For those of us who are fans of classical literature (in translation), one of the most intriguing biographical histories ever written was the massive Parallel Lives by Plutarch. Plutarch wrote his Parallel Lives with some definite agendas, and it is worthwhile to discuss them very briefly as they shed some light on my own far more modest effort here today. In fact, I share at least two of his agendas, which makes them worthwhile to discuss. The first agenda is indicated by the very title and content of the material, which consisted of parallel accounts of a Greek and a Roman. The second agenda is that these two people were models of a particular type of person and shared roughly analogous and “parallel” experiences and personalities. So, the Parallel Lives, in their original form, consisted of accounts of a Greek and a Roman side by side that showed both the similarities and differences of how Greeks and Romans shared a larger cultural base but had clearly different worldviews and behaviors.
And therefore this particular entry today is the first of what I hope to be an occasional sort of series about people on both sides of the cultural divide within Western Civilization. Each of these two talented musicians is on a different side, and though they have similar struggles as singer-songwriters, their behavior and actions reflect the fact that they are on the two different sides of this larger debate, Michelle Branch belonging to the “conservative” camp and Vanessa Carlton belonging to the “liberal” camp,” and so they can therefore model different approaches to the same problems presented by the contemporary music industry, particularly in how it treats its most precious resource–its talented musicians. So, as a student of both politics and music and history, I hope that all of you will enjoy this debut effort in what I hope will be a long and intriguing series.
Michelle Branch, born and raised in Arizona, showed an early interest in music and her rather cohesive family helped her greatly in fueling and honing that passion through music education and gigs, even funding her independent label debut, called Broken Bracelet, as Michelle Branch developed her abilities in singing, songwriting, and playing the guitar through paying her dues at a young age . Michelle Branch started voice training at the age of eight, and by the time she recorded her major-label debut album The Spirit Room, she was already an experienced artist who had been performing gigs with covers and original material for a few years, despite her young age. Given the intact nature of Michelle Branch’s family and the fact that her family clearly supported her interests, it is fairly easy to see that Michelle Branch, despite her varied background, was pretty clearly raised with a strong family ethic.
Born three years before Michelle Branch, but starting her own work toward a music career somewhat later, Vanessa Carlton was born in Pennsylvania and spent her teenage years as a student at the School of American Ballet . At the age of 18 she decided not to continue dancing any longer, an experience she later relayed in her minor hit song “White Houses,” and began cruising the singer-songwriter circuit in New York City while studying at Columbia University and working as a waitress. It should go without saying that this is a typical “blue state” approach to success, and in her case it paid off when she met a professional singer-songwriter who introduced her to famed producer Jimmy Iovine and she started recording demo tapes.
Michelle Branch’s debut album, The Spirit Room, was recorded over the period of a few months in 2001 with producer John Shanks, and it was immensely successful. She not only recorded her own album, but she also helped the band Justincase get their own record deal and co-wrote (and sang on) their hit single, along with singing with Hanson. Besides these early collaborations, a major theme throughout her career, Michelle Branch’s debut album included three strong hits: a bright and cheery debut, “Everywhere,” the more reflective “All You Wanted,” and the rather melancholy “Goodbye To You,” all of which hit the top 40 of the Hot 100 , and her debut album went double platinum, earning her a few Grammy nominations, including one for best new artist.
Vanessa Carlton, meanwhile, had a dramatic process of her own debut album recording, having an unprofitable spell of working with Jimmy Iovine before production duties were taken up by A & M Records president Ron Fair, who produced the album Be Not Nobody, released to generally positive reviews in 2002. She had three hits off the album, the most successful being her top 10 debut, “A Thousand Miles,” as well as her thoughtful second hit “Ordinary Day,” and her melancholy minor hit (just missing the Hot 100) “Pretty Baby” including a seeming swipe at Michelle Branch with a cheating boyfriend having given her a guitar for a present before showing himself unworthy. Her album went platinum, though, and she was considered a rising star of her own, her piano-based singing and songwriting contrasting with Michelle Branch’s guitar-based singing and songwriting, a distinction that became more noticeable with time.
Starting with their debut albums, both Michelle Branch and Vanessa Carlton became known for their collaborations. Michelle Branch won a Grammy Award and got a top 10 hit for her collaboration “The Game of Love” with Santana, of of his album Shaman. She later recorded another duet with Santana that was also a minor hit with her band The Wreckers, called “I’m Feeling You,” a few years later for Santana’s next album All That I Am. Meanwhile, Vanessa Carlton scored a hit singing backup on the Counting Crows re-make of the Joni Mitchell classic “Big Yellow Taxi,” which just missed the top 40. And both artists would continue to record collaborative works with other artists as well long into the future.
