Back when pop tarts and boy bands ruled the earth, Michelle Branch was ''TRL'''s first teen-girl singer/songwriter (sorry, Avril). One unexpectedly sultry collaboration with Santana later, Branch is now a 20-year-old who's made what she considers her first grown-up album, ''Hotel Paper'' (in stores June 24). The Arizona-born artist, who's the opening act on the Dixie Chicks' tour starting June 19, tells EW.com about embracing her rock side, getting personal with her lyrics, and why she just wants to be taken seriously.
This rocks more than your first one. How'd that happen?
I was 14 and 15 when I wrote the last record, and I'm 20 now. I think the change is just that I grew up. Hopefully, I'm a better writer and a better player. And I'm a rock fan. The first album was kind of a jumble -- I was trying to figure out what I wanted. I'm very proud of the first record, but this one is so absolutely ME, from start to finish. Every song on it is so personal, and I can tell you where I was when I wrote it. None of the songs I wrote when I was 14 were about anything I went through.
What's it been like to watch the pop scene change over the last couple years?
I think it's amazing, as a music fan, to think back when my first single came out and people were going, ''Ooh, this is different. I don't know if we can play this on pop radio.'' And it was a struggle -- to have my song on ''TRL was a big deal for us. We didn't know if kids were gonna like it, if people were gonna respond. Now to look at the countdown and see Avril Lavigne, John Mayer, Jason Mraz, Vanessa Carlton, Norah Jones -- it's unreal.
Why did you choose ''Hotel Paper'' as your title track?
That song is how I see myself as an artist. I'm a lot more of a folky singer/songwriter than people realize. When I was making this record I was absolutely obsessed with artists like Patti Griffin and Bonnie Raitt. The records I love and listen to are Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell. [As for the title,] I spent so much time in hotels over the last couple years that I wrote all the songs on this record on hotel paper. It kind of sums up how the past couple years have been.
And how did the first single, ''Are You Happy Now?,'' come together?
Well, the one thing that makes me a little nervous is people are gonna hear that song and it's gonna be different from [the rest of the album]. And I don't want people to think my whole record sounds like it. It really doesn't. It's probably the most commercial rock song on the record. There's more rootsy rock on the rest of the record, but this one is your big pop-rock song. It's harder than what people kinda expect from me. ''Are you happy now?'' is a question that a lot of people should sit down and ask themselves. There's a lot of times you go through the motions, and you don't ever realize you're happy or unhappy.
So what's your answer to that question?
I'm so extremely happy now. I don't know if it's wrong, but I'm so proud of this record. I think a little too proud of this record. [Laughs] I feel like I'm in a really good place in my career. I feel like I've always made really good decisions. And on a personal note, I have nothing to really complain about. I'm turning 20 and I have more than I ever thought I would have in my life.
In the end, what do you hope this album will achieve?
I don't care if people get this record and hate it. I just want them to be able to say, ''You know what, she's an artist.'' My biggest struggle with the last record is people disregarded what I was doing or they kind of wrote me off because they saw me as a younger artist. They didn't stop to think, ''Whoa, she wrote this record, she played this record.'' People never seemed to take me that seriously. That was the biggest frustration for me.