Michelle Branch

When a friend of Michelle Branch’s mother called to tell her she’d just leased a time-share condo to somebody in the music business, the 16-year-old singer/songwriter from Sedona, Ariz., didn’t bother to wait until Mom came home with the car to go meet him.

She stole a neighbor’s golf cart and gunned it the two miles or so to the resort in question and waited outside Jeff Rabhan’s door until he appeared.

“He came out, eventually, and I ended up giving him the demo tape. A month later, he called me and said, ‘I want to help you out. I want to talk to your parents. This [demo] is great,'” Branch explained to POLLSTAR.

Rabhan, with The Firm, is Branch’s manager to this day.

“We really didn’t think that a record deal was an option because it was just a weird time then for a 16-year-old songwriter to be out when Britney Spears was just kind of hitting her stride,” Branch said. “We just didn’t know what to do.”

They recorded an independent album, Broken Bracelet, but didn’t expect much attention from the major labels.

However, luck and timing interceded, as they often have for Branch.

“One day, (Rabhan) called me and said, ‘Hanson just heard your indie record and they want you to open for a couple of shows with them.’ I opened up for them at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles and right after the show, an A&R guy from Maverick approached me and said, ‘I want to offer you a record deal.’

“And that’s really how fast and how easy it happened!” she said with a slightly embarrassed laugh. She knows how lucky she is.

“There’s so many people out there in the middle of nowhere that are like the next Lennon and McCartney and yet we might never hear of them because of luck and timing. It’s interesting that I happened to be at the right place at the right time and that I was prepared for what was going to happen. I ended up signing with Maverick and going in to make the record, and that was two years ago in January.”

That record, Spirit Room, has spawned three hit singles and placed Branch in a pantheon of young artists some have labeled the “anti-Britneys.” She is less interested in the appellation as she is in showing other young musicians that they, too, can find their place as artists in spite of whatever trends seem to be in the way.

“We were fortunate that Spirit Room had the success that it did, but the thing that was even more cool than that was I feel like my foot was kind of in the door to let other young female, and even male, singer/songwriters around my age come out and put out records,” Branch said.

Michelle Branch

“And then Vanessa Carlton came out, and John Mayer, Avril Lavigne and Dashboard Confessional. … Now we’re all part of MTV and it’s kind of crazy because a year ago, you know, no one would have imagined any of us doing the countdown on ‘TRL’.”

Not only is Branch doing “TRL” but at September’s Video Music Awards she took home an MTV Moon Man for winning the Viewers Choice award. She’s currently on the road, winding up a tour opening for another female singer/songwriter and role model: Sheryl Crow.

“She may not know she’s helping me out but it’s more like me being the secret agent and just watching how she works,” Branch said of Crow. “Just watching her in sound check and watching how she treats her band and tells them what to do. There’s a fine line when you’re female and you’re fronting, and you’re kind of the boss of people. Sometimes people take it as you being a bitch.

“And there’s a really fine line, especially with me being 19. Everybody that works with me is older than me and sometimes it’s just frustrating and I don’t feel like I’m the one in charge.”

She needn’t worry about a lack of strong women to look up to, especially not as long as she’s signed to a label headed up by Madonna, who paid Branch a surprise visit backstage last February at New York City’s Irving Plaza.

“There were rumors she was going to be there,” Branch said. “I’m sitting in the dressing room going, ‘Yeah. Sure. Right.’ But sure enough, I get to my dressing room and there she is, sitting there in my room! Here’s this grubby backstage at Irving Plaza and she’s used to arenas with, like, lobster and tofu and we have a couch covered with sweaty teen-agers getting ready for a meet-and-greet and she’s sitting there going, ‘Great show!’ I’m just standing there like, ‘Oh God, this isn’t happening.'”

But it is happening for Branch who, at 19, is only a couple of years removed from stealing golf carts and playing guitar at PTA luncheons in Sedona.

“I think the biggest thing is actually starting this week,” she said of her career highlight to date. “I sing a vocal for Carlos Santana and it just went to radio. He’s amazing and I just really never would imagine working with someone of that caliber in my lifetime. He’s the kind of guy whose records I have at home and is one of the reasons I even started playing music.”

But even keeping company with the likes of Carlos Santana and Madonna, Branch is still taking a pragmatic approach to her career.

“I feel like it’s a great learning process for me. I’ve put out one record and, luckily, it had its success, so now I’m able to explore a little more and learn a little bit more and make a second album and get exposed to a lot of things that I never thought I would ever, ever be able to experience in my life. So I’m just taking each day as it comes and having a blast!”