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With Branch's acoustic-driven songs and unglamorous, girl-next-door image, some may wonder why fans even bother to contrast her with the Britneys and Christinas of the pop world. But Branch has a strong clue on that one, too.
"I think a lot of it has to do with the voice," she says, knowingly.
That voice -- breathy, close-miked and unmistakably youthful -- rings familiar to anyone who's been listening to the radio for any of the past two years. It's the "not a girl, not yet a woman" sound almost every hit-minded record producer has been trying to coax out of young discoveries since Britney and Christina first struck gold with the formula.
Rather than try to go against the sound her voice naturally resembled, Branch -- a fan of all the classic rock records her parents played while she was growing up -- was savvy enough to recognize the young female vocal sound for what it has become: a modern pop instrument in itself, more effective in today's hit factories than an amplified guitar break or an infectious bass line.
"It's funny when you think about it, because that really has become the sound just in the past couple of years," Branch admits of the vocal style evident on The Spirit Roomthat Entertainment Weekly dissed as occasionally "Mandy Moore-ish." "It's all you really hear nowadays."
A student of great pop records who intentionally included some deft "Beatle-y" touches on the 11 radio-ready tracks of her new CD ("I wanted some of my influences to be recognizable," she reveals), Branch embraced the Britney-like touches in her voice, too, layering her own harmonies over the choruses until she achieved a shimmering wall of sound even an army of A-Teens and B*Witched girls would have trouble topping.
"That was my favorite thing to do on the record," Branch says. "I really love to harmonize. Like, my family and friends, they always yell at me 'cause I harmonize with, like, everything on the radio. They're like, 'Shut up, Michelle, we're trying to listen!'"
In many ways, Branch is so much the typical teenager that people have trouble believing the expertly crafted, irresistibly hook-laden songs on her CD can really be the creation of such a young girl. That skepticism is heightened when the listener notes that half of The Spirit Room's songs are co-written by some seasoned L.A. session vets -- most notably producer John Shanks, whose credits include work with Stevie Nicks and Melissa Etheridge, and who co-wrote Branch's breakout hit, "Everywhere."
"I wasn't too happy about the co-writing credits," she confesses. "That was something I didn't know was going to happen when we went into it. Basically, I had written all the songs before starting the album. But when I went into the studio, we'd be, like, working on a song and something didn't seem right so we would try different chord progressions, or try different lyrics or melodies in certain parts."
While Michelle enjoyed the new experience of collaborating with the veteran session men Maverick had assembled for the suddenly big-budget project ("I'd never really written with anybody else"), she was unaware that all the little suggestions they offered would wind up costing her sole authorship on her songs.
To prove she really has the songwriting and playing chops, Branch has been going out of her way to demonstrate her abilities to the masses. On an appearance on TRL in September, the young hitmaker even went so far as to sit host Carson Daly down for some on-the-spot guitar lessons, showing the amiable MTV icon the various fingerings available to add the sus-4th sound to a standard G. ("He was a good sport," Branch says of the stubbly-chinned Seventeen dream date, whom Michelle even had the nerve to ask out to that week's Video Music Awards gala. "We had fun together on that.")
She considers her live appearances to be her best weapon against any doubts people may have regarding her natural abilities. "I love playing live," she says. "But most of all, I want to prove to people that I can really do it. I want people to be able to say, 'Oh, wait a minute. This wasn't all studio magic. She can pull this off live.'"
At the moment, Branch is working to prove that little fact nightly on a series of tours that seem diabolically designed to assure that this rapidly rising star really can't go home again.
"You know, I'm really bummed, because Arizona is like the one state I'm not playing in!" she complains. Opening for alt-pop rockers Lifehouse and The Calling on a tour that took her all the way from Chicago to L.A., Branch finally had to leave that tour to join a smaller one she had committed to before the record's release -- just days before Lifehouse played the Arizona State Fair.
The bar tour, a tie-in with the Kenneth Cole clothing brand that also features Maverick label-mate Jude, gives Branch a chance to do a couple of things her more provocative predecessors in the pop-princess sweepstakes might relish: unleash a more mature image for the over-21 crowd and pose seductively in Cole print ads.