Homeward Bound

t just 26, singer-musician Michelle Branch has had a career with as many chapters and incarnations as someone twice her age. Her major label debut, The Spirit Room, came out in 2001 and featured the massive hit “Everywhere,” which can be heard today in those ubiquitous commercials for Chase Bank (“’Cause you’re everywhere to me/And when I close my eyes it’s you I see”). Just one year later, her collaboration with Santana, “The Game of Love,” won the Grammy Award for best pop collaboration with vocals. And in 2003, at 19, Michelle was nominated for another Grammy—this time for best new artist (she lost to Norah Jones).

It was quite a meteoric rise in a time when female pop vocalists like Britney and Christina ruled the airwaves—and the MTV video landscape—with frothy, contrived bubblegum dance tracks. Michelle was the anti-Mouseketeer: a rootsy singer-songwriter who wasn’t afraid to strap on a guitar and bust out an acoustic set at a local bar. She was pretty, yes, but it was an approachable attractiveness that made her more girl next door than girl on a poster above every teenage boy’s bed.

In 2003, the single “Are You Happy Now?” from her album Hotel Paper was Grammy-nominated for best female rock vocal performance. During that time, Branch also tried acting, with roles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed. Then, just as quickly as she’d risen, Michelle seemed to disappear from the mainstream scene—first getting married, then having a baby, then putting out a country album under the name The Wreckers. Although the Wreckers song “Leave the Pieces” was Grammy-nominated (noticing a theme here?) and Branch’s new country duo was touring with genre superstars Rascal Flatts, some of her fans were confused, wondering, Where’s that cute girl we knew and loved from MTV?

Today, nearly 10 years after her music hit the landscape, Branch is the first one to admit that her career has been a wild ride. Now she ping-pongs back and forth between Nashville and Los Angeles with her husband, Teddy (the bass player in her touring band), and their 4-year-old daughter, Owen, and is anxiously awaiting the release of her next album, Everything Comes and Goes. It’s been in limbo for, well, longer than she would like (more on that later).

A charming raconteur who doesn’t take herself too seriously, Branch agrees to chronicle her various life chapters—and their corresponding tattoos—thus far. “I have 13 tattoos,” she says proudly. “I call them stickers. It started off when I was younger, getting smaller random stickers all over my body.”

Chapter One: Precocious Schoolgirl
Tattoo: Blue musical note on her left shoulder

Growing up in a middle-class family in Sedona, AZ (“a tourist town, very New Age hippy-dippy—a weird place to grow up”), Branch hated going to class because it interfered with her passion: playing music. She started taking voice lessons when she was 8. “I was always singing and writing melodies on my cheesy little keyboard,” she says. “My parents didn’t want to buy a piano because they didn’t think I’d stick with it. It’s obviously a much bigger purchase than a guitar. I kept begging for a piano, and when I realized that wouldn’t happen I started begging for a guitar.” She got her first guitar on her 14th birthday—a hand-me-down from her uncle. She was instantly obsessed. “I was locked in my room with it, and a chord book, and about a week later I came out in the living room and said, ‘Mom, Dad, I have something to play for you.’ When I finished they were like, ‘Oh, cool, what song is that?’ I’m like, ‘I wrote it.’ It was a very teenybopper love song called ‘Fallen.’ My favorite part about high school was writing songs about boys. And that was when they knew I needed that guitar.”

In school, Branch was that girl—an outcast who dressed in baggy pants and Beastie Boys T-shirts and blew off math class to practice her songs. “I would come to school with my guitar and play in the hallways, and everyone knew, That’s Michelle, she sings,” she says. “I was so focused on music, there wasn’t room for much else. I would ditch every class and either they would find me in the choir room or in the theater. I remember at one of my parents’ first parent-teacher conferences, they showed up to my algebra class, and the teacher said, ‘Um, she’s flunking algebra because she hasn’t been showing up for class,’ and then the drama teacher came in and said, ‘She’s not technically in my class, but she’s getting an A.’” Branch’s determination to forge a music career alienated teachers and guidance counselors. “No one would give me any support outside my house, my parents. It was really frustrating.”

Branch’s rebellion didn’t just come across in her music. Her father owned a building that was rented out by a tattoo parlor, and one day, when she was 15, she finally convinced him to let her get her first tattoo. “Looking back, I’m so surprised he let me do that,” Branch says. “My dad knew that music was gonna be part of my life, because I’ve been singing since I could talk. I think he was fine with the music note. His thought was, If I let her get this out of her system, she’ll be done. But as anyone with tattoos knows, that’s just making it worse. Once you have one, there’s no going back. I can’t remember the name of the tattoo artist, but I remember she was so nervous because my dad was there as I was getting it. She wasn’t excited to be doing it.”

As she became more serious about her music (she also plays the cello, the piano, and the drums), Branch, who was then a sophomore, decided to drop out of school. “Finally, one night at dinner, my dad turned to my mom and said, ‘You know, why does she have to go to school?’ So I left.”

