INTERVIEW with PASSENGER – “I was on lockdown on my own with my cats and feeling fairly weird & sad about things”

PASSENGER

Mike Rosenberg, better known as Passenger, releases his new studio album Songs for the Drunk and Broken Hearted on January 8, 2021.

Hailing from Brighton, England, Passenger is a multi-award winning, platinum-selling singer-songwriter. Although still known for his busking, he long ago made the journey from street corners to stadiums, thanks in part to supporting his good mate Ed Sheeran, and most notably with “Let Her Go,” which reached number 1 in 19 countries and is approaching three billion plays on YouTube.

Lee Campbell sat down with Mike to talk about the new album, musical influences, busking and more.

Passenger

‘Songs for the Drunk and Broken Hearted’ will be released on January 8th. It’s your twelfth album in 11 years since ‘Wide Eyes Blind Love’ in 2009. Quite a prolific ability. What keeps you inspired as a writer?

Mike: I find the world and life, pretty constantly inspiring. I think there is an inspiration to be found every day. You are constantly learning. You are constantly experiencing new things, listening to new music, reading new books. You are changing as a person all the time, and releasing an album every year. It’s a really nice thing to do because it documents that process. My heroes are people like Bob Dylan and Neil Young. You look at their discography and back catalogue. My dream one day is to have that sort of level of album output to my name. We’ll see if that happens. Every artist is different. I’ve got lots of friends who are very meticulous about making a record and agonise over it for two or three years. I’ve always been the other extreme of the spectrum where it’s like, you know what, I’ve got a group of songs, let’s record them, let’s get it out, let’s tour, let’s keep the water running.

You have an intimate evening at London’s Royal Albert Hall that will be broadcast on January 10th to tie in with the album release, and you played a socially distanced show in Dubai earlier this month – how was that?

Mike: It was great, it came out of the blue. We were offered these two shows in Dubai, where they have been one of the first places to run socially distanced gigs of any size. I bit their hand off for it, firstly to get out of December in England, and to get back out on stage and play again was an absolute joy, such a wonderful feeling and wasn’t as weird a feeling as I thought it might feel. The first song was a little bit rusty, and then I thought “Oh yeah, I remember this” (laughing).

What was the interaction and reaction like from the crowd?

Mike: It was great. I think it was one of their first gigs, so everyone felt quite lucky to be there. Also, if you’re touring night after night, it gets quite slick, but as I haven’t played for so long, it was a bit rusty, and it was funny, fresh and vulnerable. Everyone picked up on that. I really enjoyed it, and I think if this year has done anything, it’s made me realise how unbelievably lucky I am to be able to do what I do. I’ve toured so much over the past decade; it gets so easy to take it for granted. As wonderful as it is, if you do it every night, it becomes less wonderful. I think this time has been crucial for me to get perspective on that again.

The opening track from the album is called ‘Sword from the Stone’. Can you tell me a little bit about this track and where it came from?

Mike: Yeah, I wrote this song during lockdown actually, so it was added to the album fairly late on. I had come out of a break-up six or so months previous to writing it. I was on lockdown on my own with my cats and feeling fairly weird & sad about things. It was just a real outpouring of honesty, and I think something that makes the song really work is that the verses are quite conversational, kind of small-talky. It’s almost like having an awkward conversation with your ex, and it’s all very polite and all very considered, but then in the chorus, there’s just this burst of, “actually, do you know what – I am not handling this very well, I’m a bit of a mess, and yeah, help!”. I think there’s something about that’s really powerful.

One of the other tracks, ‘Remember to Forget’, some of the guitar work on this one reminded me of George Harrison. Definitely some vibes from Abbey Road or Rubber Soul maybe.

Mike: I hope so. My guitar player Benny is a phenomenal player and a big George Harrison fan, so he definitely seeps into his playing. I actually think there are a few Beatles moments on this record. ‘London in the Spring’ – the chord progression there; moments of ‘Suzanne’ also. It’s funny to say, but I’ve never felt overly influenced by The Beatles. Obviously, I make music post-Beatles, so they influence me, but this is the first record that it comes through quite strongly, and I, of course, embrace it. I mean, who wouldn’t?

