Mike Rosenberg's crafted some of the very best observational songwriting of the year with his lovely new album, All the Little Lights. It's a lush, acoustic collection he's complemented with the perfect epithet in Passenger. "The lyrics and the stories," explains the young, Brighton-born-and-bred musician, "are told from the perspective of a passenger just watching the world go by." For his stirring session in our music room, Mike spun tales of a lonely afternoon on a riverbank in Glasgow Scotland ("Feather On the Clyde"), the hard appreciation that spawns only in the wake of personal loss ("Let Her Go") and a reminder that the present moment is everything ("Life's for the Living"). It's an emotional performance; a journey you'll be grateful to be a passenger aboard.
- My name is Mike, a. k. a. Passenger. Originally I'm from Brighton in the UK but the last five years I've been pretty much everywhere just traveling around playing in the street and playing small gigs and just kind of been growing from there. My new album is called All the Little Lights. There's a song on the record with the same name and let me try and get this right. I can never explain it very well but the idea behind this song is that when we are born, we are born with millions of little lights showing us the way and I'm going to sound like a massive hippie trying to explain this. But basically every time, you know, you fall out of love or, or you get rejected or disappointed, one of these tiny little lights goes out until the end when you're dead and lightless. So welcome to the uplifting world of Passenger. Well there's a river that runs to Glasgow It makes her but it breaks her And takes her into parts And her current just like my blood flows Down from the hills, round aching bones to my restless heart Well I'd swim but the river is so wide I'm scared I won't make it to the other side Well God knows I've failed but He knows that I've tried I long for something that's safe and warm But all I have is all that is gone I'm as helpless and as hopeless as a feather on the Clyde Well on one side all the lights glow And the kids go and the folks know where the music and the drinking starts On the other side where no cars go Up to the hills that stand alone like my restless heart Well I'd swim but the river is so wide And I'm scared I won't make it to the other side Well God knows I've failed but He knows that I've tried I long for something that's safe and warm But all I have is all that is gone I'm as helpless and as hopeless as a feather on the Clyde Well the sun sets late in Glasgow And the daylight and the city part And I think of you in Glasgow Cause you're all that's safe, you're all that's warm in my restless heart Busking really, honestly has been the reason I've been able to, to progress and, and to build a career. You know, it's very difficult in the early stages to try and fund something independently whilst also getting your music out to people. Busking sort of ticked both boxes and, it's just so wonderful for so many reasons because it also you meet so many incredible people along the way and hear so many stories that that all feeds into the songwriting and it turns into this sort of bizarre, transient way of life that kind of incorporates everything, you know, I still love doing it, you know, when I can. Well, you only need the light when it's burning low Only miss the sun when it starts to snow Only know you love her when you let her go Only know you've been high when you're feeling low Only hate the road when you're missing home Only know you love her when you let her go And you let her go Staring at the bottom of your glass Hoping one day you'll make a dream last But dreams come slow, and go so fast You see her when you close your eyes Maybe one day you'll understand why Everything you touch surely dies But you only need the light when it's burning low Only miss the sun when it starts to snow Only know you love her when you let her go Only know you've been high when you're feeling low Only hate the road when you're missing home Only know you love her when you let her go You're staring at the ceiling in the dark Same old empty feeling in your heart Love comes slow, and it goes so fast Well you see her when you fall asleep But never to touch and never to keep Cause you loved her too much and dived too deep But you only need the light when it's burning low Only miss the sun when it starts to snow Only know you love her when you let her go Only know you've been high when you're feeling low Only hate the road when you're missing home Only know you love her when you let her go And you let her go And you let her go When you let her go Do you only need the light when it's burning low Only miss the sun when it starts to snow Only know you love her when you let her go Only know you've been high when you're feeling low Only hate the road when you're missing home Only know you love her when you let her go And you let her go Let Her Go is a song about, you know, I think Joni Mitchell actually wrote a better one about the same subject. It's not realizing what you have until it's gone. They start building parking lots and all that kind of stuff. But, yeah, it's, it's classic, you know, you, whether it be a relationship or a situation or whatever. And you don't realize how great it is until it's over. And then it's hard to get it back. So