On a beautiful Brighton morning, I had rather hoped to chat to Passenger’s Michael Rosenberg about the burst of splendid weather his hometown had been enjoying. Obviously I should have expected differently from artist who’s spent most of his adult life travelling. “Oh is it still nice there? I’m in New York at the moment. We’ve been doing some busking gigs around America recently, then I’m appearing at a club over in Brooklyn tonight,” he laughs.
Once, Passenger was a full band that released a pretty decent album back in 2007 and promptly dissolved. Rosenberg held onto the name and took up busking to occupy his time. Soon he was moving between Europe and Australia for the summer months, sleeping on friend’s floors and performing wherever he could. Over this period, he started to discover what kind of musician he wanted to be. He describes these years as the best of his life, and it was this endless gigging which established his name on the scene.
Pubs, clubs, busking – Rosenberg fell into a routine of playing to anyone who would hear him. On this endless circuit he struck up a friendship with the Grammy award-winning Ed Sheeran. On the Thinking Out Loud artist’s first big UK tour, he offered support slots to some of his fellow troubadours. Eventually this would see Rosenberg supporting Sheeran all over the world. Bounding from the city streets to international slots might have been enough, but even bigger things lay ahead.
This capable singer/songwriter was never going to be releasing brash upfront pop songs, but this breadth of experience was giving him a growing sense of confidence in his music. Then a Dutch radio plugger became a little obsessed by Passenger’s single Let Her Go. He’d been given permission to see if he could get the track some airplay in Europe. Under a month later and it had turned into an international hit. Snowballing across Europe and Australia, it would be the UK’s only million-selling British single of 2013. Over in the States it went triple-platinum, eventually featuring on a Budweiser Super Bowl advert broadcast to over 110 million viewers.
Despite topping the singles chart in 16 countries, the Ivor Novello award-winner sweetly claims people still never recognise him. “To be honest, I look back on it as a brilliant story to tell my grandkids.” The global fame hasn’t affected him – he’s grounded by a close-knit group of friends and family – but it has given him the freedom to keep on creating music. “It was amazing. I could write another 10 tracks just like that, but it wouldn’t be coming from the same place.”
He’s earnest and charming to chat with, unafraid to let enthusiasm rise in his voice when talking about past glories or what’s to come. Looming ever closer is the release of his new album – Young As The Morning, Old As The Sea. It was recorded alongside his previous collaborator Chris Vallejo (INXS, Empire of the Sun) in New Zealand and Australia. He says he doesn’t feel a massive pressure to fit in with people’s expectations, instead intent on pushing his craft forwards. It again features the beautifully constructed lyrics and warm guitar melodies he’s known for – his unique song-writing style, loving sentiment and intrigue ever evolving. This openhearted approach mirrors his generous spirit, and for the new album his observation and storytelling seems more reflective than ever. But he admits there’s still plenty to learn from life, despite the breadth of his experiences. “In some ways, I still feel like I’m young and naïve.” The childhood influences of Neil Young, Cat Stevens, James Taylor and Bruce Springsteen shine through on the album. All of them massively accomplished songwriters, each one’s individuality can be heard without masking his own identity.
The transitory life of this former busker can be heard across Young As The Morning, Old As The Sea, with many songs concerning themselves with departure or arrival. “Well… I am always travelling!” With warm strings, subtle percussion and his gentle acoustic guitar sitting beneath Rosenberg’s soft, vocals, it offers the continuation of the endearing Passenger sound. While the music might be subdued in between the soaring anthems, it never ceases to be relatable and emotionally inspiring.
He still fits the role of a travelling troubadour quite well. Global success brought a temporary halt to the busking, though a few impromptu performances still sneak in occasionally. The difference this time is the crowds of hundreds turning up. From tiny venues and pubs around Europe and Australia, to plating massive festivals and headline shows, this one-man musical travelogue rolls onwards. His primary goal getting into music was to connect with people. While the fame and small fortune accompanying a hit single might be nice, composing songs that people relate to holds much greater reward for him. What the success has encouraged is for him to put down roots. Now he owns a small flat in Hove, after being practically homeless for a number of years, where the wandering can pause for just a few weeks. “I spent so long travelling around, where I’d be sleeping on people’s floors and in hostels. It’s really nice to have somewhere with all my stuff, where I can just shut the door and relax.”