A fitting title, Passenger. And what a ride it has been for Michael Rosenberg, the 36-year-old singer-songwriter from Brighton. Certainly, there are humble beginnings to this story. Rosenberg embarked on his musical journey young, seemingly forced in the direction of his dreams, the path he was destined for. With a clear and simple direction: write songs, sing them for the people, pour your heart out, and never look back. Since the early 2000’s Rosenberg would busk on the streets of England and gig in every back alley pub that would let him. And as all great artists do, Rosenberg did experiment, expand, hone in, play; repeat. Ten years of this routine: Experiment, expand, hone in, play, repeat. And on July 24th, 2012, everything would change. Well, not everything… One thing would never change; Rosenberg would continue to make honest, poignant, evolving, and beautiful music.
On July 24th, 2012, Passenger released the single, “Let Her Go.” The song went absolutely wild, achieving international success and topping the charts in many countries around the world. In one year, it has sold over one million digital copies in the UK, and over four million in the US. Though that’s not the story I am here to tell. I’d like to shine light on another side of Passenger: A more human side, void of statistical success, aimed at the success I perceive from his path of evolution of self. This interview is focused on an artist from England with drive and inspiration. An artist who respects his muse, who has cultivated an inviting and rich world for her to live and grow in. An artist who knows the value of the people who surround him. A humble and kind man, Michael Rosenberg is a gem, “salt of the earth,” as my Dad would say.
Glide was honored to sit down with Passenger and talk about his new album, Songs for the Drunk and Broken Hearted. Here we see that Rosenberg is still evolving, growing, and stretching out. “Songs for the Drunk and Broken Hearted” is a hauntingly beautiful collection of Americana gold, and is likely Passengers‘ finest and most focused record yet. So, we dug deep, into the creative process, heartbreak, fame, fortune, and what matters most in life: The people around you, the ones you love.
Hey Mike, where are you?
I’m outside of Brighton, England. Just south of London. It’s cold and freezing and very English.
I’ve wanted to get over to England for a while. I like the cold and fog. It’s kind of romantic.
Yeah. It’s good for a bit. I just went and played a couple of shows in Dubai. So nice and warm there. A couple of days on the beach was a nice break.
What were those shows like?
Really good actually. It was nice to be on a stage again, to remember that side of my character and what I actually do for a living. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone with this stuff. I think we all took it for granted and thought it would always be an option. When it’s taken away from you, it’s kind of savage.
That is very true.
Listening to your new record Songs for the Drunk and Broken Hearted – immediately I thought, your band is so good. Is this a band that you tour with or primarily a studio band?
They’re a bunch of guys I’ve met through the years. Usually, when I play live it’s just me solo but a few years ago we went out and toured as a band. They’ve stuck around as the recording band and they’re so great. It’s two Aussies and two Americans. A lot of this record was done remotely, as you might expect. They’re a great bunch of guys and super talented.
Yeah, it feels as though everyone on the record knows exactly what you’re going for socially. There’s a sense that the records and the songs come out easily. It feels like this isn’t a strain. Does that resonate?
I think that’s right – not to say we don’t have difficulty in the studio and that it’s easy all the time – but the writing has always come very naturally to me. This is my 13th record. I’ve never had writer’s block. I’ve never felt like I’m in trouble with writing. Part of that has to do with that I’ve usually got a record waiting to come out. Being an album ahead of myself prevents me from that shit situation where you’re desperately trying to get songs together for a record. I think that tends to be when people write the wrong songs. I’m lucky I’ve got this great band. My producer is amazing – he’s my best mate – it feels like just hanging out with friends and making music. That’s kind of the dream, right?
That is the dream. I can sense that comradery and admiration for each other in the songs. The sound is so dialed, yet the music feels very accessible.
It’s an interesting thing finding a sound and finding a direction. That didn’t come overnight. It came from years of fumbling about and trying to figure out what it was. Interestingly enough when I boiled it down to the simplest form of what I could do, that was what worked. When I took out all of the over-thinking and analyzing and the, “what am I trying to do here?”.You take all of that out and just write songs and go and play them. I know it sounds stupid.
No, it makes perfect sense.
I hear some Mark Knopfler in your sound. Was he a big influence?
I love Knopfler. As far as the songs or the playing?
More in the cadence and delivery.
Yeah, interesting. I’m a massive Knopfler fan. I love Dire Straits and I love his solo work. I think he’s really underrated actually, which sounds bizarre because he’s massive. That’s an interesting one. I haven’t heard that before, but I can definitely see that.
When you’re performing are you thinking about anything?
As soon as I start thinking about what I’m doing I usually fuck it up. It’s like when you’re driving and you start thinking, what am I actually doing here? That’s when you’ll crash the car. You have to relax into muscle memory. I suppose it is quite mediative, space I get into when I’m playing. You relax into it and let your body and your brain and your heart do the work.
Is it still a trip to travel around the world and play for two or three thousand people every night? Does that still blow your mind?
