Passenger – Interview 2016

Many of you will know the story by now. Brighton based Mike Rosenberg and his band had a fair bit of development money thrown at them in the mid 2000s, but to little avail. Despite a well received album, Wicked Man's Rest, the money ran out and in 2009 Mike aborted the project and decided to live a life on the road, as a solo acoustic singer songwriter. He would get on the train, rock up here and there, busk on the streets, do some gigs and he started spending half of his time in Australia, which became a second home. The consummate songwriter and performer, he was making a living, and was releasing his own music, independently, including three albums that did particularly well in Australia.

Sometime in 2010/11 he re-kindled his friendship with Ed Sheeran, whom he had first known when Sheeran was just 15, performing together in a small Cambridge venue. Over the years they played together on occasion, while both were in effect struggling musicians trying to carve out their respective careers. By 2011 Sheeran's popularity was going through the roof and he invited Mike to tour with him as a support act and joining him onstage for duets. In mid 2012, Mike's ‘Let Her Go’ was released as a single. From the All The Little Lights album, it was eventually picked up by a Dutch radio station, who ran with it, helping to turn it into a number two hit in Holland. The dominoes quickly fell after this point, the song reaching number one in 18 countries in 2013, as well as number two in the UK and number five in the USA.

Although he hasn't replicated the success of that hit since, his popularity continues to rise. Not only has he two back-to-back sold out shows at the Dome in Brighton to look forward to, his recent album, Young As the Morning Old As The Sea made it to the top of the UK album charts.

"It's been amazing," says Mike as he prepares for the UK tour. "We were pulling out all the stops to get it there." Getting to that top spot is partly due to an in-store he did in Kingston recently. And it's Kingston where he is headed, following this interview, to perform a one-off solo show. "There was this opportunity to do this big in-store in Kingston. It meant that people who bought the album could get tickets for a future show there. With the album coming out that week we needed the album to sell really well. It ended up making the difference. The album only beat Springsteen by 700 copies," he says referring to Bruce Springsteen's Chapter and Verse album. "We sold about 1000 tickets for tonight. Yeah, it was the difference maker, really. Big one!"

It’s quite remarkable that Passenger, essentially an independent artist, has climbed to the top. A world away from the nauseating show business world of X Factor and the like, it’s a combination of his songs, his persona and his hard work ethic that has paid off big time. He’s no one-hit wonder. Even the blazing success of ‘Let Her Go’ wasn’t able to lift All The Little Lights to number one. The follow up album, Whispers, ‘only’ made it to number five. So there could have been the feeling going around that his moment was passing. That it might be all down hill from here; "This time it felt really special," says Mike. "It wasn't off the back of a hit single, or any buzz or hype. It was people wanting to buy the album. It was a really big win for us."

Despite his relatively late career success, Young As the Morning Old As The Sea sounds like the fire within is being well-stoked as he continues on his journey, looking for happiness, some roots to lay down, some meaning to it all. Throughout his career Rosenberg has consistently found engaging ways to say the obvious, even if there is a strong streak of conflicted yearning throughout the album, as befits one who has been essentially on the road for over a decade. From the stripped back acoustica of the title track itself to the boyhood nostalgia of ‘When We Were Young’ and from the sunny optimism of ‘Anywhere’ to the lamentful country-folk flavours of ‘The Long Road’, the album is a contemplative, introspective, and yet pining in search of that something new; new places yet to be visited and new relationships yet to be forged.

Can you tell me about the title track itself, and why you called the album that? "I wrote ‘Young as the Morning Old as the Sea’ when I was doing a bunch of festivals around Europe. The song is really simple. It's wanderlust put into a song. It mentions all these different places I want to go to, to see and be a part of. You know, those moments when you have a fleeting inkling of just how amazing and vast the world is. I chose to call the album that because it feels to me there is a running theme of places, scenery and landscape. I think the album name helps to sum that up."