In 2003, Michelle Branch released her sophomore album, Hotel Paper, an album that received mixed reviews but that managed to go platinum and spawn two top 40 hits, “Are You Happy Now?” and “Breathe,” consolidating her success with fans at least. But her unhappiness with the music industry led her to want to change her path. She got frustrated with metaphorically having to perform fellatio to have her songs played on the radio  and decided to form a country duo with a friend of hers named Jessica Harp called The Wreckers, though she (having had a couple of successful albums) was able to keep her record deal while doing so.
Vanessa Carlton was not so fortunate after her own sophomore album experience. Her own less platonic duo with Stephen Jenkins of the San Francisco-based rock band Third Eye Blind informed a grittier and darker sophomore album named Harmonium that was released in 2004. The album flopped, failing to go gold despite positive reviews and only producing the minor single “White Houses,” which was in my opinion by far the best song on the whole album (I was one of the people who purchased the album myself, and I was somewhat disappointed). Her desires for increased autonomy on the album led to tensions that led her to lose her record deal with A & M, and seek a fresh start elsewhere with her dissatisfaction about the music industry intact.
Michelle Branch’s change of direction and fresh start as a country singer with The Wreckers was successful. Though The Wreckers only produced one album, Stand Still, Look Pretty, the album went gold and produced three top 40 country hits (one of which went #1 on the country charts and reached the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100), in addition to the hit single with Santana . Even though the shift from pop/adult contemporary to country seemed like a big shock for Michelle Branch’s music label, Maverick, it proved not to be a problem for her fans at all, as she continued her success on the charts.
Meanwhile, Vanessa Carlton went to Universal/The INC (a hop-hop oriented music label) to record her third album. Despite fairly positive reviews, neither of the album’s two singles performed well on the charts, “Nolita Fairytale” (a song which complained about the loss of her record deal and her love of life in a rent-controlled New York City apartment) or “Hands On Me,” and the album flopped, failing to go gold. After the album’s lack of chart success, she amicably parted with the Universal Label and joined the ranks of independent musicians, having failed to achieve sustained popular success after her successful debut album, even as she continued to tout her genuineness and authenticity in her music.
At this point both Michelle Branch and Vanessa Carlton had somewhat substantial hiatuses from the mainstream world of music. Michelle Branch recorded a moderately successful EP in 2010, Everything Comes And Goes, with the minor hit “Sooner Or Later”. In her case, her hiatus seems to have been due to marrying in 2004 and starting a family soon thereafter with her husband, and seeking to take care of her daughter born in 2005 . Having a child is a very proper reason to take a hiatus in your career. For Vanessa Carlton, her hiatus included recording a song for Tibet’s human rights, a trip with other musicians to the Arctic Circle to examine global warming, and coming out as a bisexual.
After her hiatus Michelle Branch began work on her third solo album (fourth if you include the Wreckers), which was given the title West Coast Time. Though the album already has one hit, “Loud Music,” which reached the top 20 of adult radio, the album still does not have a release date, something which has made her fans a bit impatient. After waiting so long for a new album of Michelle Branch music, perhaps her music label needs to be reminded that it would be good not to make others wait too much longer for the music, and hopefully the album has a few more hit singles to add to her reasonable collection of existing hits.
Meanwhile, a “best of” compilation of Vanessa Carlton’s songs was released before she came out with her most recent album in 2011, Rabbits On The Run, released with minor label Razor & Tie. After initial single “Carousel” failed to chart, the label refused to make a video for second single “I Don’t Want To Be A Bride,” (which also failed to chart) and instead made an album for the single “Hear The Bells,” which also failed to chart, as did the album. Unfortunately, even Vanessa Carlton’s usually strong music reviews failed her at this point, as even usually sympathetic reviewers noted that Vanessa Carlton was making music for herself and not for anyone else .
It remains unclear what future careers both artists will have, given that both of them have clearly moved from the “pop” to the “adult alternative” side of music, making music for somewhat older audiences and no longer teenagers and mass markets. Nonetheless, both artists provide two very different ways of operation. Michelle Branch has shown herself as a cooperative “red state” sort of musician, having worked hard for years to hone her craft and pay her dues before success, collaborate and work with a wide variety of artists, go into country music, and settle down and start a family in addition to keeping her music career going. On the other hand, Vanessa Carlton is very definitely a “blue state” musician in terms of having gained her success through connections rather than paying dues, in her clear preference for leftist politics and her lack of interest in marriage or following traditional morality. And comparing the difference in careers and life of these two musicians demonstrates how a red state and a blue state mindset relate to the common problem of a corrupt and exploitative music industry, making a parallel approach very rewarding in showing these contrasts.