The likelihood of The Wreckers making a name for themselves on the country scene appeared at odds with reality. Michelle Branch and Jessica Harp - the duo who are The Wreckers - were total unknowns in country music, although Branch carved out a successful career on her own on the pop rock side of the musical spectrum.
Not even Branch anticipated a great response when "Stand Still, Look Pretty" finally came out this year after delays caused in part by the birth of Branch's daughter.
But in one of the biggest surprises of the year, The Wreckers have done just that with a number one single in "Leave the Pieces" and a strong selling album.
The Wreckers' sound is characterized by a lot of harmonies with both Harp and Branch taking lead vocals. The emphasis is on the vocals with the music often acoustic based amidst strong melodies.
Branch acknowledges that she, too, shared the surprise of others during a cell phone call from Toledo, Ohio. "Oh my, so surprised," she says when asked about her reaction to the single going number one.
"It's my first number one outside of a Santana project I did," Branch says. "I think because we worked so hard, it felt that much better. When we first released the record, we asked our managers what would happen with the song. No one really ever told us we had a shot of being top 10. To see it climb up the chart was pretty exciting."
"The greatest part is that we came into all of this really not expecting much and knowing that we'd have to work hard and prove - especially to country radio - that this wasn't just a side project. We were prepared for people to give me a hard time, and no one did. Country radio really did open up their arms to us and were great. That was the most amazing thing about getting a number one: we just weren't prepared to be accepted."
"A lot of them said - programmers at stations - that we fill a gap that's there. There aren't any female duos any more since The Judds. Now that people are a little squeamish about the Dixie Chicks, I hate to say that, but they felt we filled that space. They were happy to have that format (filled)."
In typical music industry fashion, "Leave the Pieces" was not even going to be on the disc. "It was actually our decision. We were actually finished with our record, and I was meeting Jessica's writing company, Sony. We were in the office hanging out and talking about the project. It wasn't a pitch meeting (where songs are offered to artists to record) - it was just' listen to these things I heard'."
"Leave the Pieces" was written by Capitol recording artist Jennifer Hanson and Billy Austin, 1 of only 2 on the 12-song disc (they also covered Patty Griffin's "One More Girl") that neither Branch nor Harp wrote.
"Fortunately, it wasn't going to be on her record," says Branch of Hanson. "So, we just went in the studio and cut it. It was just the missing piece on the record, and a funny thing, Little Big Town cut the song before us. It's just a good song. Because Jessica and I are both songwriters, it's important that the song genuinely came from us and we had that experience, and we both definitely had. We thought it had room for harmonies obviously...It was an obvious choice for the first single."
Branch, 23, grew up in Arizona where her parents exposed her to country. "When I was growing up, fortunately, my parents listened to a ton of music, mostly early '70s, '60s rock and roll, but everything from Led Zeppelin to The Beatles, CSNY, Joni Mitchell, but also my father listened to a lot of Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins and Willie Nelson and stuff like that. I didn't have as much of the modern country as Jessica. If I heard George Strait, it was on the radio. I loved earlier country music, and I loved bluegrass music whenever I heard it."
"When I got older and met Jess, she really introduced me to music that I missed, like Dwight Yoakam."
Branch says not enough people do so. "Unfortunately, a lot of people think it's one thing, and they have this impression of what it is, and the coolest thing is people who listened to my music before are listening to country music and see it's just not 'Honky Tonk Badonkadonk'."
Branch took voice lessons as a child and received a guitar as a birthday present when she was 14. Branch bagged school to concentrate on her musical career when she was in high school. Her parents gave their blessings, home schooling Branch.
After releasing one indie album ("Broken Bracelet" in 2000), she landed on Maverick, a label owned by Madonna at the time. Branch quickly enjoyed success with the release of "The Spirit Room" in 2001, which went platinum in the U.S., signifying sales of more than 1 million units. Branch's career was in full swing due to hits with "Everywhere" and "All You Wanted."
The next year, she was lead vocalist on Carlos Santana's "The Game of Love," Branch's first single to go top five. The song also won a Grammy for best pop collaboration with vocals.
Things started souring for Branch with the release of her second Maverick disc, "Hotel Paper," in 2003. "Are You Happy Now?" went top 20 in the U.S., but follow-up singles "Breathe" and "Til I Get Over You" did not fare well on the charts.
Harp, 24, was born in Kansas City, getting the musical bug early. She released an independent album, "Preface," in 2002.