Some of the other artists you have quoted as influential albums or songs include Simon & Garfunkel – Live in Central Park 1982; John Prine (sadly no longer with us); Joni Mitchell; The Smiths; Fleetwood Mac, James Taylor. Quite a list there. Who was the first singer or band you ever saw perform live or the first one that had a big effect on you?

Mike: I don’t know if it was the first, but I saw John Prine at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire when I was a teenager, and it had a really dramatic effect on me. I think he did have a band with him, but it was so subtle and really centred around him. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen someone hold a room like that and take the crowd on such an emotional rollercoaster, going from a hilarious story to a heartbreaking song within the same minute. Just understanding the power of that. There are very few people who can do that. He was one of the best. He’s one of those guys that every songwriter knows and loves. What a cool position that is.

Talking here to a Northern Irishman, Foy Vance is a similar guy. I think he is one of the best writers of his and our generation. He hasn’t got the global reach that he could have, but you speak to any songwriter, and everyone knows Foy, and everyone loves him. I think he’s pretty happy with where he’s at; he’s so well-respected. Throughout your career, you make a series of decisions about what you will and what you won’t do, and what’s important to you, what your priorities are. I really respect people like Foy because it’s all about creativity, it’s all about preserving what’s special about it, and he won’t compromise. Sometimes you need to compromise to get to a wider audience and perhaps he never did that. I respect him so deeply and love his music.

You started your career busking. Have there been any impromptu busking performances during 2020?

Mike: No, when we thought the album would come out in May, we built this busking tour around the album release, but sadly January is not the time to go out busking, COVID or not. It’s not gonna work out, but I still love busking. I think the last time was a couple of years ago. I like to get out still and do it if I can. There’s something different about busking which is different from gigs and festivals, being on-stage with all the lights and the circus. There is something very intimate and very real about busking, which is really at the centre of how Passenger began. It feels really good every couple of years to check in with that.

The title track, ‘A Song for the Drunk & Broken Hearted’ – The video and song feature some ‘joker’ imagery. An essential question coming up; Who would be your favourite Batman?

Mike: I love the recent Batman films. I think they are phenomenal. I’ve never been a sucker for huge Holywood, superhero movies, but I think the ‘Dark Knight’ series is sensational, mainly to do with Heath Ledger and I think Christian Bale plays Batman pretty well. I think the ‘Joker’ movie is quite a feat to follow that up with any panache, and they really pulled it off.

Where did the clown theme come from for the album?

Mike: For the song for the video for ‘Drunk & Broken Hearted’, there’s a lot of lyrical imagery that talks about clowns, jesters and jokers and it felt like those songs are all about those evenings where you are in the pub with people feeling miserable. You’ve got to put on this brave face and this show. I think the clown represents that really well. I think that’s why people find clowns so sad and unsettling. There’s always this kind of facade and something else going on. It’s a really powerful image on the front cover, and it really evokes the record. There’s also a Kinks song called ‘The Death of a Clown’ which played a part. I think that was a subtle influence as well. It just feels like it ties in the whole record really well.

One of my favourite tracks on the album is ‘Sandstorm’. I love the mood of it; it’s quite slow and building. It’s got different instruments in it. There’s a lyric in it, “I am the sandstorm, and you are the sand”. What’s behind that metaphor and what’s behind that track?

Mike: Yeah, I love that track as well. It was a bit out of my comfort zone. As you say, it starts quite subtly and builds into something a little bit more chaotic. I’m really pleased with how it came out. It’s quite a personal one. I felt like the way the last few years has been with me going out and being in Passenger and touring, having this crazy time, I’d arrive home, and my poor ex-girlfriend would be living her life and having her routine. I felt I would come into the place like a wrecking ball, and she would have to weather the storm. There were definitely some personal feelings tied up in that one.

It is a sincere and exposed album. How did you find this process amidst some difficult, personal experiences that you are writing about?

Mike: Yeah, it’s painful to write when you are feeling like that. You come out of a relationship, and you’re feeling vulnerable. You’re very close to the edge at the best of times, so when you’re confronting it by writing songs about it and trying to make sense of it, it’s a bit brutal, but I think the music’s better for it. I’m not the first person to say, but people make their best art when they’re uncomfortable, and they’re going through something difficult.

