Sturdy Branch

Sometimes it seems the path to teen-pop stardom is traveled by supersonic space rocket. Drawing from our nation's apparently abundant pool of singing and dancing dream prom queens, new Mandys, Krystals and Christinas are discovered, groomed, prepped and launched into the pop music limelight faster than George Jetson carpooling daughter Judy and her friends to Orbit High. They invade our collective psyche, torture young libidos, then -- just as jet-propelled -- retire to careers as MTV game-show regulars before we ever get to know them beyond the depth of their belly buttons.

But sometimes, as in the case of Sedona teen Michelle Branch, the road to success is traveled by golf cart. And sometimes, golf cart is better.

"I met my future manager when he was vacationing in Sedona," goes the effervescent 18-year-old's story. "He got roped into a time-share tour, and the woman giving him the tour was a family friend of ours."

In a twist of fate that could only happen in Arizona's touristy red-rock oasis, the prospect told the family friend he was from L.A. and he was in the music business.

Like almost everyone in the small, artsy town, the saleswoman knew of young Michelle's talents. Her supportive, free-thinking parents -- think Steven and Elise Keaton, if Mallory ever really had any musical talent -- had been coaxing their pretty prodigy onstage at every fair and art festival they could find. So while the L.A. hotshot was busy pouring over the vacation brochure, the friend speed-dialed the Branches' number and told Michelle to get down there, fast.

"I was only 15, and my parents were out at the time," Branch says, "so I jumped in a golf cart and I went down there and met him. He called me about a month later, and that was where it all began."

At the time, Branch was playing acoustic guitar and singing wide-eyed folkie songs for the local art festival trollers. With the backing of her parents, Michelle had even recorded an independent CD, Broken Bracelet, which showcased her assured, strong voice on a handful of well-crafted originals and a charmingly waif-like take on Rickie Lee Jones' hopeful ode, "Stewart's Coat."

If that music mogul checking out the trade-up options at Sedona's latest vacation resort had put Branch on the immediate fast track, her major-label debut might have come at the unfortunate tail end of a wave of feisty chicks-with-guitars, landing Branch in the CD bins just as fickle record buyers were beginning to tire of all the Melissas, Sheryls, Jewels and Merediths, swinging low-slung guitars around their slim midriffs.

But something funny happened on Michelle Branch's way to becoming the next Lisa Loeb. She became the anti-Britney.

As it happened, Branch's big-label debut four months ago, on Madonna's Maverick Records, arrived at the precise moment the TRL crowd was finally voting to retire all the pre-fab pop princesses the music biz has been tantalizing us with ever since Britney Spears hit big as the world's naughtiest schoolgirl in her January, 1999 coming-out video. Since the release of The Spirit Room, and its appropriately named first single "Everywhere," young pop fans have been filling Internet message boards with breathless proclamations heralding their new discovery. Suddenly, the age-old image of the girl with the guitar is being received as something revolutionary. Again.

"Awesome!" raves Lindzee K on the Rolling Stone message boards. "I have been waiting for a girl like Michelle Branch: a great voice with musical talent. I was getting sick of all that pop crap like Britney, Christina and Backstreet Boys. None of them have any musical talent at all! They just sing -- with tons of electronics, I might add -- and dance to stuff they didn't even think of. Michelle's song 'Everywhere' is great, and she made it up herself!"

Victoria Davis of Corpus Christi, Texas -- a 14-year-old MTV devotee who started the Web site "Attack TRL" in an amazingly well-strategized campaign to put Branch's video for "Everywhere" at the top of the Total Request Live daily countdown -- explains why pop fans her age are rooting for Branch to topple all the Jessica Simpsons and Christina Milians from the top five.

"She's so different," Victoria gushes. "She plays guitar, and she writes from the heart, and she's got more of a rock edge. She's so much more than your average pop star/Britney wanna-be."

Michelle herself insists she isn't on any personal quest to unseat Princess Brit. "Hey, I wish I could dance like that!" she laughs good-naturedly. But she thinks she has a clue why so many young listeners are reacting to her as the answer to their collective prayers.

"The thing is, a lot of my peers, a lot of my friends, we got into record buying when the teen pop thing really came on the scene," she theorizes. "And so a lot of my age group has actually never seen a live band play. A lot of them have seen track acts," she says, referring to the now-popular tactic of taking young singing sensations on the concert tour circuit backed with nothing but recorded music tracks. "I give them a real rock show -- and for a lot of kids, that's something new."

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 Room that 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.

But Branch, who admits she feels "so awkward" whenever she has to do a photo shoot and would rather play all-ages shows that allow her sizeable Radio Disney and Nickelodeon audiences to be inspired by her girl-with-guitar example ("I couldn't even get into my own shows!"), is apparently a long way from trying to alter her image, à la the newest Britney incarnation.

"I'm pretty happy the way I am," she says, "but then, nobody created this image for me. This is really who I am," she laughs. "This is me!"

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