Michelle Branch was scrolling through Instagram when a grainy, black-and-white photo grabbed her attention.
Sunbathers sprawled out across a sandy beach, while silhouetted figures wandered along the shore. The stifling summer heat seemed to radiate through the picture, she said.
The caption only read: “Cape Cod beach. July 1970.”
At the time, the Grammy Award-winning singer was pulling reference photos to hone her visual ideas for the cover of her new album, “The Trouble with Fever,” set to release on Sept. 16. Her nine-stop tour promoting the album will come to the Paradise Rock Club in Boston on Sept. 15.
“They were all moody seascapes and black-and-white so it was really bizarre,” said Branch, 39, during a phone interview from her Nashville home. “It was as if it had been plucked from my mood board.”
But when she learned more from her father-in-law, who had posted the image, the photo “became that much more special,” Branch said.
Recent split from husband
Branch’s interview with the Times was conducted before she was arrested in Nashville on a misdemeanor assault charge. The arrest came on the heels of separating from her husband, Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney.
According to the affidavit, Branch told police she and her husband “are having marital problems” and said she slapped Carney in the face once or twice during an argument. In a now-deleted tweet, she alleged he had cheated on her with his manager while she was home with their 6-month-old daughter.
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Carney had no visible injuries, an officer wrote in the report.
The couple married in April 2019. They have two children together: a son turning 4 this month and a daughter born in February.
Branch also has a teenage daughter with her ex-husband, Teddy Landau.
Branch’s $1,000 bail was paid and she was released at 11:38 am on Aug. 11. According to court documents, Branch’s 12-hour hold was modified because she is currently breastfeeding her infant.
“To say that I am totally devastated doesn’t even come close to describing how I feel for myself and for my family. The rug has been completely pulled from underneath me and now I must figure out how to move forward,” Branch wrote in a statement released to USA TODAY Aug. 11. “With such small children, I ask for privacy and kindness.”
Branch filed for divorce on Aug. 12, according to USA TODAY. In a six-page complaint filed in Nashville, she cited irreconcilable differences and is seeking primary custody of her and Carney’s two children as well as child support.
Court documents show Branch is scheduled to appear in court on Nov. 7.
The Cape Cod connection behind Branch’s album cover
Initially, Branch’s father-in-law, retired Akron Beacon Journal reporter Jim Carney, was reluctant to divulge details about the photo and offered only a broad version.
But, with time, he began to share pieces of the story with her. He wrote an explanation of the story included in a caption on Branch’s Instagram, she said, to ensure accuracy.
Over the sweltering July 4 weekend in 1970, Carney was asked in confidence by two friends — a man and a woman who were dating — to join them on a trip to New York City. The couple, who were 19 or 20 years old, were traveling to get an abortion.
The trip came just a few months after the New York Senate legalized abortion and three years before the US Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 would establish a constitutional right to abortion and allow people to exercise that right until the end of a pregnancy’s second trimester.
In the caption on Branch’s Instagram account, Carney called himself “honored to be asked to go with them.” He was a senior majoring in psychology at the University of Akron at the time and had two part-time jobs over summer break, but decided to take time off to go on the trip.
The woman had tests done on Friday at a New York City facility, with the abortion scheduled to take place on Monday. Once the tests were done, the group drove to Massachusetts to get out of the city.
On the way, they stopped at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Then, they decided to drive to Cape Cod to see if they could find novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who used to live on Scudder Lane in Barnstable.
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They found his house but he was not home. They dropped off a gift.
“They had this kind of crazy weekend. I think it was all made more heavy by what was looming that they knew was going to happen on Monday,” Branch said.
Then, Carney and his friends found the beach where he snapped the photo with his father’s Pentax camera, saying the light was perfect. He does not remember which beach, but described it as “nearby on the Cape side.”
They stayed for about an hour.
‘A hazy reminder of life as it was then’
Monday swung around and the group returned to New York City for the abortion. When the woman was released from the hospital, they piled into the car to drive back to Ohio.
“He said she just sat in the backseat crying the whole ride home and they were all just kind of silent,” said Branch.
Carney lost the negative to the beach photo long ago, but had one print and made a good quality digital copy of the image.
“The photo to me is a hazy reminder of life as it was then for friends who went through a life-changing experience together, more than half a century ago,” wrote Carney on Branch’s Instagram. “And now it represents how much things have changed and not changed in America.”
