Belle du Jour

Having just turned 19 in July, Michelle Branch hardly looks the part of an elder statesperson in a rock 'n' roll movement.

But having scored the earliest success with a formula that's already been copied by a string of other young-chicks-with-instruments, Branch has become to the Avrils and Vanessas what Britney was to the Christinas and Mandys.

"At first, when I started seeing all these other young girls playing instruments, I was like, Wait a minute! I'm the one who's doing this! Find your own thing!'" she says, laughing. "But now I think it's really cool that not only females but both males and females of my age are coming out and playing music that's not prepackaged by people twice as old as us. And we can write about what it's like to be in our age group, about things that we care about, and be heard. I look at MTV now and I watch videos on TRL from Vanessa Carlton, Avril Lavigne, me, John Mayer, Dashboard Confessional, and I never would have imagined all of us being on the chart a year ago. It's really exciting."

Branch has already won the respect of rock's old guard. Faced with the daunting task of following up his multiplatinum collaboration with Rob Thomas on "Smooth," Carlos Santana auditioned several singers before deciding on Branch to front his new single, "The Game of Love," released to radio this week.

"There had been a lot of different artists putting down vocal tracks on that song, and I didn't know if they'd selected me or not," Branch says. "Weeks would pass and we didn't know anything. It was just so stressful. Then finally we got a call saying, Yeah, we need you in four days to shoot a video with Carlos in Chicago.' And I was like, What?' And I started crying! It was just the coolest thing."

It's been that kind of year for Branch. In the past months, she's watched her debut album go platinum, seen herself on the cover of every magazine from Blender to Glamour, flexed her acting skills (she'll play the part of Lesley Gore in NBC's American Bandstand miniseries American Dreams and a rock DJ in the next Adam Sandler flick, The Hot Chick), and walked away with the coveted Viewers' Choice Award at this year's MTV Video Music Awards. She was even among the super-fly elite who received a golden ticket to P. Diddy's renowned VMA after-party.

"It was so surreal," Branch says of the shindig, where guests were greeted with mini-bottles of Cristal and topless dancers suspended from the ceiling. "It was like one of those parties that you see in movies and you think, Nobody has parties like that.' Well, they do, and P. Diddy throws 'em!"

Not that the Sedona, Arizona, native is letting it all go to her head. The video for her latest hit, "Goodbye to You," in fact, features a moving -- if accidental -- tribute to her neighbors in northern Arizona, who lost their homes in this past summer's forest fires.

"There was a fire in the Sequoia National Forest, about two hills over from where we were filming," recalls Branch of the California shoot. "And our director wrote it into the video. I didn't know anybody who was personally affected by the Arizona fires, but I had been on the phone with my parents all summer hearing about it, and it was really sad. So I thought it was a cool part to keep in the video."

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern