Michelle Branch On Influencing Taylor Swift & Re-Recording 'The Spirit Room'
The singer reflects on 20 years of her pivotal debut album, and details her next record.
While boy bands and bubblegum pop dominated the late ‘90s, 2001 took a turn towards more R&B-centric pop and a new class of female alt-rockers. At the center of the latter emerged a guitar-wielding, singer-songwriter from Arizona called Michelle Branch. The release of her debut single “Everywhere” in July 2001 captivated pop fans with its catchy chorus and blistering guitars (not to mention its homage to teen romance). It was released ahead of Branch’s 2001 debut album, The Spirit Room, a record that showcased her songwriting talent and helped her become a blueprint for today’s pop stars.
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of The Spirit Room, Branch will be releasing a special re-recorded anniversary edition of the album as well as a vinyl version in March 2022. She’ll also be doing a livestream performance of her debut album on September 10.
Ahead of The Spirit Room re-release, we spoke to Branch about the making of the record, being an Asian American pop star in the early aughts, the future of her side project The Wreckers and her new album, due out in 2022.
The Spirit Room is such a pivotal album in pop music. How do you look back at your time recording the record?
I went into the studio in early February 2001 to write with John [Shanks] and he was on my list of a few producers to meet with. One of them was John Leventhal because he had produced "Sunny Came Home" from Shawn Colvin. I met with another producer Matthew [Bronleewe], and he produced "Torn" from Natalie Imbruglia — huge songs for me. John was on the list. He'd worked with Melissa Etheridge, and he had been working on a new Stevie Nicks record, and I was really interested in meeting with him because of it. We sat down on our first day and wrote the song "You Set Me Free" together and walked away with this really great demo. I had met with other producers, and it just didn't seem to click the way it did with John and me that day. By the time four weeks had passed, everyone thought we were working on three songs, but we had finished the album.
Did you feel like you had creative autonomy when making The Spirit Room?
Not once did someone from the label come down and chime in. I think it's really rare that we were able to do that without any outside input, especially for a new, young artist.
At the time you were rising, there were so many comparisons between you and Vanessa Carlton because you were female singer-songwriters. How do you look back on those comparisons? Have you guys ever discussed how that impacted you?
We've never talked about it. I would hear jokes through common friends. I know, there's been times where I'd go on the red carpet, and people would say, "Vanessa, Vanessa!" and I'd say, "I'm not Vanessa." And the same would happen to Vanessa, with me. We would get compared a lot because we were both brunettes, and we would be on certain radio show bills together, but never really hung out or knew each other until much later when all of that had been behind us. I just think it's a very specific feminine thing that we have to deal with. Like, I wonder if John Mayer at the time got compared to Jason Mraz or confused with him all the time. People were also quick to be like, "You're the anti-Britney." And I was like, "I'm a teenage girl. I fucking love those songs. I can't dance like Britney, but I'm not anti." If you think back to 2001, the tabloids hadn't really hit yet. There wasn't really much as far as gossip, so maybe that was just the beginning of it all.
There weren't any mainstream pop artists who were also Asian American back then. What was your experience in the music industry as a person of color at that time?
I didn't realize how important it was until I started going out on tour and seeing Asian Americans in droves at my shows, and that's when I started to realize what it meant to be a young person and see someone who looks like you on TV playing guitar. It was probably one of the biggest things that I took away from those first few years. My mom is Dutch-Indonesian: She was born in Holland, and her mother was born in Indonesia and was a refugee after the Japanese occupation and fled to Holland. My mom moved to the U.S. when she was five, and where I grew up in northern Arizona, people assumed we were either Mexican or Navajo Indian just based on the geography of where we were. No one really knew we were Asian. I knew we were Indonesian because of the food we cooked at home and whatnot, but my grandmother didn't really talk about her past in Indonesia because it was really traumatic for her. She was held in a Japanese concentration camp when she was 14. She was raped and beaten, and it was a really difficult time for my grandmother. One of my biggest regrets when she passed away was not having those conversations with her about what her childhood was like and what her experience living in Indonesia was. It only really started to hit me when I went out on tour.
What shifted on tour?
That album had huge success in Asia. I spent time touring in Japan, I went to Taiwan, I went to the Philippines. I remember a contest winner was flown to Singapore to meet me from Thailand, and she didn't speak a word of English, and the main fascination was, "I can't believe you look like me and you're an American pop star." When I finally got to go to Jakarta, Indonesia and see where my grandmother was from, there were kids who came from hours away to see me play three songs live at the Hard Rock Cafe. They were so proud that I was Indonesian, and that I looked like them. I didn't even realize how Asian I was until I had fans turn up in that way. I had never really identified as even being Asian myself. My sister and I were the rarities in our high school, and I didn't really think anything of it. I was like, "Oh, we're brunettes. We're not like the rest of the girls at school." [My ethnicity] wasn't talked about at the time, it was just kind of glossed over, and I'm so happy that things are different for my daughter who's Asian, and that she gets to turn on the TV and see a lot more people that look like her than I got to when I was her age. We've come a long way, but we have a long way to go. But it was really a massive reason for the success of The Spirit Room, I think.
