On their Maverick/Warner Bros. debut, Stand Still Look Pretty, the Wreckers offer music that must be heard, with a story behind it that must be told.
First, the music: This is modern country at its best, sung with soul in heartfelt harmonies over a rhythm bed that alternately scoots, sways, and slams. From the first single, the assertive and exuberant "Leave The Pieces" to the down-home hoot "Crazy People," Stand Still Look Pretty hits the highest standards of both country and pop, with more than a little rock & roll tossed in for that extra bite.
Then there's the story. It's about, first of all, friendship, between two gifted performers who met when both were struggling for a foothold in the music business. One of them, Michelle Branch, seized the moment in 2001 with her first solo release on Maverick, The Spirit Room. Still in her teens, she was swept onto major tours and recruited by legendary guitarist Carlos Santana for a Grammy-winning duet, "Game of Love." The wild ride continued with Hotel Paper, which shot to number two on Billboard's Hot 200 and confirmed Michelle's staying power as an artist.
So, now what was next for Michelle?
"Toward the end of my last solo tour I was trying to figure out what else I might want to do, so I started thinking about making the organic singer/songwriter country type of record I'd always wanted to do."
It turns out that key to realizing this dream had been at her side, on the road during her tour, in the person of Jessica Harp.
Their connection actually stretched back to when both were edging into the business as singers and songwriters. As Jessica remembers, "I kept getting emails from people, saying, ‘You sound like Michelle!' And people were telling her that she sounded like me. So we started emailing each other. We traded our indie records. We found that we had a lot in common."
When they finally started talking face to face, over some TCBY yogurt in the airport terminal as Michelle was changing planes in Jessica's hometown of Kansas City, each had a weird feeling, as if they'd grown up next door to each other, in the same neighborhood. So it felt right when, without even really thinking about it, Michelle invited Jessica to join her on the road – and Jessica, just as impulsively, said okay.
"I wanted to have a friend with me," Michelle explains. "But I got more than I expected because, both of us being writers, we naturally started playing music together. And our phrasing is very similar – in fact, people would say they couldn't tell whether it was Jess or me singing – so I started having her sing backup with me onstage."
As Michelle's star rose, Jessica divided her time between sharing in the adventure and pursuing her own career. She attracted attention; at one point a major label in Los Angeles signed her to a development deal, but at the last minute Jessica backed out, partly because of what she had learned from Michelle about the pressure of other people's expectations.
"I've always loved to sing country music," Jessica says. "So I cut my ties and decided to become a part of what was happening in Nashville. That was two years ago."
Once again fortune smiled in her direction. Another respected label, based in Music City, offered her a contract, one that this time would allow her to do her own music the way she wanted to. Jessica was elated, so in June 2004 she packed everything she owned into her car, left Kansas City, and took off for Tennessee to sign the dotted line.
Somewhere along the way her cell phone rang. It was Michelle.
"Jess and I had been joking about starting our own band," Michelle recalls. "We never actually thought it would happen, but then right after my second record came out I called Jessica and said, ‘This is our last shot before we wind up on different labels. If we're ever going to make this happen, this is our chance. Are you going with me?'"
That's all it took to persuade Jessica to turn around and, just a few days later show up at Michelle's doorstep in L.A. Over the next few days they added to the body of songs they'd already written together on the road. Before you knew it, they had more than enough material for their first duo album – and, not only that, present it to the world as a totally new sound, a synthesis of their two styles.
The next step was to call John Leventhal, who had produced part of Michelle's Hotel Paper, in New York. The Grammy-winning producer, celebrated for his work with distinguished singer/songwriters like Shawn Colvin, Rodney Crowell, Patty Larkin, and Roseanne Cash, signed on immediately to work on most of their tracks at his studio in New York. On several cuts, though, other producers leant their distinctive hands: John Shanks in L.A. (Sheryl Crow, Anastacia, Pink), whose edgy sensibility had complemented Michelle's sound on Everywhere and Spirit Room, and Nashville ace Paul Worley (Big & Rich, Martina McBride, Pam Tillis), whose aesthetic fit the down-home spirit of tracks like "My Oh My."
The result of these diverse efforts is an album that's rich sonic tapestries, edgy yet rootsy, which emphasizes the common strengths and complementary differences in Michelle's and Jessica's music. For instance, the songs on which Michelle was the primary or sole writer often have an intimate, personal quality – like "Rain," in which images of better times ahead build through slow, slinky verses, a rousing chorus hook, and a brilliant musical evocation of "the sun coming out again." Jessica, on the other hand, takes a narrative approach on "Tennessee" and "Cigarettes," whose images speak with an almost literary eloquence. And each put equal energy into writing some of the others, such as "My Oh My" and "Crazy People," which is probably the purest distillation of the energy that ties these two to each other.
"We started writing it in Michelle's living room," Jessica says, laughing. "I was complaining about my love life, and I said, ‘It's ridiculous. Only crazy people fall in love with me.' She said, ‘That sounds like a song,' and she picked up her guitar and started to play. The song was done twenty minutes later."
When they cut this one, neither one could apparently make it all the way to the end with a straight face. As both collapse in laughter on the final chord, we're reminded that friendship, like real musical talent, is something rare. And finding both in the same place is rarer still.
"Jessica and I have talked about how the Wreckers are like my chance to start over at a new school," Michelle muses. "But it's special for both of us. We're in it together."
"And I get to sing with my best friend," Jessica adds. "What could be better than that?"