Singer-songwriter Michelle Branch is speaking with Yahoo Entertainment via Zoom from her home studio in Nashville, where she recorded her fourth studio album, The Trouble With Fever, during the pandemic lockdown with her husband, Patrick Carney of the Black Keys. “This is where it happened,” she says softly.
Full disclosure: Branch’s Yahoo interview was supposed to take place during the week of Aug. 11, but it was postponed when, on that day, Branch shockingly announced her separation from Carney after three years of marriage and two children, accusing him of infidelity. Then, on Sept. 13, it was reported that the musical power couple had actually called off their divorce — at least for the time being — and were working on a reconciliation.
Branch is understandably unwilling to get into the gory details of her marital troubles, particularly her arrest for domestic assault after she confronted and slapped Carney “one or two times.” (The charges against her were later dropped.) But given the fact that she and Carney have had a longstanding creative partnership (he also co-produced her previous album, 2017’s Hopeless Romantic), the subject of their personal and professional union is hardly off-limits.
“I mean, he’s the father of my children. I love him very much. I think in a perfect world, we’ll figure out a way to make it work,” Branch tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I don’t know. It’s just still so fresh and so raw. But there’s a deep friendship at the basis of our relationship. So, hopefully that will still be there, regardless of what happens in our marriage.”
Today, Branch seems to be in a good mood, although she points out with a self-deprecating chuckle, “It’s because I was crying all morning! I got it out. Um, I’m OK. I mean, it changes by the hour, honestly. Some days I’m good and some days I’m not, so it just depends. It’s nice to have work to distract me.”
One might imagine that what has transpired in Branch’s personal life has thrown much of The Trouble With Fever into a new light for her, and that she might have even contemplated delaying/shelving the album or going back into the studio to retool it. But she is very at peace with and proud of the record, exactly the way it is.
“I’ve been able to kind of compartmentalize the album and what’s been going on recently. I feel like my creative working relationship with Patrick is something that I really value. That’s not tarnished, and what we worked on together isn’t tarnished. He’s always been such a huge advocate and supporter of me in that regard. So, I have been able to kind of separate it,” Branch explains. “I finished this record in 2020, and I have been sitting on it for so long. It was going to be released, and then I found out I was pregnant with my daughter, Willie. So, then it got pushed back again. So, for me it’s just like a snapshot in time, and I want it out. I think I’m just happy to make creative space for the next thing, release this, and start focusing on the future.”
While Carney has a co-producer credit on The Trouble With Fever, Branch, the album’s sole writer, had more creative control than she’d enjoyed since the start of her career two decades ago. “I feel like, ironically, the last time that I had this much say in an album was on The Spirit Room, my first record, when I wrote most of those songs back then on my own in my teenage bedroom,” she muses. “With this record, because of what was happening in the world [with the COVID-19 lockdown], I didn’t have any co-writers. I didn’t have any session musicians. … So, it was the first time I’ve rolled up my sleeves and was like, ‘OK, I’m going to do this!’ Some parts took a lot longer, and some parts opened up a whole new world where I was like, ‘OK, here, I found it.’ But it was great to know that I can do it. I don’t know if I necessarily want to turn around and now start producing records, because it’s a lot of pressure, but I know now that I can. I can’t believe it’s taking me 39 years to figure it out.”
Another realization that Branch is experiencing at age 39 is “therapy is incredible!” She only recently started fully taking control of her mental health, and she says, “I find a lot of solace in therapy and in doing the work. And so, if anyone is out there and waiting for a sign to talk to somebody, go talk to somebody, because it’s taken me 39 years to start going to therapy! … I find it incredibly helpful. I feel like I’m in a better place now than maybe if I was in my twenties and this [divorce scandal] had happened, because I don’t know if I would’ve reached out and talked to anybody else about it besides, you know, my friends or whatever. My friends were laughing because I was like, ‘You guys, I’m obsessed with therapy now!’ And I think I could go every single day.”
