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Michelle Branch emerges from ‘limbo-hell’ elated and in love again

Michelle Branch, a pop star who ruled the charts in the early 2000s, released her fourth album in April, her first solo album since 2003.
Michelle Branch, a pop star who ruled the charts in the early 2000s, released her fourth album in April, her first solo album since 2003.

Fame can be fleeting and success can be fickle, and few people in the music business know that better than Michelle Branch.

Branch was one of the most popular and successful pop stars in the early 2000s. By 2007, she’d released two major-label solo albums and “Stand Still, Look Pretty” by the Wreckers, her duo with Kansas City native Jessica Harp.

All three records went platinum or gold, and Branch had become a sought-after collaborator, most notably with Santana and the mega-hit “The Game of Love.”

But things changed quickly for Branch in 2007, the year the Wreckers broke up.

“I got stuck in this major-label limbo hell,” she told The Star recently. “After the Wreckers album, I turned in a full-length solo record that basically got shelved. That was kind of an alt-country/pop country record of songs I’d originally written for the Wreckers. A few years later, I turned in a full-length pop album that also got shelved. But I couldn’t get out of my contract. So I was stuck.”

In April, Branch released “Hopeless Romantic,” her fourth solo album. The album represents several new phases in her life, starting with her new label, Verve.

“In June 2014, I got out of my contract with Warner Bros. and that’s when I started writing this album,” Branch said. “I was also newly divorced after an 11-year relationship. Basically I’d been handed a completely clean slate. And that’s when I started writing a lot.”

In the summer of 2015, Branch went into the studio to start recording the new album with Patrick Carney, drummer for the Black Keys, whom she’d met earlier that year at the Grammy Awards ceremony, and longtime friend Gus Seyffert. Getting back in a studio was reinvigorating and inspiring, Branch said.

“It had been many years since I’d been in a studio properly,” she said. “I’d recorded some demos and stuff but not with a budget and a label. Being in the studio is my favorite part of my job or career. I love it. And I was really excited to work with Patrick and Gus.”

The recording process survived a moment of drama courtesy of a label executive at Verve.

“We did about four songs, and the former general manager of the label came in and said he hated them and refused to pay for the record,” she said.

“He was the head of the label. He came from a pop background and had worked some of my records at Warner Bros. He really wanted a poppier album.

“He thought the guitars were too aggressive. He thought it was too much of a rock record. And he definitely thought I should work with a different producer. But I dug my heels in the ground and said, ‘No, this is what I want to do. I want to see it through. I like the direction it’s headed.’ 

At that point, the record was rescued by Carney, who stepped in and offered to pay for the album himself. By the time they’d finished, that executive was gone from the label.

“If Pat hadn’t offered to pay for the record, it probably wouldn’t have been made,” said Branch. “By the time we’d finished the album and turned it in, that guy had been fired and the new label president came in and was so supportive and loved the music. So it ended up happening how it was supposed to.”

This wasn’t the first time Branch dug her heels in and pursued a project despite label resistance. She recalled similar circumstances when she and Harp recorded the Wreckers album.

“The Wreckers were a magical whirlwind,” she said. “Everyone was telling us that it wasn’t going to work. I financed that album myself. We had people at the label telling me I was crazy. Everyone wanted me to make another pop record. But it wasn’t what I was inspired by.

“I’d had Jess out on the road with me and what we were working on seemed so much more exciting than what I was working on myself. So to have it come out and be as successful as it was, seemingly overnight, was really exciting. I was really proud of that album. And I still am.

And she’s still wounded by the Wreckers’ demise.

“When the Wreckers broke up it was almost more heartbreaking and difficult than my divorce,” she said. “I really did not want to end the Wreckers. But s--- happens. Jess and I have put it behind us now. I’m going to ask if she wants to come out to the show in Kansas City and sing a song or two. Hopefully, she’ll be up for it.”

That show in Kansas City is Tuesday night at the Uptown Theater. It’s part of Branch’s first proper tour in years.

“The last time I did any kind of tour was 2011, opening for the Goo Goo Dolls,” she said. “I was promoting an album that got shelved. But that almost doesn’t count because I was only playing a six-song set.”

Branch opened this tour in Chicago on July 6, four days after her birthday, which was also the day she announced her engagement to Carney. Turns out the album that documented her life after divorce led to a renewed and reinvigorated life in more ways than one. It also restored her confidence.

“I think having been on Warner Bros. and not having my music released made me lose a lot of confidence,” she said. “I started to doubt myself because the common denominator in all of that was me. So I started to question myself. Maybe I’m not good and I’m just delusional.

“To finally have an actual album recorded and released is a huge relief. I’m elated.”

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain

Tuesday

Michelle Branch performs Tuesday night at the Uptown Theater, 3700 Broadway. Haerts opens. Tickets are $25.

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