Interview: Passenger

A mainstay in the world of soft acoustic-pop, Passenger’s work manages to capture an indescribable world of emotion; each sparkling track akin to warming mug of lovingly homemade hot chocolate on a blisteringly cold day. As we collectively brace ourselves for a third impending lockdown, Lilith Hudson sat down with the eminent songwriter to explore how isolation, and, in turn, its effect on our own humanity, has impacted his music and beyond.

Mike Rosenberg (aka. Passenger) is best known for his award-winning hit Let Her Go released back in 2012, which saw his career skyrocket. While many solo artists transform overtime, as they experiment with new sounds to encourage sales, Rosenberg’s distinct raspy vocals still permeate his beautifully constructed acoustic melodies as impeccably as they ever did, without any sense of a desperate striving to satisfy the masses – an admirable easy-going energy which effortlessly lends itself to his timeless indie folk sound. Now anticipating the release of his thirteenth studio album Songs for the Drunk and Broken Hearted (SFTDBH) on January 8th, I caught up with the cool, collected singer to discuss heartbreak, hope, and how he enjoys the simple things in life.

Laidback, literally and figuratively, clad in a striped T-shirt at his kitchen table, Rosenberg embodies the sort of rockstar quality we rarely see these days, kicking back with cigarette in hand – an image that took me by pleasant surprise. No doubt down-to-earth with respect to his charitable ethos (all proceeds form his last album Patchwork went to food bank charity The Trussell Trust) and his reputation for holding intimate busking gigs, I admit my unfounded presumption led me to anticipate a more introverted man with a more formal air – but I’m glad I misjudged.

The running theme is Rosenberg’s retelling of the tragic tales of the drunk and broken-hearted archetypes we all know and love.

Written before the grip of the pandemic took hold on the collective consciousness, SFTDBH was intended for release at the beginning of the year, but Rosenberg wanted it to be enjoyed in its full glory without the distractions and limitations of a global pandemic. Now ten months since the first lockdown, any novelty – in the truest sense of the term – of Covid has worn off, he decided it was time for what he considers his best work to date,” was put out there for all to hear.

A fair few tracks have been released already. The album title providing a clear giveaway, the running theme throughout is Rosenberg’s retelling of the tragic tales of the drunk and broken hearted archetypes we all know and love. To illustrate: talking about the inspiration for Remember to Forget on his Facebook page, he speaks of that drunken guy that pesters you at the bar talking nonsense as he showers you in spittle; I think we’ve all met this guy at some stage in our lives and have probably done our best to ignore him. He breaks my heart, for although his actions are annoying and clumsy, all he’s really trying to do is connect with people.”

Despite the nuanced circumstances of these various individuals, nestled within this is a universal quality that we can all identify with, even if it’s only through our own passing encounters; and Rosenberg sings their unsung stories so eloquently. This cinematic storytelling through such well-crafted lyrics is something Rosenberg executes so perfectly across all his albums. When I asked him why he feels empowered to write songs about these fictional but albeit very real characters he humbly declares, I’m insufferably boring as an individual so any time I can sort of not be me is brilliant.”

Conversation delved further into the inspiration for the album. The raw, visceral lyrics and melancholic nostalgia are telling in themselves, but Rosenberg confesses the album was written during a break-up, which he spoke about candidly; you’re so used to being in that warm comfortable little world and all of a sudden it’s taken away from you and you’re kind of tumbling through life and drinking too much… in the toughest moments I always turn to song-writing. It’s either that or getting pissed.” While admittedly, artists often create their best work in their worst times, people can tire of hearing artists cathartically channel emotions through break-up songs. But Rosenberg knows this all too well; he quickly adds, It’s something everybody goes through and I’m certainly not the first singer-songwriter to write about heartbreak.”

An honesty and optimism amidst such chaotic emotions is far preferable to soppy hopelessness or revenge-fuelled lyrics.

So what sets his album aside from the other infinite break-up albums then? “If there is a slightly different spin on this record, it’s that it’s really focussed on that vulnerable window where it’s just like ‘I don’t fucking know what I’m doing,’ and it’s a bit scary and weird, but you just have to get through it.” I’m not entirely convinced that this truly sets it aside from a multitude of historic break-up ballads, but I like it anyway. An honesty and optimism amidst such chaotic emotions is far preferable to soppy hopelessness or revenge-fuelled lyrics, so I’ll take it.

His recurring motifs extend to his music videos too. Rosenberg is one of the very lucky few who has spent copious amounts of time in a pub of late, and not just the sort where a scotch egg behind a Perspex screen is mandatory. Instead, the good old-fashioned sort with live music, dancing and a bar something we can only reminisce about. All three music videos that have been released from SFTDBH are filmed in the same grotty looking pub which represents the principal setting and sanctuary for his tragic protagonists’ lives. The video for the title track, A Song for the Drunk and Broken Hearted, sees Rosenberg and accompanying musicians dolling clown makeup. The coloured shirts, suit jackets and waistcoats invoke a Joker-esque image, complete with allusions to Joaquin Phoenix’s unforgettable Joker dance. When I queried him on where this vision came from, he divulged “I’m a massive fan of the recent Joker film so it was a slightly self-indulgent reason to put on some clown makeup.”

