Looking for a heartening success story in the fickle world of rock and pop? Thinking it’s all about instant impressions and catering for nano-second attention spans in this era of reality, instant success TV? Then look no further than Mike Rosenberg aka Passenger, who after years of patiently chipping away has suddenly seen all that perseverance, talent and passion pay off.
If you are not familiar with the story, here it is in a nutshell: In the early noughties the Brighton raised Rosenberg secured a development deal with ie:music, a large management company that over the years has included the likes of Robbie Williams and Ladyhawke on their books. With the help of local producer and musician Andrew Phillips they set about developing Mike’s songs and his craft via a long term deal that saw a band being formed (Passenger), records released, showcases performed, press accumulated and generally slogging away at the coal face of the music circuit. But it didn’t work out and eventually, the money ran out. Realising it wasn’t working, Mike went about re-inventing himself as a solo singer songwriter, becoming a troubadour in effect, busking and gigging his way around the UK and then on to Australia where he started to develop an audience for his beautifully written, sung and performed songs. It was then, about two years ago that he rekindled his friendship with Ed Sheeran and suddenly his fortunes took a huge leap forward.
“Ed Sheeran is a good mate from quite a long time ago,” says Mike over some tea at the Brighton Museum cafe, where we hooked up for a chat. (Mike approves: ‘Leftfield, good call!’). He’s looking lean, fit and happy to be back in the UK, following a stint in Australia, despite the weather… “Touring with him completely changed the game; going from busking and playing to a couple of hundred people in a pub to the Brighton Centre and venues of that size, all over North America, Europe, Australia…
“We met at one of those tiny gigs, the first year I was busking (in 2009), in a pub in Cambridge. He was 16 or 17, unknown at the time and we ended up on the same bill. And I watched his set and was blown away by it. I think he watched mine and liked what I was doing as well. We became mates, played a few gigs together and then when he exploded he was so good to me and ended up giving me a year of touring. He turned down money to bring certain people on tour. He got me and Foy Vance – he loves Foy too. I hope Foy gets massive and takes over the world, he’s like a Springsteen!”
With Ed Sheeran’s incredible explosion in popularity, it may have been seen that it was a done deal that everything would now click into place for Mike. But he knew better… “I’ve seen supports who are brilliant, but they get ignored. It’s a specific art, grabbing people, especially people who are there to see another artist and they don’t know who you are. I got better at it as time went on. The first few gigs were terrifying, but I figured out my set list which would draw people in. Some gigs you still got the feeling that you could have been Stevie Wonder and they still wouldn’t have listened. But the key was doing all this touring with Ed and then straight away going back around the world doing my own shows in the same places.
As well as having the privilege of touring (and duetting on a song or two) with Ed Sheeran, Mike got to see up close what makes him tick: “Ed’s work ethic is like no other artist I have ever met. He left home when he was 16 and there wasn’t a day when he wasn’t pushing it forward. He GOT that early. He has talent of course and being a lovely guy – all those three attributes will at some point mean success and he’s got all those in spades. It was no surprise to me. The first time I saw him, it was one of those moments where you go: ‘you’re going to be pretty big’. He deserves it.”
One of the places he came to play following the Sheeran tours was, of course, his hometown of Brighton, a quickly sold out gig at Concorde 2 in early 2013. “It was amazing feeling. It was the venue that I grew up with, it’s the venue that people take you seriously. A lovely moment when you see the hard work paying off.”
Over the last 18 months, things have developed very quickly. Just a few weeks ago he attended the Brits, his song ‘Let Her Go’, which has made number one in 16 countries around the globe, was nominated for the (best) British Single. It didn’t win, but it was an interesting experience nonetheless… “The Brits was really great to be nominated for and to get to see the other side of the industry. I’ve always been on the outskirts of that really. It was fun to put on a suit, drink champagne and see Prince. It is (The Brits) a major label event and it made me really proud that my song, despite it, got in there.”
