Closest Thing to Heaven
You Got Me Where You Want Me
I'm a Man
Not My Lover
When That Somebody Is You
Beating on the Outside
Back in 2017, Michelle Branch released Hopeless Romantic, her first album in 14 years, marking a shift in her career. Her youthful pop rock had become matured bluesy rock, a textured sound. Now, half a decade later, she’s back with an even bolder evolution. The Trouble With Fever, the result of those five years, showcases her immense talents: everything from a new interest in somber pedal steel (“Not My Lover”) to empathetic ruminations on the male experience (“I’m a Man”).
Branch and her now-estranged husband Patrick Carney, of The Black Keys, worked on the collection at home in Nashville, largely writing and recording during lockdown. “We were in isolation; we couldn’t call outside session players,” she tells Apple Music. “Necessity is the mother of invention, and I played a lot of instruments I’d never played and wrote the bulk of the material on my own. It felt really good because I hadn’t really written the bulk of an album worth of material since [2001’s] The Spirit Room. If I didn’t have kids, I could just put my headphones on and sit there with a Mellotron and a glass of wine and just hours would go by,” she laughs.
And it’s well worth the wait. “I kept coming back to this feeling of cabin fever, sleepless nights of wondering what was happening in the future and thinking about the past. The title encapsulated these 10 songs in a perfect way.” Below, Branch walks Apple Music through some of the key tracks from The Trouble With Fever.
“I’m a Man”
“‘I’m a Man’ was written in March of 2020, which surprises people because when it was released, it was on the tail of Roe v. Wade being overturned. I kept having this chorus idea, ‘I’m a man,’ and here I am, very much not a man, going, ‘What do I know about being a man?’ As hard as it is to be a woman, I’m so fucking relieved to be a woman. I’d much rather be a woman than a man. I was trying to figure out how to tell that story, but I kept coming back to my own experience of being a woman: everything from walking down the street and having some strangers tell you to smile, to not having autonomy over my body, to dealing with, like, ‘Here I am, home with the kids’—not this generalized view of a woman. But here I am, at home with the kids, making dinner and cleaning the kitchen. We fall into the roles that we’re given because of our gender. I’m happy that it’s being seen as a protest song. When I was a teenager, I would’ve shied away from talking about a topic like that. But now, at 39 years old, in the climate that we’re in, I can’t afford not to speak out about it.”
“Not My Lover”
“The pedal steel is the loneliest-sounding instrument there is. It just sounds like tears. I have been wanting to learn how to play pedal steel for years and have been really frustrated every time I sat down and tried. Mark, our engineer, and Patrick were very patient with me because it was not in tune for a lot of the passes. Another instrument that I really went to town on and enjoyed was [the Mellotron]. I just kept writing string parts on the Mellotron.”
“There’s strings on almost every song. I can’t take all the credit for the cello, but I wrote all the parts. We called a woman who lives here in town, Casey Kaufman. We called her down to overdub some cello at the very end, and she showed up to the studio. We all had masks on; she brought us homemade hand sanitizer. She came in and she put a live cello over some of my string parts that were played with the synth, so they would sound a little more real.”
“When I get stuck lyrically, I love to read poetry. What I loved most about reading this David Berman book [Actual Air], I love the way that he approaches his storytelling. There’s inner rhymes that aren’t so obvious, and there are words you wouldn’t normally expect to hear in a song. There’s just so much character to what he writes. There’s a song on the record called ‘Fever Forever’ that was really inspired by David, lyrically. I don’t come anywhere close to his genius, but I find myself in these situations where I’m like, ‘WWDD? What would David do? What would he say?’ ‘I’m buzzing like a goddamn honeybee’ is one of [my] lines that I’m like...it’s David-adjacent.”
“Believe it or not, one of the first songs written. I have had a chorus since 2017. We started recording it, the verses didn’t exist, and I was just really struggling with finishing it. Patrick kept teasing me, saying, ‘There’s something about it that reminds me of a Nickelback song, ‘How You Remind Me.’ Hopefully, a musicologist doesn’t hear this and say, ‘Actually, you’re right, and you should be sued.’ It was a tough nut to crack, and it was saved by Patrick approaching the verses differently and playing the bassline differently. It gave this whole new life to this idea I’d been struggling to get on paper. Once the ending came along and that guitar part came in, I was like, ‘OK, this is an album closer. This just feels right as an album closer.’”