Chapter Two: Record Deal
Tattoo: Asian character on her lower back, which has since been covered with “Owen Isabelle” (her daughter’s name) and black roses

Branch’s early gigs consisted of rocking out everywhere from Javelina Cantina, the Mexican restaurant her mom managed, to county fairs, PTA meetings, and Girl Scout events. Her set list included covers by Sheryl Crow, Lisa Loeb (“I stalked her in my younger years”), and Fleetwood Mac. She raked in the tips and, if it was a good crowd, she would sneak in original tracks she’d written. If the crowd seemed more interested in the TV above her head, she’d lure them back with a heartfelt rendition of Jewel’s “You Were Meant for Me.”
In 2000, she signed a deal with Madonna’s now-defunct label Maverick Records, though Branch says the Material Girl didn’t have a lot to do with her album. “She definitely was aware of what was going on, but she wasn’t that involved. I’ve only met her a handful of times.”

Chapter Three: Grammys
Tattoo: Star on her right ankle

“I would get a tattoo at different career milestones—having a record go gold or platinum, stuff like that,” Branch says. “It was so surreal. Everything on my first record happened so fast, and no one knew what to expect. To be nominated for a Grammy completely caught me off guard because I was this teen artist, and it meant that all of my peers and people I looked up to were recognizing what I was doing. It was the most flattering thing. I never dreamed of being there—I never, ever thought I’d be nominated. I wasn’t old enough to drink, so I got tattoos instead.”

She was touring with Carlos Santana, enjoying the wild success of their song “The Game of Love,” when the icon gave her some sage career advice: Don’t do drugs and don’t ride in helicopters. “He had lost his manager in a helicopter crash,” Branch says. “I have no problem staying away from helicopters; they actually freak me out.” But did she listen to his other words of wisdom? She pauses for a second, and then laughs: “A little bit.” Chapter Four: Pressure to Sex Up Her Image
Tattoos: “Left” and “Right” on her respective wrists

As her success grew, so did the label’s desire for her to be more like the scantily clad performers her age. “It actually got worse as I gained more success,” she says. “During my second record, we were going to shoot a video for my song ‘Breathe.’ The director sat me down and said, ‘I think maybe we should not have you playing guitar in this one. Maybe we call in a choreographer.’ I was like, ‘No, no, no! The only time I dance is when I drink tequila.’”

Branch also fought off the fashion advice (“They’re like, ‘Wear a rubber bustier, and we want you to have blue eye shadow’—I was dying”) and instead clung to her integrity, getting a few more tattoos along the way. “I thought it would be funny,” she says of the wrist tattoos. “A lot of people get stuff that’s really meaningful, like names or dates. People see [my wrists] and go, ‘That looks so pretty—what does it say?’ And I tell them, and then they think I’m crazy.”

The pressure to change wasn’t easy for the singer. “It was really intimidating. Being younger, being female, you feel like you should be so grateful for every opportunity you get handed and you should say yes to everything. All of this was happening as I was going through that age where you’re starting to be independent and getting a little bit angst-y, so maybe it worked to my benefit. I was wanting to revolt against everyone who was telling me what to do. I could see if someone had an angle or was trying to sneak something by me, and I would be like, ‘Don’t even try it.’ Fortunately, after I said no a couple of times, they understood not to even ask.”

Chapter Five: The Wreckers
Tattoo: A pinup on her forearm
After getting married, Branch still felt pressure from her label to do “poppy, commercial stuff.” But she wasn’t feeling very inspired. “I wanted to find a more organic singer-songwriter approach,” she says. So Branch and Jessica Harp, one of her backup singers, began writing and jamming on the bus every night. “I started getting so excited about the material that I told the label, ‘I want to make a country record.’ I think they were like, ‘Let’s just let Branch do this, and then we can get her back for a solo record.’ I had made my success on TRL as a teen artist, but I was growing up, and I don’t think they knew how to grow with me.” Branch and Harp recorded the Wreckers material and debuted it for the label. “The head of Maverick came down to listen to it, and he said, ‘Wow, it sounds classic.’ If anyone else told us that, it would be the biggest compliment ever, but we knew coming from him that it meant it sounded old and boring.”

About a week after that, Branch found out she was pregnant. “I wasn’t planning [the pregnancy] at all. I had this moment of, Great, I made a record that no one supports or believes in, and now I’m pregnant. Fantastic. The head guy at Maverick said, ‘I don’t want anyone in your band over the age of 21, and I want it really young and fun.’ And I just lost it, and I said, ‘You know what’s really young and fun? I’m pregnant! I’m gonna have a baby! That’s young and fun!’”

Chapter Six: First Solo Album in Seven Years
Tattoo: TBD

Considering that she’s chalked up 10 years in the music industry, you would think putting out her next record—her first solo country project— would be easy. “I’m really frustrated because it’s been the longest process of putting out a record that I’ve ever known,” she sighs. “I finished this record almost two years ago, and I’m stuck in this weird label bullshit.” (In short: A lot of people got fired when it was about to be released, and although she moved to the Warner Brothers Nashville label, there’s no official release date.) “I know it’s coming out this year because if it doesn’t I will lose my shit,” she says. “I’m in a weird spot. I’m anxious to get out on the road and play this music for people. I’m really proud of this record, and the most frustrating part is that I want people to hear it. I just want to move forward. It’s the worst case of bad timing ever.”

One thing she does know for sure? She’s not finished getting tattoos. “I’ve been planning an upper back piece for, like, five years,” she says, breaking into a grin. “It’s a huge ship on my back that says ‘Homeward Bound.’ Because when you’re on the road as much as we are, you’re always homeward bound.”

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