Completely. There was a period of time when suddenly I went from playing pubs to playing big rooms. It’s completely insane. Your lifelong dream coming true almost overnight, after years and years and years of putting in the groundwork. Around that time it was completely mind-blowing. I’ve toured so much, I still absolutely love it but if you were to eat your favorite meal every night you would get bored of it. There’s no way to keep it feeling special every night after ten years of solid touring. It’s tiring and it can get on top of you a little, you can lose the magic a bit. Of course, I’ve turned up to venues and I’m tired, in a bad mood, and I’ve done my back in, and I don’t feel like playing, even when there are 3000 people that have bought tickets and I’m in Portland or Chicago or Paris. Now that I’ve had time away from it, I completely understand how incredible this is again.
I think that is a really important thing for people to hear, especially for young artists. Obviously, there are goals you want to set and success you want to have but to think that success is going to give you fulfillment seems misguided. There is something deeper going on that has to fulfill you. Everything gets normalized at a certain point.
Exactly, it’s the same as money. You think money will make you happy – and fame and success – they don’t. All these things we strive towards in the world that we live in are only good if they come in the right way and you have great people around you. This is all sounding super cheesy.
No, no. It’s real.
I used to think when I was busking and playing to empty pubs, that if I could have what I have now I would never complain again. Everything would be sunshine and lollipops. Of course, it isn’t. The rest of your life still happens and it’s either good or bad or ugly or whatever. It’s obviously amazing to play for people and have them excited about my music but it’s just an element of life, it’s not everything.
What inspired your new record?
I went through a breakup while I was writing a bunch of these songs. When you come out of a relationship and you’re so used to being with someone and it’s such a warm and comforting element of life, and all of a sudden you’re on your own, it’s confronting and vulnerable. I felt like I tumbled through the first few months. I was drinking a lot and hanging out with the wrong people. I found it to be a really interesting window of time to write about. I know I’m certainly not the first singer-songwriter to write an album after a heartbreak. This period felt a bit out of control. You’re not quite yourself and you’re trying to transition from who you were with that person to who you are going to be without them. I started to realize that everyone has to go through this at some point. I started viewing the album as kind of a handbook on how to get through that time. Even with the characters in the songs, “Suzanne” and the guy I write about “Remember to Forget,” I felt that they were both drunk and broken hearted in their own ways. Those two characters took the narrative out of my personal experience and broadened the theme of the album.
Do you have a “normal” songwriting process? A routine?
It used to vary a lot. I would be on a train and come up with a lyric or I’d be walking around and get an idea for a song. Nowadays, more often than not, I’ll be playing guitar and not really thinking about anything and some sort of melodic idea will spark my imagination. It could be just two chords. Usually, that sets the tone for the song, some kind of chord progression, some sort of idea on the guitar, and instantly – if it’s good – you can sense what the song needs to feel like. I’ve described it as: How an archaeologist brushes away a fossil. You don’t know exactly what it is yet, it might be some kind of ancient snail or it could be a dinosaur. When you spend an afternoon brushing away at it you start to get a picture of what it is.
I love the fossil analogy. Maybe you have to keep going even if you think this might be garbage.
Yeah, it could be a mollusk (both laugh). Having said that, I think I’ve definitely gotten better at sensing whether something is a rare dinosaur and is worth spending the day on. I have to be super excited about a song to follow it through. Earlier in my career, I would follow every song idea like a dog chasing a ball. I would write more songs but they wouldn’t necessarily be great. You get better at judging that stuff.
Do you feel like lyrically you’re writing cognitively or more a stream of consciousness?
Neither really. It’s a really good question and a hard one to explain. Going back to the fossil thing, once you’ve uncovered what the song is about and what it needs to be, then you’re filling in the gaps and filling in the story. Making sure that there is a strong narrative throughout. That’s the challenge in a song. Making sure it’s obvious enough for the listener but not so obvious that it loses its magic. That’s a fine line.
Leaving some mystery in the meaning so people can use their own imagination to dissect?
For sure. I find it quite interesting when people want to get the absolute details of a song. What’s this about and what’s this line mean? It’s cool and I’m totally happy to go there – though I feel that part of the magic of songwriting is that a song can mean something different to everyone. You offer it out to people and they all take it in a slightly different way.
You made three really cool, cinematic music videos for the record. Do you enjoy making the videos?
It was really fun to do these three recent ones. They’re all based in the same crazy old pub in London. I dressed up as a clown and God knows what else. Usually, my videos are me just walking around and singing. We make them while we’re on tour, like in Barcelona and go out for a walk and film some stuff. This time around it was really lovely to do something a bit more conceptual and have a bigger crew. Videos can be exhausting and strike me as a weird concept sometimes. I’ll be halfway through making a video and think, what the hell am I doing? I wrote this song and now suddenly I’m dressed up as a clown.
I think you did a great job with them. There can be that thought, “Shit, am I making something I’m going to really not like down the road?”.
For sure, I think that’s all part of putting yourself on the line as an artist in general. I listen back to some of my records now and am like, ooof (not pleased ). But, it is what it is. That’s where I was in my life at the time and there is beauty in that.
What’s in your tape deck?
I have to say, the new Taylor Swift album is great. The song “Willow” is fantastic, I’m obsessed with it. It’s so encouraging to see a global popstar go down the route of acoustic folk and nailing it. She is truly in my tape-deck at the moment.