The song couldn’t be ignored, if truth be told. Passenger’s ‘Let Her Go’ was the only song by a British artist that notched over a million in sales last year. But as an independent artist, it was perhaps no surprise that he didn’t win the award…
Nonetheless, the success of ‘Let Her Go’ was the second crucial staging post in the making of Mike Rosenberg. Originally recorded for the ‘All The Little Lights’ album that was released at the beginning of 2012, Mike thought it was a good song with potential, but was already working on a follow up album when a call came in from Holland… “This is the weirdest part of everything – it’s all well and good to tour with Ed Sheeran, but you need something to say ‘this is what I do’, this can be played on the radio, the perfect advert for Passenger. When I wrote ‘Let Her Go’ I kinda new it had a catchy thing to it, the lyrics were good and clear and poignant. But it came out on an album that, while it did OK, I was ready to make a new album but we got this email from a radio plugger in Holland, who’d heard it in a cafe. I think he Shazzamed it – that’s how ridiculous this is – saw it was me, got in touch with my management and said: ‘Look, I think this could be a hit in Holland; let me take it to radio in Holland, see what happens’. We didn’t really think much of it – ‘knock yourself out, mate. Have fun’! But within two weeks it was the most played song in Holland and within three weeks it was number one. That was the craziest fucking thing ever! You look at the iTunes chart and see your little song at number one, just incredible! I thought that would be the end of it, but then it went to number one in Belguim, Luxemburg, through Scandinavia and Sweden and then in Germany it started to work. It was bizarre.”
It even made a big impression in the United States, given further momentum by its use for a Budweiser advert that was shown during the recent Superbowl, perhaps the biggest, most important advertising slot of them all. “That was such good timing, it had done well in the States, but was starting to drop off. The exposure it gave it was enormous, everyone in America watches the Superbowl. The advert was beautiful too.”
Although born in London, Mike and his family moved to Brighton when he was still a baby and this has been his home ever since, “I didn’t have a home for five years, I didn’t event rent a flat – I was travelling all the time, so it made no sense to pour money into rent.” Now with all the recent success he’s looking to lay down some roots, “I still really like Brighton – it’s an amazing town – the more I’m away from it the more I love it. Because I’m away so much, when I do have down time I want to be somewhere I know. A lot of my mates are still here, my folks are here. You can take it for granted growing up here… I’ve been lucky to be able to see so much of the world, there are cities that are great to visit, but as far as Brighton is concerned – I don’t know, I’m sure most people grow up in a town and can’t wait to leave, but Brighton is different… So many of my mates have gone up to London, to follow a career or work, but it’s lovely to come back to the Downs, the sea… it’s really important”.
“It can be a real springboard for music,” Mike says of his hometown. “it’s one of those towns that is taken seriously, like Bristol and Manchester, I’d say Brighton is one of them now, if something is taking off in Brighton, people notice.”
How did he get into music? “I got given a guitar when I was really young and started taking classical guitar lessons and did that till I was 15. At the time I hated it, I hated practising and I didn’t really relate to the music I was playing. But looking back it gave me such a great platform, made me understand the guitar, not just playing but how and why it works. So, when it comes to writing songs it gives you a really good grounding… I started writing and singing when I was 15 or 16.”
“My Dad is from the States and he’s massively into Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Joni MItchell – I grew up on that kind of music and never really grew out of it… there are certain artists I will listen to for the rest of my life and have been a massive influence on how I write and approach music, I think.”
“I dropped out of college when I was 17 and started gigging around town. But back then it was much harder to get gigs, it was much more dance (in the early 2000s) orientated, so it was tough breaking into it. I was a bit lost then, didn’t really know what I was doing. I ended up meeting Andrew (Phillips) and we put a band together (which became Passenger). We ended up releasing an album and touring, but for so many reasons it wasn’t quite right. I think the potential was there, there was some great songs and I love those guys, they’re still some of my best mates, but people were tugging in different directions and it ended up being a compromise. It was over thought and as a result it was wrong how it came out. It’s quite a painful experience watching something that you are so passionate about come out pretty badly. But coming out of that I learnt so much, I learnt exactly what I didn’t want to do and I learnt what was really important: great ideas, great songs, put over simply in an honest way.”