“I didn't realize how important it was until I started going out on tour and seeing Asian Americans in droves at my shows, and that's when I started to realize what it meant to be a young person and see someone who looks like you on TV playing guitar.”
You're putting out a 20th anniversary edition of the album. We've seen artists like JoJo and Taylor Swift re-record their albums. How did you approach recording The Spirit Room 20 years later?
I was thinking about doing this back during the 10th anniversary of The Spirit Room and kind of missed the window. Over the years, I would get comments from people like, "Oh, my God, the version of 'Everywhere' that you do in the encore — do you have that recorded anywhere?" I started to realize that a lot of these songs do sound different from playing them for years, because I just can't sing that high, and I just thought it was a cool thing to do for fans. I wanted to strip away the dated, 2001 elements of it. It took six months to re-do because it was so hard to not want to recreate the original.
Have you ever sang karaoke to your own songs?
One of my favorite karaoke moments was the night of my wedding when we were in New Orleans. The bar closed and they had "Everywhere" queued up, and I was like, "Really, really?" It was 3 a.m., and I'm newly married, and I got up and sang "Everywhere," and everyone in the place lost their shit and was like, "Oh my God, is that Michelle?" Then I went home and consummated the marriage.
There is an overdramatic aspect to your lyrics that really resonated with pop artists that came after you. How do you see those parallels in artists today like Taylor Swift or Olivia Rodrigo?
A lot of the songs were written before I had those experiences in real life. I was daydreaming about teenage crushes and writing about them. In that aspect, we lyrically have a lot in common because when you're a teenager, you just feel things are 10 times more dramatic than they really are. Everything's the end of the world. I think a lot of people forget that The Beatles were 17 when they first started, so it's not just teenage girls writing about love.
Did you ever get feedback from Taylor Swift or other songwriters about you and how The Spirit Room influenced them directly to pick up a guitar and write?
I've had a few moments in passing with Taylor when she first started here in Nashville. We would see each other at an award show or radio show or something, and she would say, "Oh, my God, I'm such a huge fan. I loved your albums." It's so flattering. And on one of her tours she played in Phoenix, Arizona and covered “All You Wanted.” The cycle continues, and somewhere there's a little girl listening to Taylor, Olivia, Paramore or whoever and hopefully will be inspired to make music of their own.
“When you're a teenager, you just feel things are 10 times more dramatic than they really are. Everything's the end of the world.”
Last year it was announced that The Wreckers were making a comeback. What’s the status of that?
It was shocking to me we had no Instagram or Twitter for The Wreckers. I was in a car with my family driving back from Charleston to Nashville and I was texting with Jess [Harp] and I was like, “We need to get Twitter and Instagram going for the record so we can get control of our Spotify, and get back in touch and keep people in the loop.” I woke up one morning to her texting, and she was like, “Oops, I may have done something.” I had given her the login, and I was like, “Feel free to post whenever, whatever.” And she said, “I posted ‘Coming soon,’ and I think everyone's freaking out.” I was like, “Well, it's good to know that people are still into The Wreckers, and excited for the potential new music, but we're in the height of a pandemic. We can't do it anytime soon.” So, it's been a thing in my mind what the timeline would be. The Spirit Room is coming out in March, and I have a new solo record that I recorded before The Spirit Room [re-recording] that's coming out in late spring, early summer. Then, I would love to finally get in a room with Jess and start talking about another Wreckers record.
What can we kind of expect from your new solo record?
It’ll definitely be in the same vein [as Hopeless Romantic]. I made it during quarantine here at the house with Patrick. It was just me, and we had one other person come in and play strings at the very end. But it was one of those things where we were just trying to stay busy through the pandemic, and I had all these songs I was sitting on. It's finished, mixed, [and] mastered. It's called The Trouble with Fever, and it's coming out on Nonesuch in late spring, early summer. I'm so excited that I have that to look forward to.
You had an album that was held by your former label. Would you ever release that record?
I've had two albums that were finished, which is crazy. I have a country record that I made after The Wreckers and then I have a pop record that I made. The song “Loud Music” came out as the first thing and then the label head changed, everything got put on hold and then it just all kind of fell apart. I have an album called West Coast Time that was shelved and then an album called Everything Comes and Goes that was shelved. If it was possible to one day release those for people who want to hear them, it would be amazing because I know versions of them exist on YouTube if you're really determined enough to find it. I don't know legally what hoops I would have to jump through to be able to do that because those were made when I was on Warner Bros., but I'm not opposed to it. They're out there in the ether.
In celebration of the 20th anniversary of The Spirit Room, Michelle Branch will perform at a livestream event via Moment House on September 10, 2021.