I think, you know, it's, it's, it seems to be a song that everyone can relate to in some way. So I think that's, that's kind of what you try and do as a songwriter is, is you offer a song to people and hopefully they take it and they, they insert their own characters and their own experience into that song. So, so I think Let It Go is, is quite good for that. When I first started doing music as a kid, you have all these dreams of being number one and signing to a major label and all this kind of stuff and for me none of that stuff materialized. And so when I started busking, I kind of let go of a lot of these, these sort of dreams or hopes and it was really good because I kind of accepted that what I did was going to be music that I loved and music that I hope other people could connect with. But that it was probably gonna be pretty niche, you know, people were gonna to stumble across it on the street corners or, you know, their friend might tell them about it. But it was gonna be a small thing. So it's funny now because the last six months, it's got a lot bigger, you know, in Europe. Bizarrely it's got to number one in Holland and Belgium and all this stuff where just... As a singer like a few years ago you just let go of all of these things. So suddenly it starts happening. It's quite bizarre but, but actually I feel like I'm in a good place to, to deal with it because I've kind of gone full circle with it. I don't expect anything. I don't expect anything at all so when anything does happen, it's, it's just a bonus. Well gray clouds wrapped round the town like elastic Cars stood like toys made of Taiwanese plastic The boy laughed and danced around in the rain While launderettes cleaned clothes, high heels rub toes Puddles splashed huddles of bus stop crows Dressed in their suits and their boots Well they all look the same I took myself down to the cafe to find all The boys lost in books and crackling vinyl And carved out a poem above the urinal that read Don't cry for the lost Smile for the living Get what you need and give what you're given Oh life's for the living so live it Or you're better off dead While the evening brought the moon out of it's packet Stars shone like buttons on an old man's jacket We needed a nail but we tacked it 'til it fell full Oh while pigeon's pecked trains, sparks flew like planes The rain showed the rainbows in the oil stains And we all had new iPhones but no one had no one to call Well I stumbled down to the stomach of the town Where the widow takes memories to slowly drown With her hand to the sky and a mist in her eye she said Don't you cry for the lost Smile for the living Get what you need and give what you're given Life is for living so live it Or you're better off dead Oh yeah, I, oh lord, oh life, dead now, oh lord I, yeah now Oh I'm sick of this town, this blind man's forage They take your dreams down and they stick them in storage You can have them back son when you've paid off Your mortgage and loans Yeah, hell with this place, I'll go it my own way I'll stick out my thumb and I trudge down the highway Someday someone must be going my way home Till then I'll make my bed from a disused car With a mattress of leaves and a blanket of stars I stitch the words into my heart with a needle and thread Some cry for the lost Smile for the living Get what you need and give what you're given You know life is for the living so live it Or you're better off dead There are a lot of people that I know who, you kind of settle for, for the easy way out sometimes, you know, for the, for a comfortable life and for a, for stable life and for safety net which is totally understandable and something that I crave a lot actually. So it's not a judgment thing but I think I look back at the last few years and just the challenge of it and the places I've ended up. It's just, it's been so incredible. You need to challenge yourself. And you need to, even though it may be really uncomfortable, I think it's, it's a really, really good and necessary thing to do as a human. You know suddenly, you go from playing a free gig in a pub to six drunk people who couldn't care less to playing to a thousand people who have paid good money to come and see you. And they know your songs and they're expecting a sort of, a certain level of performance and whatever. So, yeah, it's, it's really, it's really scary but, you know, but what's, what's life without feeling scared, you know.
When youre an independent artist youre always having to work within a budget you can control. After all, theres no record company picking up the bills youre paying for it all yourself.
For Brighton, UK born and bred yet very much the adopted Australian son singer songwriter Mike Rosenberg, being independent has proven to be the best road he could have taken. There was a time, back in the early 2000s, when things looked very different. There was a five-piece band called Passenger and the big money label behind it and there was a critically acclaimed debut album, Wicked Mans Rest, but when the members of that band chose to go their own separate ways in 2007, Rosenberg opted to stick with the Passenger moniker and trust in his music, his voice and his guitar to take him where it would. He took to the streets and discovered not only that the experience enormous fun, but it also proved empowering for the likeable musical troubadour.