Supreme Court’s abortion reversal changed need for secrecy
Carney had told Branch “no one can know what this is about,” because he thought it was not his story to share. But shortly after, the US Supreme Court ruled that Americans no longer have a constitutional right to abortion.
The watershed Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision overturned Roe v. Wade and erased a reproductive right the high court established nearly five decades ago.
“Suddenly the need to be secret about (the story) changed,” said Branch.
She asked her father-in-law if he felt comfortable reaching out to his friends and seeing if they had a problem sharing their story, stressing their names would not be used. While the man said yes, he had lost touch with the woman nearly 40 years ago.
“He has no idea of her whereabouts now or even if she is still alive,” Carney wrote in the Instagram post. “He says my presence with them both helped them deal with the ordeal.”
Eventually, they gave up the search, Branch said.
“I was on the fence about whether to still share the story because it still really is her story to share,” she said. “But the thing that is so compelling about it is the story about the weekend they went on.”
New album explores ‘consequences of lust’
Branch shot to fame as a 17-year-old in 2001. Almost entirely self-written, her debut album, “The Spirit Room,” sold three million copies worldwide and featured the singles “Everywhere,” “All You Wanted,” and “Goodbye to you.”
Her new 10-track album was recorded during the 2020 pandemic lockdown, while she and her husband were housebound with their toddler son and Branch’s teenage daughter. It was recorded in the Nashville home studio she shared with Patrick Carney, and marks the first time she has produced a record of her own.
Patrick Carney served as co-producer.
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The pandemic limited how many other people they could safely bring into space. So, Branch played most of the instruments themselves.
“I don’t think in any other circumstance we would have been as ready to roll up our sleeves and try that,” she said.
The title, ‘The Trouble with Fever,’ explores the consequences of lust in all of its various forms, for good or for bad.
“It’s more about the fever of lust, wanting someone, that first foray where you’re falling for someone,” said Branch, adding most of the song centers on relationships.
She’s been feeling “the Sunday scaries” about the album release, saying the new music was created “in the safety of our little quarantine bubble.”
“I never really thought about what happened afterwards when it was put out into the world and now add the fact that I really have no fingers to point if it’s not received well,” said Branch, laughing. “The fingers can really only point back at me, which changes the anxiety.”
‘This is on my door step’
The album’s lead single, the blues-rock “I’m a Man,” came out in July. The chorus came first, written from a male perspective: “I’m a man / And I’m out of control / And I can’t help myself / And I can’t let it go.”
She has called it a compassionate look at men struggling to navigate a “post-‘Me Too’ world of toxic masculinity.”
“Then I realized I wanted to tell the other side of that coin, which is what it feels like to be a woman,” Branch said.
People often ask her if a lyric from the song — “I’m so tired of being told by everybody / That I can’t make decisions ’bout my own damn body” — was written after Roe was overturned. But she said it was actually written in 2020.
Following the February birth of her daughter, who was delivered by cesarean section, Branch’s obstetrician warned that another pregnancy could threaten uterine rupture. Branch, who said she is done having children, asked if she could get her tubes tied, but learned she could not because her Catholic hospital bans the surgery.
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Tennessee, where Branch resides, will enact one of the strictest abortion bans in the nation on Aug. 25. The “trigger” law will prohibit all abortions in the state and make performing an abortion a felony and subject doctors to up to 15 years in prison.
“Suddenly, this is on my doorstep. This is happening, it’s not just a news headline someplace far away that does not affect me. It’s happening, before our eyes,” Branch said. “And I find it so bizarre the way this has all unfolded accidentally with this album cover and the lyrics and the song written two years ago and now with everything that’s happening currently.”
Preparing to tour again
Branch said she became more of a hermit than ever before during the course of the pandemic, so her upcoming tour is a little daunting. She said she plans to bring her 6-month-old daughter with her because she’s still breastfeeding.
“Ultimately, I think it’s really important for me just as any working parent to get back in touch with that side of myself, which I haven’t been able to access for a few years and (I am) looking forward to playing again for that’s why,” said Branch.
Material from USA Today and Nashville Tennessean was used to write this story.
Zane Razzaq writes about housing and real estate. Reach out to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @zanerazz.