You’re feeling something, and you’re really living. You’re not comfortable; you’re not cocooned in something soft. You’re out in the world and getting battered by the elements. That’s interesting. That’s interesting for the listener. The question comes, you can’t sacrifice genuine happiness for great songs, so I think there are points in every artist’s lives, it can’t be every record. It happens when it happens. I suppose the consolation prize of falling out of the whole and going through the whole of that dreadfulness is that you might make a couple of good songs (laughing).

You are playing Belfast and Dublin to open next year’s tour in August. Any fond memories of playing Ireland previously?

Mike: Oh my God, so many! I used to busk in Grafton Street a little bit and played in the Roisin Dubh in Galway, doing those kinds of smaller venues, but the big moment was when I came and toured with Ed (Sheeran), a few arena shows both in Belfast and Dublin. That really woke up an Irish audience for me. Ever since it’s been a real joy. Playing in Ireland and Scotland are some of the highlights of the tour every time. Especially for this kind of music, it feels if you can go to Ireland and go to Scotland, and you can be embraced, it means you are doing something right. It’s a high bar, and it’s a very discerning audience.

If you can impress you guys, you are doing something right. It almost feels like there is a deeper understanding of honesty and less of a tolerance for bullshit. If you try to bullshit a crowd in Ireland or Scotland, they will not have any of it. I love it, and I really miss it.

You’re originally from Brighton, but your final track ‘London in the Spring’ is a beautiful dedication to the city. What makes it such a special place as a working artist?

Mike: I grew up an hour away from it, so it’s like a second home. It’s an interesting song because I remember writing it, and it was actually the last time I went busking. I was sat in the back of the van, driving to our busking spot. When we drove past Big Ben and Houses of Parliament, it was a beautiful & sunny day. London was looking spectacular. It was also in the midst of Brexit chaos, and I remember feeling so mixed about it. I’ve always been proud to come from this place. It felt like it was always welcoming, not entirely obvious, as there are many people like anywhere else. I remember feeling very let down and driving through the city with so much wealth to give yet; it felt so ungiving. It’s a difficult one to describe, but it is really a positive song about London. However, there is an undercurrent as well. It’s definitely an interesting song that one.

Last question before we go, staying on the London topic. I believe you are an Arsenal fan – have you any advice for Mikel Arteta? Maybe there’s a song you could dedicate to him for some inspiration?

Mike: ‘Let Her Go’ (both laughing)? No. I’m a big Arteta fan. I think he’s a really smart guy. Obviously, an ex-player loves the club. I think he needs time. Well gone are the glory years. It’s not going to be an overnight fix. It’s a kick in the teeth. We were looking really good at the end of last year. It’s a tough watch at the moment. We are very spoiled as Arsenal fans; we have very high expectations.

Mike, it’s been lovely chatting with you. I wish you all the very best for 2021 and the tour & for the album. It’s a great album, and I’m sure it will touch many people out there. I look forward to seeing you in Belfast at the end of next summer.

Mike: Sounds, perfect mate. Thanks for your time.

SONGS FOR THE DRUNK AND BROKEN HEARTED

Track Listing:
1. Sword from the Stone
2. Tip of My Tongue
3. What You’re Waiting For
4. The Way That I Love You
5. Remember to Forget
6. Sandstorm
7. A Song for the Drunk and Broken Hearted
8. Suzanne
9. Nothing Aches Like a Broken Heart
10. London in the Spring
11. London in the Spring (Acoustic)
12. Nothing Aches Like A Broken Heart (Acoustic)
13. Suzanne (Acoustic)
14. A Song for the Drunk and Broken Hearted (Acoustic)
15. Sandstorm (Acoustic)
16. Remember to Forget (Acoustic)
17. The Way That I Love You (Acoustic)
18. What You’re Waiting For (Acoustic)
19. Tip of My Tongue (Acoustic)
20. Sword from the Stone (Acoustic)

Songs for the Drunk and Broken Hearted is available to pre-order HEREAll physical packaging of CDs and Vinyl will be made of 100% recycled material. One tree will be planted for every physical piece sold via the Passenger webstore thanks to a partnership with Ecologi and the Eden Project.

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