"The busking pays for everything really," Mike admits. Its crazy. Ive funded my last four records basically from busking, so its a godsend really. Its an amazing thing to have stumbled upon because it is the dilemma for every musician how do I put a hundred per cent of myself into my music, whilst keeping myself together? Its not a new problem its always been the case but you find something like busking, which you can still do; while youre making money you can play your songs and hopefully further your fan base its ideal really. You dont have to put forty hours of your time into flipping burgers or making coffee or whatever it is. Ill always feel very, very lucky about that.
Honestly, the more I do it, the more I enjoy it. You know, its great that its getting bigger for me but busking actually turns into a real way of life. The structure of busking and just being on your own, enjoying the cities and travelling, I dunno, theres such a lo-fi thing that goes along with it and such an honest and simple way of living for that period of time that I really, really miss actually when Im not doing it, so I really look forward to getting back out on the street again."
Having obviously got a real taste for the busking and the travelling, he thought hed check out sunnier climes, which is how, in October 2009, Mike first took himself over to Australia where he managed to support Lior and Sydneysiders Elana Stone and Brian Campeau, and then played One Movement, a major music industry-focus festival in Perth. Back in Sydney, he met a neighbour who just happened to be ARIA Award-winning singer songwriter Josh Pyke, and the initial idea that would become Flight Of The Crow formed in his mind.
The album proved the perfect entre into the Australian music scene, not least because Flight Of The Crow saw him joined in the studio by the cream of Australian independent musical talent, including Lior, Kate Miller-Heidke, Boy & Bear and Katie Noonan. By the time Mike felt it was time to return to the UK to launch the album there, he was selling out 500-seater venues across Australia. Before he left however, it was time to record a new album.
Its very different to Flight Of The Crow actually all my records," Mike explains. Flight Of The Crow sounded like it was made in the 1960s, which was kind of what we were aiming for, but this one is a bigger production and a bit more modern sounding."
As always, theres a certain element of the youthful Cat Stevens in the tenor of Mikes voice that tells you the emotions that drive his songs arent very far beneath the surface. Recorded again in Sydney, for the new album, All The Little Lights, Mike was joined once again by a core Australian band that included Boy & Bear drummer Tim Hart, jazz bassist Cameron Undy, who also played on Flight Of The Crow, and keyboards player Stu Hunter, from Katie Noonan & The Captains. If theres a theme to be drawn from the album its not just the usual stock-in-trade of the travelling troubadour love but the love of life itself.
Meanwhile the Passenger fanbase has been building very nicely, and very much from the ground up, with the busking feeding into the club gigs all very organic. Its such a funny and slow process, the way we do it. We havent got a label, we havent got the big muscle behind it it really is meeting every fan personally and trying to convince them to sort of buy into it, which is quite a bizarre way of doing it. But I think what Ive found is people have a real personal relationship to it because its not just something on the radio I might be busking and well have a chat or have a beer after a gig or whatever I think that personal thing is so important in making people feel part of the project and then hopefully becoming fans ultimately."
Among the highlights of this past northern summers touring round the UK has been opening for one of UK pop musics most influential figures, Jools Holland, as well as Ed Sheeran, who just had the #1 album in the UK, and Australian acts the John Butler Trio and Josh Pyke, with whom he co-headlined a UK tour.
It was great!" Mike admits, that ubiquitous smile on his face. I did shows with the John Butler Trio over here and in Europe as well. It makes such a difference when you play to those kinds of crowds compared to the busking, which as I say is like playing to each person individually sometimes, it is amazing to then be on a bigger stage and reaching such a big audience in one go."
Its been a remarkable journey for Rosenberg, a journey that has inspired some of the finest songwriting youll hear anywhere, whether on a street corner, a sweaty rocknroll room or a concert stage. Listening to him, whether on record or in performance, you can tell hes having the time of his life, and its all there on his new album, All The Little Lights. And the most exciting this is you just know theres plenty more to come.