Harp and Branch have the internet, in part, to thank for getting together.
"We were indie artists trying to get record deals," says Branch. "We both had music on line. People started emailing both of us and telling us that we sounded similar, and we should listen to one another."
"We started emailing and sending each other music. I ended up getting a deal first," says Branch.
Branch landed in Kansas City during a radio promotion tour for her music. Harp was nearby and met Branch.
"A few weeks later, she came with me," says Branch. "I just invited her on the road. I was on a tour bus with 12 guys, and I was the only chick. I wanted someone to hang out with. I wanted someone to go shopping with. We ended up writing a lot."
"Eventually when she wasn't working on her music, she'd come up and sing with me. We just loved singing together so much."
Harp has been mentioned as being in Branch's back-up singer, but Branch downplays that aspect, concentrating on the friendship.
"I had a lot of friends who would come out and visit on the road - 'oh cool this is a tour bus. What do you do every day?' They were so enamored with every little detail of it. When Jess came, it was so natural. She didn't ask 100 questions about everything, and she just fit right in. We just hit it off and felt like we'd known each other forever. There was no awkwardness of 'I barely know this person'. It clicked automatically."
"When Jessica and I met seven years ago, we always told each other that we had met for some reason, and that one day we'd figure out why in the world we'd (been) put together for this life," Branch says. "We were always writing music and singing music together. When the idea first came to mind, everyone thinks it was a completely planned move. It really wasn't. We both had this set feeling that we should try it - do it now and ask questions later."
Maverick asked Branch what was up with her next record.
"One day I said (to Jess), 'you want to try before we're knee deep in solo projects?'" Branch says. "The further that we got into it, the more it became clear that it was a good move for us to make and this was something we were supposed to do together."
"It was just one of those things that we followed our instinct, and the stars were aligned."
"We thought it was going to be for Maverick, but we just wanted to make a record. We paid for the album ourselves. There wasn't just too much concern of what was going to happen once we were finished. It was more in the moment. Once it was finished, we just had a feeling it'd work out. It was definitely frustrating at first."
"With my first solo albums, I never let anybody (from Maverick) listen. Once you get them in the studio, it's 'do this, do that'. It just ruins the whole creative flow of everything. I've always worked where I finish (the CD). Unless I really know the people and I trust them, it's too many cooks in the kitchen."
"We just wanted them to be patient and hear it as a finished project."As for Maverick, the label was trying to make heads or tails out of the new Branch project. "They weren't necessarily too thrilled, but they were happy about any project they could get out of me at the time," says Branch. "No one really heard the project until it was finished. When they did, it wasn't what they had in mind. We gave them a full disclaimer. I don't think they really believed it until they heard it. I think their biggest fear was they didn't know what to do with it."
Maverick had no experience at all in the country field. "I have a feeling fortunately if Warner Nashville hadn't swooped in and taken over the project, they would have just released the record and thrown it out there and not paid too much attention to it, and it would have probably just flopped."
After the record was done, Branch was in Nashville meeting with writers. She paid a visit to Bill Bennett, head of Warner, who was president of Maverick when Branch signed there.
"I went over to play music to see what their interpretation of it was, (to see) if they thought it was anything Jess and I thought it was. They just loved it and said, 'what could we do to help out?'"
One thing led to another and instead of Maverick putting out The Wreckers, Warner Nashville did. Branch says Maverick was okay with that.
"They were. They actually were. They had something that they didn't really know what to do with. Once someone else said, it was good, they agreed. 'You know I think it might be good'. I think they were really happy to have some of the resources to help them out."
The majority of "Stand Still, Look Pretty" was recorded in New York two years ago.
The goal was to initially release it in June 2005. But Branch and husband Teddy Landau, who plays bass for Branch, were expecting their first child.
"The more pregnant I became, plans kept changing. I have my daughter to thank actually. If we had gone ahead with the plan, I don't think this record would have ever been heard. Everything really happens for a reason. Jessica and I have really learned that."
"We kept pushing and pushing, kept irritating a lot of people. I hate to dwell on that, but it is such a big part of the story of how the project came to be. It was a struggle, but fortunately Jessica and I had to get through it. It wasn't just a solo project. We (found) shelter in each other, and it was great."
An early break was getting "The Good Kind," which is on their debut, featured on television's "One Tree Hill."
