After touring Australia and the U.S. for years as a busker, Mike Rosenberg, a.k.a. Passenger, found his career catapulted into the stratosphere with the smash success of folk sing-along "Let Her Go" and a slot touring with fellow English singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran. With a fantastic new album, Whisper out this year and a massive solo tour, no one would have a better excuse to bask in their newfound success and glory. But after our interview with Passenger, it's clear he's still the same down-to-earth and genuine guy who played a session for us last year. If you ever needed a reason to love his music more, Mike's sincerity and authenticity are a breath of fresh air in an increasingly artificial musical world.
You caused a bit of a stir with an interview you did on NPR about the man who inspired "Riding to New York." Were you guys ever able to figure out the identity of the man you met at that gas station?
Passenger: It's interesting. I had no idea they were gonna make a big thing of it, you know? I don't know if it's possible to be honest. I met this guy, and we talked for ten minutes, and I don't think I even got his name or contact info. I don't know how it would be possible to track him down. And, unfortunately, he had a terminal illness so I don't even know if he's alive or not. And, no, I'd love him, one day, to hear that song, but I don't know if I think it's possible, really.
You've described Whispers as your most "up" album. But there are still some of the darker, more emotional elements that a lot of your fans associate with your music. How did you manage to strike that balance?
P: I don't know. I don't think it was a conscious decision, really. It was just a bunch of songs that I'd written, and I've had an amazing couple of years. And I think that a lot of what I've been going through breathes into those songs or at least some of it and it's been really fantastic and exciting and fun and up. And some moments have been more challenging and thought-provoking and thoughtful. I think on the records, you're always trying to strike a balance between those more melancholic moments and also a bit of fun as well. I think it might take you on a bit of a journey... an emotional journey. I think it's always something I aim to do.
Right now, we seem like we're living in a sort of renaissance of English folk acts. You, Ben Howard, Laura Marling, Noah and the Whale, Frank Turner -- although I suppose he's somewhat of a folk punk act. What do you think it is that's drawing so many young English artists back to folk as a medium for their performances?
P: It's been going on for a few years, hasn't it? I mean, obviously, Mumford & Sons getting enormous I think probably helped everyone. It probably broadened the market for folk. I don't know... I think ever since I started ten or so years ago, there was always a lot of people playing this kind of music; it just wasn't in the mainstream conscious, you know? It just wasn't popular. And I think now, this music has just come around. And loads of people you've mentioned have started to come up. Frank Turner has been playing for years and years and Laura Marling as well. All those people you mentioned, they've been playing for years. And you have to see that we'd all be doing this whether it was popular or not. Whether it was playing for thousands of people or playing in a pub, I think we'd all be making this music regardless.
Right now, you're playing a string of sold-out U.S. tour dates, and as someone who started their career out busking, what's it been like transitioning to increasingly larger and larger venues and continuing to fill these halls?
P: Oh man. It's so amazing. I'm so fortunate. I was busking for five years and little pubs in front of 15 people a night. And, then, I never thought I would be able to play these venues let alone sell them out. Honestly, and I'm not just saying this, I feel really, really fortunate. The transition, in some ways... you might imagine... I've been playing for so long... you play these tiny gigs with terrible sound and people talking through you and whatever. When you get to bigger rooms where the sound is useful and people have paid money to see you so they're quiet and attentive, suddenly, it peaks and it's wonderful. And all of those other gigs have kind of prepared you for this moment it feels like.
Your songwriting style has always reminded me a lot of Paul Simon's most narratively driven tracks.... songs like "The Boxer" or "Homeward Bound." What artists have you considered to be the biggest influence on your lyrical style?
P: You hit the nail on the head. Paul Simon if I had to choose one artist. The way he turns a phrase and the way he structures songs, I think he really tells a story and gets his stories across in the songs he writes. I've always loved that. I've been listening to him since I was a baby. I definitely think he was a massive influence on me and on the songwriting. It's like Dylan as well and James Taylor, Cat Stevens and Neil Young. It's the stuff I grew up on that influenced my music and my songwriting.
I like to ask this question whenever I'm interviewing a British performer. I like to ask it around the middle of the interview just to lighten the mood for a second... Blur or Oasis?
P: Good question... Oasis? If we're talking the first two records, I think they're masterpieces. I think over a career I'd say Blur. I think Damon Albarn's done amazing, interesting things, and Oasis just sort of stayed the same. I think Blur evolved in more interesting ways... It's a difficult one, but both of them for different reasons.
Back in 2010, you released Flight of the Crow where you worked with a wide variety of Australian independent artists. Are there any artists right now that you would like to collaborate with if you were given the chance?
P: Oh God... Massive... One of the people I'd love to work with is Sam Smith. I'm sure he's pretty massive over here, right?
Yeah, I actually saw him at Bonnaroo. He was great.
P: He's actually such a nice guy as well. But, yeah, I think, hopefully, we're going to be up do some writing together because he's a really sweet bloke, and his voice and songs are just fantastic. But, yeah, he's my first choice at the moment.
A Sam Smith/Passenger collaboration would be fantastic.
That last question sort of leads into this one. I'm sure you're quite busy with touring at the moment, but are there any albums or artists that you've really been into lately?
P: As I said, Sam Smith's record's been on a lot. I think there's a lot of smaller bands. There's some Northern Irish bands I've really been into of late. They're absolutely fantastic. I heard a really fantastic band the other day called Bronze Medal. They're from the U.K. They're absolutely tying everything up, like 2000 Facebook fans. There's a song called "High Fever" which I've been listening to a lot recently.
As of yesterday morning, "Let Her Go" had 370 million plays on Youtube and 224 million plays on Spotify. How does it feel knowing that you've written a song that's reached such an extraordinarily large number of people.
P: It varies. Sometimes I can't even get my head around it; sometimes it doesn't even feel like it's my song anymore. It's been like nothing else I've ever written, obviously. It's reached so many people, and I get Facebook messages and tweets from people in India and the Philippines and Africa saying they love this song. It's just something I never ever thought... never dreamed that I'd have a song as big as this. It still blows my mind. Just sending me the figures there from Youtube is frightening. What do you do with that information? It's not even real anymore.
What do you see as the next phase of your career? What's the next part of the story of Passenger?
I think this year, with Whispers out, it's an album I'm really, really proud of. And we're going to be touring for a century now. So, the immediate future is just crazy touring. After that, I think I'm going to take a bit of time off. I've been pretty much hammer & tong for six or seven years without much of a break. I just want to take some time off and let the whole thing kick in a little bit and figure it out. I've been going out a bunch and working on some new songs, but the new album will come out fairly quickly although not as quickly as this new one. I'd love to get back to doing more busking and more intimate shows as well. Long term future, I really, really want to take advantage of the busking community again.
If you enjoy Passenger's music, you absolutely owe it to yourself to watch the phenomenal exclusive session we shot with Mike last year. The power of his voice and personality shines through immediately.