Michelle Branch was flipping between MTV and VH1 the other day when it hit her.
At 26, the one-time pop princess is hopelessly out of step with pop.
“I felt like an old lady,” Branch giggled, “I didn’t know hardly anybody they played.”
Branch is OK with that. More than OK, actually.
She’s moved to Nashville with her husband and young daughter and become ingrained in country music, first as a member of The Wreckers with pal Jessica Harp and now as a solo artist about to release her country debut, “Everything Comes and Goes,” this fall.
“I’ve never been in a community where writing is so important,” said Branch, who grew up in Arizona. “When I get together with my girlfriends for a girls night out, we bring a bottle of wine and end up writing a song. Where else does that happen?”
While still in her teens, Branch had three Top 20 pop hits between 2001 and 2003, including the Grammy-winning “The Game of Love” with Santana.
She was lumped with fellow rising stars Avril Lavigne and Vanessa Carlton and appeared on TV shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Charmed.”
But Branch says that, even then, she began feeling out of place.
“I was feeling like I didn’t really fit when my second record came out,” she said. “I remember the week my record came out Beyonce’s record came out at the same time, and I’m like, ‘How in the world do you guys expect me to compete with this? We’re not the same person.’
“I felt like everyone was expecting me to be a dancer girl up on stage, and it made me uncomfortable because I really just wrote songs and just felt comfortable playing my guitar and singing.”
Appreciation for country fansBranch found refuge with The Wreckers, a duo she formed in 2005 with Harp. Country radio looked past her pop roots, and The Wreckers hit big with “Leave the Pieces” and “My, Oh My” and were nominated for a Grammy Award.
“Country fans have always been open to people from other formats, and that goes all the way back to Jerry Lee Lewis,” said Ed Salamon, executive director of the Country Radio Broadcasters trade group. “When it’s really organic, as I think it was with The Wreckers, radio and fans recognize that.”
But as suddenly as they’d arrived, The Wreckers were gone. Branch says creative differences led her and Harp to split.
“It was getting to the point where she and I both looked at each other and said, ‘You know what? If we’re going to continue to be friends and not kill each other, we should probably take a break.’
“It was a really hard decision to make,” Branch continued. “A lot of people didn’t know what was going on because we didn’t talk about it at first. But I do think it was for the better.”
Both women say The Wreckers aren’t finished, just on hold.
In the meantime, Harp and Branch will release solo discs this fall. Branch’s first single is “Sooner or Later.”
“Because there were two different people with two different influences, it was a little easier to experiment and go out of the comfort zone,” she said. “When it came time to do a solo record, I think everyone had me under the magnifying glass a little more than normal because I had that pop history.”
But in the end, Branch says she stuck with her gut. She recalls telling her label, Warner Bros. Nashville, “‘If I sound like I’m trying too hard to make a country record, this is not going to be believable to anybody.’
“I said, ‘Let’s just make the record, and it’s going to sound country because that’s the instrumentation I’m in love with and I’m writing with people here in Nashville. Let’s not overthink it.’”