"Stand Still, Look Pretty," produced mainly by John Leventhal, who has produced wife Rosanne Cash, finally came out in May.
The most traditional country sounding song on the disc is the twangy current single "My, Oh My," which Harp and Branch penned with Wayne Kirkpatrick and Josh Leo in Nashville.
"That is our favorite song for sure. I really think if we hadn't been so paranoid about the label's reaction in making a record, we would have more 'My, Oh My' moments on the record. Our second record will be more 'My, Oh My'...If you heard the original version, you'd chuckle because it was such a straightforward bluegrass thing. We were playing it live, and people kept going crazy over this song."
"We love the recorded version. We cut it live to tape, which no one really ever does or at least I haven't ever done." "My, Oh My" happened once Warner Nashville was involved. "The label was pulling on the reins a little bit and (said we) know the girls want to make a country record, but try to make it accessible for everybody. "We had to find a place to make everybody happy without interrupting the integrity of the project."
'I think our next record will probably be more up that alley. It really captures (something) that Jess and I hadn't been able to do before. We write a lot of love songs and what not, so it was great to have that element shown."
The song recalls life gone by of a "concrete road used to just be dirt" with Walgreens taking over where a field once had been. "My oh my/Look how time flies/Look how the world changes/In the blink of an eye."
"When we were writing that song, it was actually the day all the label people had found I'd been knocked up. I remember such a relief. I didn't want to disrupt the project at all and lose the momentum. When we were talking about how quickly things change. It was really emotional for Jess and I, but especially for me. Here I was starting a duo and about to have a child, which is a huge life change."
"It was a huge moment in the studio about not letting life pass you by. Everybody's guilty of brushing teeth, turning on the TV, going to bed and just not taking the time to look at your life and what's going on around you. It's so appropriate for the moment for Jess and I. I think that was the best way to convey it to take a minute every day and a step back and look at your life and don't take it for granted."
While Branch says that she and Harp have to have lived the songs, one sure hopes that was not entirely true for the closing "Crazy People" with the lines "Only crazy people/Fall in love with me/They come from all over/To be with me/Bank robbers and killers/Drunk and drug dealers."
It ends with the woman killing her lover's wife only to kill the abusive, alcoholic lover. "So I buried that man/And they won't find a trace," the song concludes.
But with the tape rolling, listeners will hear Branch and Harp laughing.
"It's somewhat true," says Branch. "We didn't murder anybody. It came from a real life experience. Jess was staying at my house in LA when we were writing songs for the album. She said, 'only crazy people fall in love with me. I was kind of laughing. I had my guitar. I was singing "only crazy people fall in love with me'. I sat down and wrote...We're all a little bit crazy, and I think everybody can identify with that one kind of crazy relationship. We both definitely had had our share."
"Jessica and I cut most of our vocals live at the same time. It was really hard to cut our parts separately because we rely on each other. 'Crazy People,' we all cut live, and we were in the same room. We were facing each other and singing to each other, and we just could not stop laughing. Here we were singing this song about murdering people and what not, and we just could not stop laughing."
Branch says she was not overly concerned that her fan base would be put off by a foray into country. "I wasn't concerned. I wasn't going to base (the) decision based on what people think. This is what I knew would make me happy. I really had faith if fans understood what I had worked on in the past, that this was the right thing to do. The only thing that's really changed is the production, and as an artist, it's the kind of (music) I've been wanting to make for a long time. A lot of people stuck with it and were patient. It wasn't really that big of a deal that I was not going to a make a solo record."
"It was hard. But it's just so sad when it is that difficult for a musician to be creative. (Some) would only want to explore in one genre forever for the rest of their life. I'm inspired by all different music. Music is one of those things. It should be an open relationship. I hope there's more room for other artists to explore things like that, other facets of themselves that they haven't been able."
With one well-received album and a hit single and opening for the likes of Rascal Flatts under their belts, is Branch prepared to go full steam ahead with The Wreckers or go back to a solo career and consider The Wreckers a one-off project?
"We're going to continue with the record as long as we can. There are no plans for a solo record on my end any time soon. I know Jessica is dying to do a solo record because she hasn't yet."
"I don't know if I'll make a record on my own. I don't think it'll stray too far from what we're doing now."
"It's so weird," Branch says. "I don't think of it as my solo record. I think of it as my next record. To me, it just seems like a natural next step, and it seems it's doing so well, and it feels so right, and it feels valid, and I'm enjoying myself so much."