Songwriting has always been its own form of therapy for Branch, and one of the particularly emotional tracks on The Trouble With Fever is “I’m a Man.” The song was one of the first written for the album, but it certainly resonates all the more in 2022, given what is going on not only in Branch’s marriage but in the news cycle regarding women’s rights. (The chorus says, “I’m a man, and I’m out of control/And I can’t help myself, and I can’t let it go,” and also features the standout line, “I’m so tired of being told by everybody/That I can’t make decisions about my own damn body.”)
“‘I’m a Man’ was written in March of 2020,” Branch explains. “I oftentimes just kind of hum gibberish to melodies till they kind of form lyrics, and I kept coming back to ‘I’m a man, I’m a man.’ And I was like, ‘Why can’t shake this lyric? Like, what do I know about being a man?’ And the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ was being thrown around a lot, and I started thinking of the pressure that men do have to put a roof over someone’s head, take care of a family, and all of the different obligations of what it means to be a quote-unquote ‘man.’ And then I started thinking about how it feels to be a woman on the other side of that coin, and everything that we have to deal with and how far we still have to go to even be equal.
“A lot of people were asking if I had written it more recently, because of the timing of it being released with the overturn of Roe v. Wade, and it wasn’t written recently,” Branch continues. “You know, this has been going on for a long time, unfortunately. And here we are in 2022 and this is still up for debate. It’s shocking. It doesn’t make any sense. I’m a mother of three and I’m nearly 40, and I can’t make decisions about my body — and that makes me pissed-off. So, that’s what that song is written about. I remember being in the studio when I first came up with the chorus and I was singing it into the microphone, and Patrick was at the board and he’s like, ‘What are the lyrics? What are you saying? You can’t just trash half of the people on Earth!’ And I was like, ‘No, I don’t see it as like trashing people.’ I have empathy for the pressure of what it must be to be a man, but in the same sentence, like… men, come on! Show up for us! Like, where are you?”
Now that The Trouble With Fever is finally out this week, Branch is excited to return to the road, with her infant daughter Willie in tow — although her touring schedule, as well as Carney’s, could prove especially challenging as she and Carney try to get their marriage back on track.
“Being able to see Patrick going out on the road right now and struggling with the fact that he’s not home and not able to see the kids as much has given me a new perspective of what it must be like to be a male leaving your family. It’s hard. I mean, there are days when my son, who just turned 4, is in tears, like: ‘I want Daddy to be home! Why does Daddy have to play concerts?’ It sucks sometimes. And I’m getting ready to leave in less than a week on tour. And I’m going to bring my daughter with me, because she’s 7 months old and I’m still breastfeeding. I’m going to leave my [older] kids with the nanny, and Patrick will be in and out from tour, and grandparents come in. It takes a village. … Normalize musician motherhood!”
However, Branch is eager let her songs — both new and old — be heard before she moves on to the next professional and personal chapters of her life. “I’m feeling strong for this [tour],” she says. “The shows, that’s what’s kind of keeping me going. There is an excitement about getting back on the road and playing those shows. Hopefully I won’t lose it and start crying onstage somewhere. … Just the other day I was rehearsing [the 2002 hit] ‘Goodbye to You,’ and I was thinking of the line ‘the last three years were just pretend,’ and that line hit me like a f***ing a ton of bricks. It’s just one of those things that music just songs will change meanings here and there. And I’m sure as I go out on tour and start playing them, I’ll find new meanings from what I wrote them about.”
And as for what actually comes next, Branch admits that she’s barely thought past “getting through this tour” and figuring out what she’s going to pack, but her fifth album might even be more personal and vulnerable than The Trouble With Fever. She certainly has a lot to write about.
“I feel like I have a bunch of songs in the waiting room, just waiting for me to just have a minute to pay attention,” Branch says. “And ironically, I think I’m going to have more time to do it on tour when I’m away, when I can be apart from the house and away from the kids and have time to focus on it. I’m sure it’ll come pouring out. At least that’s how I feel right now. … Definitely, I feel like it’s time to get some of this stuff out on paper.”
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