Michelle Branch created The Spirit Room

Michelle Branch Released Perfect Pop-Rock LP ‘The Spirit Room’ 20 Years Ago

At only 17, Michelle Branch created The Spirit Room, an album that perfectly balances an indie approach with mainstream-friendly songwriting.

The Spirit Room
Michelle Branch
Warner Bros.
14 August 2001

The 1990s were a prolific decade for female singer-songwriters in pop-rock: Fiona Apple, PJ Harvey, Alanis Morissette, Jewel, Cat Power, Liz Phair, Sheryl Crow, Lisa Loeb, Abra Moore, pre-“Ojos Asi” Shakira — the list goes on. Somewhere between the indie attitude of the ’90s and the pop-rock made for the masses of the 2000s, a 17-year-old ended up creating a perfect album of the genre. Michelle Branch‘s label debut, The Spirit Room (2001), was just the right balance between radio-friendly pop-rock and alternative rock, with a touch of experimentation

The 11 tracks in The Spirit Room are either written or co-written by Branch and it’s felt from the album’s cohesivity and sense of intimacy. With lyrics following the style of a diary or a private letter, Branch has the freshness of an indie act. Her melodies, however, are catchy and well-crafted. She is a natural songwriter. The album makes it seem like writing catchy pop-rock songs is easy, as if all you have to do is pour your heart out without overthinking or strategizing.

Listening to The Spirit Room without much analysis, it might not seem that Branch is doing anything brilliant. After all, most songs follow the same structure of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-outro. The harmonies are rarely innovative, and the songs follow known chord progressions of each respective key. The melodies are easy to sing, and for the most part, the lyrics are easy to understand. But what any experienced songwriter knows is that it’s pretty hard to write a pop song that sounds easy to the ear and mind. In songs like “Everywhere”, “All You Wanted”, and “Goodbye to You” (the three album’s singles), Branch shows her songwriting skill. 

Every chorus in The Spirit Room masters the “rule” of stressing the sound of the vowels in the catchiest way possible. The chord progressions are not original but, well, clichés are clichés for a reason: they work. Yet, the album never sounds like it’s following a checklist for the perfect pop song: it just flows naturally. Every song feels like it’s justifying the reason why these songwriting “formulas” are created, instead of sounding as if it’s strategically following them.

The Spirit Room is convincing in its purpose to be intimate yet accessible. Lyrics like “Who wants to be ordinary in a crazy, mixed up world?” and “You’ve seen my secret garden / Where all of my flowers grow” (from “You Get Me”), and “‘Cause why would I stop the fire that keeps me going on?” (from “I’d Rather Be in Love”), sound confessional, but still relatable. Lyrics like “I know you had to go away, I died just a little / (…) I believe that I would cry just a little just to have you back” (from “Here with Me”) sound genuine in how they’re dramatic–but not too dramatic, just a little (pun intended).

Branch is good at painting a picture with her lyrics and music. When she breaks down the melody of the first line in the chorus of “Everywhere” (“‘Cause you’re eve-ry-where to me”), it’s easy to feel what she feels. 

Even the supposed weak points of Branch’s writing in The Spirit Room work in the favor of the album. For example, the pattern of starting choruses with “‘Cause I…” is repeated across four songs (“Everywhere”, “You Set Me Free”, “If Only She Knew”, and “I’d Rather Be in Love”). But such detail suggests style rather than lack of creativity, and it adds a sense of individuality and roughness to the songwriting. It’s as if you’re listening to the first drafts of someone making music in their bedroom, someone who doesn’t care much about being a professional or impressing anyone. 

Sometimes, such simplicity and apparent unconcern in making a song “work” are why it works. Lyrics in “Sweet Misery” play with antonyms in ways that seem obvious (“I was lost / And you were found”, “I was weak / And you were strong”). But the merit of songs like this lies in how they make the listener’s experience intuitive. Once your brain detects the pattern you find yourself able to guess what she’s going to say in the next line. It’s almost interactive, and that’s possible because the songwriting is “simple”.

But let’s be fair to young Branch, and give credit where credit is due — there are some pretty clever lyrics and metaphors in The Spirit Room too.

It’s not entirely fair to classify lyric writing as “mature” or “immature” (and maybe even more unfair to expect “mature” songwriting from a teenager in her first album). However, if “mature” songwriting is one that avoids obviousness and literality and plays with words and meanings, then “If Only She Knew” has Branch’s most mature lyrics in The Spirit Room. It may be for the deliberate repetition of words, with different meanings intended (“I don’t know whose side I’m taking / But I’m not taking things too well”). Or, instead, it may be for how Branch sticks to a metaphor pattern in one same line (“Your heart is in your throat and I’m speaking my mind”).

Even in such “complex” approaches, Branch is wise in how she injects simplicity into the right places. One of the album’s best songs, “Here With Me”, is wordy in the verses, but simplistic and fluid in the chorus. “If Only She Knew” is allegoric in the verse, while in contrast, the chorus’ lyrics are literal and direct.

The tracks of The Spirit Room are naturally shaped for accessibility and even a bit of predictability. “Drop in the Ocean” is the only anomaly. It is Branch’s most experimental moment in the album, both in composition and production. Instead of the guitars heard across the biggest part of the album, “Drop in the Ocean” is driven by a piano and surprises with a beat change toward the end. It’s an interesting way to close the album, bringing electronic music and sounding like nothing that was heard in the previous tracks.

Fashioned in a do-it-yourself approach, but with a writing mindset that is ideal for the mainstream, The Spirit Room is a perfect pop-rock album. It’s easy to absorb, to connect with, and to sing along to. It’s simple where it needs to be, and it’s captivating all the time. This isn’t the type of simplicity that feels cheap: Branch is just very good at making songs that feel personal and universal. And she’s capable of experimentation as well.

It may be true that the songwriting in The Spirit Room could be perceived by some as boring by 2021 standards. But it’s also true that, 20 years later, these songs still sound great, and that’s not only because of nostalgia.