While singing the poignant opening lines of the chorus in the video, “For the joker laughs along/ And the jester’s outsmarted,” Rosenberg stares ahead with a sardonic, sorrowful expression. Though evidently a reference to the lyrics, I suspected the Joker symbolism went deeper, alluding to those commonly misunderstood characters, like the Joker himself, who turn to drink to drown their sorrows. Rosenberg acknowledges that the image of a clown is unsettling to a lot of people, “I think part of the reason is you never really know what they’re thinking, there’s this kind of façade that’s going on the whole time but when you look beneath it, it’s a different story. That song is all about like... feeling miserable but having to put on this stiff upper lip and pretend everything’s fine... so a clown felt like the perfect vessel.” Undeniably, the concept of masking our suffering with stoicism is an image we’re all too familiar with in our society thanks to the age-old stigma surrounding mental health.

Unavoidably, the conversation turned to Covid and Rosenberg’s relentless productivity. Throughout May, he performed bi-weekly isolation live streams via Facebook to keep spirits lifted. SFTDBH isn’t the only new music Rosenberg has blessed our ears with recently either. He’s now had two albums released in very quick succession with Patchwork, a digital-only quarantine album, released back in July. Rosenberg is no stranger to releasing regular albums and he has an impressive discography. He’s gifted with song writing skills that allow him to churn out remarkable music like there’s no end. For most artists, the pandemic has pushed pause on touring and performing, and with an unfamiliar amount of time on their hands musicians worldwide have been creating masterpieces with credit to quarantine. Rosenberg is no exception: “I think the pandemic definitely inspired me and others... Whatever goes on in my life I’m able to kind of harness all that weirdness and strangeness and channel it into songs that are hopefully pretty and also help people in a similar situation.”

“It’s a bit late in the day for me to start feeling bad about releasing depressing music. I think that ship has sailed!”

Since Covid has been a leveller in the sense that we can all relate to the fundamental sacrifices we’ve had to make, I assured him his relatable lyrics certainly strike a chord. Referencing the lyrics from London in the Spring, “It often seems to me, we spend our lives talking foolish, running blind/ And we forget how to enjoy the simple things,” I noted how, despite being written pre-pandemic, the song certainly still resonates with the reflective sentiments we’ve all experienced while re-establishing those values closer to home. Rosenberg tells me this fatal flaw of society is something he’s recognised for some time, “it’s fucking obvious! The way we were isolating ourselves even before Covid with social media and the way that we’re living. It’s so lonely.” On a whim, I asked how he felt about releasing an album with such sad undercurrents during such hard times. “I mean it’s a bit late in the day for me to start feeling bad about releasing depressing music. I think that ship has sailed.” But he’s eager to remind me “there’s hope in the music as well.”

Traditionally, Rosenberg releases acoustic versions of every track on his album. He confirmed that the plan was still in place this time round, so I inquired into his reasoning behind it, “When I play live, it’s just me and my guitar... So I kind of think it’s for those people, those Passenger purists, who just want it as it would be live.” He says there’s something special about the essence of the song the way it was originally written, just him with his guitar. I certainly agree; the stripped back versions communicate the themes softly yet arguably more successfully. But he provides us with the best of both worlds, and for that fans are always grateful.

Like many others in the industry, his world tour has now been rescheduled twice, this time scheduled to kick off on the August 16th 2021. With news of the vaccine, I asked if he was confident the show would go on: “I do think it’s gonna happen. I think even with our shit-show of a government that by September they might have got their stuff together.” He tells me he recently returned from performing in Dubai, one of the only places holding live shows of any sort, “it was so fun to get back on stage. I sort of forgot that that side of me existed. It was like Oh shit, this is what I actually do for a living!” When asked if he was eager to return to performing gigs or if he was still relishing the respite at home, his answer was near instantaneous: “It’s definitely gonna be weird to get back into it. But fuck man, I cannot wait. I cannot wait to tour and travel and get back on the horse.”

At the end of our conversation I couldn’t help but praise him for all his work. The singer-songwriter truly is one of those rarities who has stuck to their roots. Since the success of Let Her Go, he’s managed to resist converting into the commercialised profiteering pop-star that so many before him have become. “Thank you. I haven’t got the face for it so, erm, I’ve got to stick to my guns,” he chuckles. As I thanked him for his time, I confessed it felt I’d come a long way since covering Let Her Go for my GCSE music performance seven years ago. He shares my triumph with a John Bender style fist pump. Passenger is set to perform at Rock City on September 4th 2021 – you’d be crazy to miss it.

Written by: Lilith Hudson

Edited by: Louise Dugan

Featured and article images courtesy of Passenger via Facebook.