Listening to some of those early songs now, it remains obvious why so much time was devoted to the project – the songs were great, much in the mould of later songs like ‘Let Her Go’ and ‘Holes’, another great song from the last album. Although Mike views some of his songs as depressing, they are really just honestly told tales of life’s ups and downs, that people can relate to.
So, with the money gone and the project having run out of steam, Mike was determined to go his own way. “I started from scratch again when the band broke up and that was when I started busking. I had no band, no house, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was thinking, ‘how can I make a living from music immediately’? Not in six months or a year, but how can I make £100 now? Busking wasn’t a masterplan but I started seeing the reaction from people and they started stopping and listening to me in the street. There would be no reason for that, other than liking what I was doing. That started to fill me with confidence and everything grew from that.”
“In 2009 I busked, travelled around the UK, sometimes just getting on a train to go to a town and busk. It was romantic, liberating and a great few months. It was exciting having control, not needing to ask for money from someone else. I started to think of it as a business, not just turning up and playing sentimental songs. I thought this could work, if I’m clever about it but by October time it’s not such an enjoyable experience busking here due to the weather. I’d been to Australia briefly and it seemed to go down very well and I wanted to carry on busking and it seemed the obvious choice. So I booked a flight and started from scratch there. Again, it was a liberating time, no-one was that excited in England about what I was doing. People in the industry had heard of Passenger and weren’t that fussed by it, so going to Australia was completely brand new. I could be a different person, I could be this solo troubadour character. It was good!”
For the next three years or so Mike spent half his time in Australia, the other half here in the UK and Europe but it was Down Under that he started to develop good audiences for his work and recorded two albums, both self-financed: ‘Flight of the Crow’ and ‘All The Little Lights’. It was this last album that featured ‘Let Her Go’, but until the tours with Ed Sheeran and the massive radio play that began in Europe, the album was an Australia only release if you wanted the CD with worldwide digital distribution. He’s even self-financed his new record, also recorded in Australia, which will have global physical and digital distribution behind it. “I’ve financed them all myself. If you fund it no one can say anything creatively, although you obviously want people’s input and their advice and to hear the record and say: ‘Have you thought about this or that’ but ultimately it’s your decision which is fucking amazing as a musician. You don’t want someone to tell you which song to leave out or which photo to use. Fuck that, it’s your vision, your the artist, you created it and from a label’s point of view there’s less risk. For me, it’s just a more sensible way of doing things in 2014.”
Clear sighted, level headed and very much an independent artist, Rosenberg has continued to work with long-time manager and friend Dan Medland, who continues to work for ie:music, albeit now based in Australia. In fact, he ended up in Australia independently of Mike, enabling their relationship to continue, “Dan and ie have been amazing. In a six-months-and-it’s-over world, I’ve been with them for 12 years. It’s not always been easy – we’ve butted heads sometimes – but ultimately they’ve seen the long game. They’ve always believed in my writing and who I am as a musician… I am an independent artist, but Dan was always there helping with the logistical side of things, teeing up gigs. I’m so pleased it has worked for myself obviously, but also for people like Dan who have worked tirelessly over the years.
With the new album out in the summer, a tour of the UK being lined up for later in year and a tonne of preparation required, will there be any more busking? “It shocked us (the recent success), we were doing everything on the fly, like headless chickens; everything was so last minute but we’re trying to get as much ready as possible so it’s not such a shit fight. Busking has turned into something different – I can’t just rock up with my amp and stick it on Facebook because, amazingly, a lot of people will come down. I’ll have to think it through. I may have to contact the police or council to ask for permission. But there will definitely be some busking this year – I don’t just want to start doing everything traditionally – it’s the reason why it’s working now and I love it. It’s such a buzz. You could have sat on your arse watching ‘Breaking Bad’, but you got up and went out and generated something – that is such a buzz. From my point of view you saw people connecting with it – it wasn’t stats or figures, no, it’s human beings watching and listening and buying your CD. That’s hard fact, that what you are doing is working and that’s a massive thing. It gave me an understanding of where I’m at.”