July 07, 2003 12:00 PM

AGE: turns 20 on July 2

HOMETOWN: Sedona, Ariz.

NEW CD: Hotel Paper

•Why you know her: Her Grammy-winning turn with Carlos Santana, “The Game of Love,” had us all humming along. Now she’s following up her 2001 platinum hit CD The Spirit Room with the “more mature” Hotel Paper: “I think people will notice that I’ve grown up.”

•In the beginning: Branch was born seven weeks premature to Peggy, a restaurant manager, and plumbing contractor David, both 49. “It reminds me a lot of how I am now,” she says. “Anxious to get out and anxious to see the world—and not wanting to wait around.”

•Big break: Told that a music exec was vacationing near her hometown, the determined Branch, then 15 and sans drivers license, took desperate measures. “I stole my neighbor’s golf cart and drove to the resort with my demo tape,” she says. Recalls Jeff Rabhan, the visiting music man who is now her manager: “Michelle was there with her guitar and I thought, ‘Oh, God!’ ” But after listening to the tape in his car, Rabhan signed her and landed her a deal at Madonna‘s Maverick Records.

•Love life: Branch, who lives in L.A., denies reports linking her with Enrique Iglesias. Romance is a casualty of her job: “I don’t have time for it.”

•Perks of fame: Hanging with heroes like Santana. “I can tell that she felt for me the same way I feel for Harry Belafonte,” says Santana. “But after a while she felt at ease when she realized I’m just a guitar player.”

•Where she’s headed: On tour with the Dixie Chicks. In the long run, she says, “Madonna is someone I see as a role model on the business side.”

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