After the dissolution of the original Passenger band Mike has essentially been a solo singer songwriter, rocking up on the street and in venues around the globe with often no more than himself and an acoustic guitar. But things have changed this year, not only is he touring with a live band for the first time in years but Young as the Morning Old as the Sea is also very much a band effort. Why the change? "It was about keeping what was really working and changing what maybe wasn't so much," he says. "I'm still working with my good friend Chris Vallejo who I made my last three albums with. But we decided to get into a bigger space. For three or four weeks we were over in Aukland, at Roundhead Studios, which belongs to Neil Finn from Crowded House. It's an amazing space, it's a lot bigger than what we had been used to. It meant we could track the whole thing live with the band, which made a huge difference. With previous albums I would go in and record, maybe get a drummer in for a couple of days, or maybe a bass player for a couple of days. It was very segregated way of doing things. Having everyone playing at the same time, it has a much more organic feel.

"I think the other big difference was having the band come in and really treating it like a band, and giving them the songs at a very early stage. We all worked on them together. In the past it was often me coming up with the parts. I think you can really hear the difference with this one."

As with the album, his current touring set up also involves a band for the first time in many-a-year. It's a big change that took a little getting used to. "It was daunting to start off, I was nervous. For the best part of a decade I had been doing solo gigs. Although that is nerve-wracking when you are up there on your own, I am very used to it. I didn't really know what to think. But honestly it was so easy, the transition was really quick. The guys that are playing in the band are so brilliant (they include three members of Angus & Julia Stone’s band, as well as Pete, his long time drummer). And it's actually a lot less pressure in many ways. There are five of us on stage, instead of one. I don't have to come up with every single note and sound. I can relax a little bit more. There are certain things I miss about being solo. There's the flexibility and ability to be really spontaneous on the night, maybe play a song off the top of your head, which is harder with a band. But, I'm so glad we are doing the band tour, and to give people such a different show than what they are used to. Hopefully, it's keeping what was so special about it intact."

Although Passenger have already played some European dates, the UK tour kicks off in his home town of Brighton, with two back-to-back sold out dates at the Dome. This city is where he was brought up from an early age and where he still lives when not gigging. Unsurprisingly it all seems to make more sense when you're doing a home town show. "I remember playing the Joogleberry (now Latest Musicbar) and selling that out and being over the moon about it. Yeah, it's at moments like these that I realise how far it's come, and you can put it into some kind of perspective."

Despite the glory of a number one album and sell out shows, here in Brighton and around the globe, Mike is still itching. Still yearning for adventure. It’s noticeable that Young As The Morning Old As The Sea namechecks so many places and things he has and hasn’t visited or done over the years. Why is that? "It's funny, the more you travel the more you want to, the more you realise how much you haven't seen. I've been so lucky to have been able to travel as much as I have done and as much as I do. I think it’s a lifetime of work. You've can never see enough."

When Mike was a travelling musician, busking his way around the UK, Europe and Australia, he obviously had a lot of freedom and time to just simply enjoy life and his surroundings. He didn’t have much money then. Now, despite the money pouring in and the mass popularly he has attained, paradoxically he has less time and freedom at his disposal. It’s something he intends to do something about soon. "It's hard, man. It's changed a lot since I was busking. We would spend three of four days busking in a city and then we would have a show. So, you'd get much more of a feel for a place. There would be less pressure, less time constraints. Back then it was definitely more relaxed and more like travelling. I think now, especially now I'm touring with a full band and crew, it has to be a lot more traditional in the way we do things. Every city we're in we try and get out for a walk, go for a coffee, and have a look around. Otherwise, you might as well be playing every night in the same town."

"We'll be pretty crazy until the end of the summer," he says about the forthcoming tours. "And then I'm actually going to take a break. It's been pretty relentless over the years, and I haven't really had a proper break for a long time. It's important for me, and a good thing for listeners as well to do that, to recoup and get my energy back. Music is wonderful, and I'm so glad I have dedicated my life to it, but there are other things in life that I would like to spend time and energy on."

He also misses the buzz of busking, something he is not so easily able to do with his new found fame (although he has previously said that he is very lucky in that he doesn’t get recognised on the street much). "It used to be absolutely the way I would gauge reaction to new songs, to know whether or not you were on to a winner" he says about busking. "It's a useful tool for that. I did do a busk on New Road (Brighton) this year. It was beautiful, a really lovely sunny day, and a great turn out. It was really sweet. I love busking. It reminds me why I started doing it in the first place. If you're not careful with music you can get bogged down with the unimportant details and forget that actually the whole fucking point of it is because I love writing songs and I love performing, and I love that connection I get when I do that. That's so important, and easy to lose sight of. Busking really helps me to hone in on that."
Jeff Hemmings