve been sweeping under the rug and be stronger,” she says. “That’s both of our hope. I love him. I have two beautiful babies with him. It sucks that it took this for us to actually do the work.”

(Carney’s team has not provided comment here or elsewhere, a possible indication that he’s learned his lesson on a few fronts; during his divorce from his first wife Denise Grollmus, in 2010, both parties trashed each other in the press, with Grollmus admitting to violent drunken fights and tour-related infidelity on both of their parts. “There’s a reason why there are clichés about musicians,” Branch says coolly.)

Carney produced and plays on much of the new album, which features songs written as far back as 2011 but feels like a deeply COVID-induced collection. “I found myself in March 2020 realizing that I couldn’t just drink wine and have dance parties in my living room every day, that the pandemic was not going to just be two weeks long,” Branch says. “Okay, well, now what do I do with my time? And Patrick suggested that we go in the studio.”

Social distancing meant the couple couldn’t invite studio musicians or co-writers into their home studio easily. “We had to roll up our sleeves and do everything ourselves,” says Branch, who experimented with a pedal-steel guitar, a Mellotron, keyboards, and a vibraphone, which looks like a gigantic xylophone with a pedal. “It was really cool to be able to stretch my wings and try stuff that I hadn’t tried before.” The result is an assembly of sexy autumnal music, occasionally rich with warm strings. Branch’s voice is sometimes keening in a manner that recalls Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries, a comparison she accepts cheerfully.

Though the album was recorded far before last month’s marital spat, it’s tempting to seek out lurking tension in the lyrics. The second single, “Not My Lover,” has verses that echo the wistfulness of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” (“Try to understand / this wasn’t what I planned / It just got out of hand / a woman and a man”) before exploding into an angry, yell-along chorus about not recognizing your partner: “You are not my lover! You are not my lover!”

“I’ve tried so hard to write happy love songs, and it’s really difficult to me. They just sound so cheesy,” she says. “Maybe one day I will write a happy love song.”

Some of the songs were inspired by her first divorce, she says, as well as her single stint and the love lives of her girlfriends. “When I wrote The Spirit Room, I was writing songs about love and life, how I thought they were going to happen,” she says of her first album, released when she was 18. “And here I am with three kids, nearing 40 — I’ve been divorced, I’m having marriage drama yet again, learning life just keeps coming at you.” The weariness returns to her voice. “I’m sure that 20 years from now, I’m going to see a picture of me now and be like, You thought you knew.”

Branch in her studio. Photo: Sonya Jasinski

The promotion for The Trouble With Fever, aside from requiring rounds of public penance, feels like Branch’s return from maternity leave, she says, after years straight spent indoors and isolated with nursing tanks and burp cloths. “It’s like, clothes, yay! Putting makeup on, what a concept,” she says. In one music video, she vamps in elbow-length gloves, clip-in bangs, and purple eye shadow smoked to her brow bone. Her two youngest kids visited the shoot, with 4-year-old Rhys delivering a doctoral thesis of a question.

“He walked into the set and I was all dressed up and he went, ‘Are you a mom?’” she laughs. “I don’t know if they really know what Mom does, because it has been lockdown since Rhys was really small.” But they know her voice, as she sings lullabies nightly. “It was just ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ and normal bedtime songs for a long time, and then he started to get bored and I found that he’s really into Patsy Cline,” she says.

Parenting tiny people is a little more tiring in her late 30s than it was with her oldest child, whom she had at age 22 with Landau. Owen is now 17, the age Branch was when she signed with Maverick Records, and the milestone has her reconsidering her own parents’ support. “They let me move to Los Angeles on my own when I was 16 years old. Only recently I’m like, ‘What the fuck were you thinking, Mom and Dad? Really?’” she says. “My dad was like, ‘Michelle, you were going to go whether we supported you or not.’ It’s funny,” she laughs. “I want to hold onto the reins so tightly.”

She received plenty of flak from “people older than me, who made a lot of money off of me, basically” about getting married and pregnant so young, at the height of her fame. “I look back on it and realized I was looking for some way to be in control of my own life,” says Branch. She credits having a kid for “being able to keep me grounded and focused and sane during all of that.”

Grounded, and away from the paparazzi’s lenses. Branch, too, caught the documentaries about her MTV comrade and fellow young mom Britney Spears and felt relieved she’d been able to narrowly escape that experience. “When she shaved her head and was followed to that extent, it’s horrible to watch because that tabloid culture was all just starting,” she says. “I’ve always tried to not allow that kind of energy into my world, because I don’t think I can keep my head on straight. You obviously see what happens when I take to Twitter,” she cracks carefully.

Motherhood also allowed her to shed the rage she has expressed about her career not going exactly the way she had envisioned. In another memorable internet rant, posted on the message board of her website circa 2005, she complained, being “a famous musician has brought nothing to my life besides strife … I’m sick of sucking dicks to get my music heard, putting on a fake smile, and saying things that are acceptable.” Now, she deeply appreciates what that early success — platinum sales, Grammy nominations and MTV Video Music Awards, multiple collaborations with Santana, appearances on TV teen dramas like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and One Tree Hill — has and still is affording her. “I get to make whatever kind of records I want to make, and release them whenever I want to make them, and tour whenever I want a tour. This is, to me, the ultimate luxury,” she says. “I’m happy that I’m not beating myself up for not being as successful anymore. As soon as I let go of that, I found peace.”

In March, Branch was breastfeeding her daughter while watching Gilmore Girls. In a scene from 2003, Rory asks her ex’s new girlfriend what kind of music she likes. When she chirps about Michelle Branch and Matchbox Twenty, it’s played for laughs, an indicator of her vapidness. The singer playfully posted it to her Instagram, in on the joke. She no longer minds the framing of her pop past, if she ever did.

“I’ve been thinking about it a lot, because I recently rerecorded The Spirit Room for the 20th anniversary,” she says. Listening to those songs in depth, she had an epiphany that her fans have long known. “All these insecurities I had around the record — and wanting to prove myself as a real artist and not just a teen pop act or whatever — but I’m like, Damn, you made a really good record when you were a teenager!’”

For the new record, she’s doing a quick run of shows this month, with hopes for a longer tour next year. “It makes it a little bit complicated, having a 7-month-old, to tour extensively,” she says. Baby Willie is coming along, as Carney is still on the road right now. “Playing shows is something that I need for me and my sanity,” she says. “I’m fortunate that I get to do it and reconnect with a part of me that I haven’t really nurtured for a while.”

She’s a bit worried, though, about Carney’s plans to attend her shows; her fans have pelted every Instagram she’s posted of him, stretching back years, with angry insults. “‘You’re six-foot-four and you’re going to walk into the Troubadour? You might get drinks thrown at you, are you sure?’” she says. She had seen the comments and memes, and “it was keeping me and my circle of girlfriends very entertained,” she says. “Patrick, poor Patrick, not so entertained by the shit that went his way throughout all of this.”

At the end of her Zoom session, a wooden peace sign nailed to the wall over her head, she issues one last edict about the events of August. “Violence is never the answer. I know that. So for those people online who are saying I’m abusive, I’m not,” she says. And? “Don’t slap somebody, even if you find out that they were cheating on you.”

She acknowledges the cliché that the pain will make great fodder for songs, another new instrument to experiment with. “I can’t help but process stuff in my own life that way,” she says, swirling her hands around her head. “Hopefully it won’t be a horrible breakup record; hopefully it’ll finally be my happy love songs. I don’t know. But more life lived, more stuff to write about.”

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