Passenger

27. September 2018

Band Passenger

PASSENGER

There have always been two sides to Mike Rosenberg, aka Passenger: the epic, radio-friendly sound represented by his international number one single, Let Her Go, and his UK number one album, Young As The Morning, Old As The Sea (2016), and the more introverted, singer-songwriter side heard, for instance, on Whispers II (2015) and The Boy Who Cried Wolf (2017).

Runaway, the new album, finds Passenger embracing the epic once again: the melodies are unforgettable, the choruses colossal. These are songs you are going to hear on the radio. ‘Some see pop as a dirty word,’ says Rosenberg, ‘but it just means the melody is catchy. Well, my favourite songs that have ever been written are catchy.’

The album, Rosenberg’s tenth in 11 years, was recorded between the UK and Australia with his co-producer, Chris Vallejo, but its aesthetic is North American. Some of the lyrics refer to specific locations, such as Detroit and Yellowstone. ‘My dad is American,’ Rosenberg explains, ‘and we used to go over every other summer when we were kids. I always loved it. I guess I was seduced by it a little bit. It was such a culture shock coming from England.’

Sonically, too, Runaway draws on Americana, for instance the early work of Ryan Adams. There is some lap steel, some mandolin, a little banjo, all courtesy of guitarist Benjamin Edgar, Rosenberg is also joined on the album by bassist Rob Calder, drummer Peter Marin and keyboard player Jon Hansen.

Rosenberg imagined these new songs as unfolding against a backdrop of American landscapes. And so, rather than the usual video process, he and video director Jarrad Seng spent three weeks making videos on a road trip across the US.

The video for Hell Or High Water, the track that opens the album, was shot at a series of national parks. ‘I came out of a relationship a few years ago,’ explains Rosenberg, ‘and I was just baffled by it. Was it something I’d done? Something she’d done? The song is a personal inquisition. The massive landscapes of these national parks really suit the big chorus and big production.’

Ghost Town, meanwhile, is a ballad about Detroit after the demise of the motor industry. ‘I played a gig in Detroit a few years ago,’ Rosenberg recalls, ‘and got chatting to people afterwards. It’s such a sad story. Detroit had been affluent, but was allowed to fall to its knees. For the video, we filmed amongst the abandoned houses and factories. I wasn’t quite prepared for my reaction to it – it was a really moving couple of days. This is the richest country in the world, and yet a city is just left to fall apart. It’s the land of extremes.’

To Be Free, the penultimate track on the album, is about Rosenberg’s grandparents. ‘They were Jewish refugees who went to America after the war finished. It’s a long and tragic story, and I never thought I’d write a song about it. But it just came out.’ The video was shot in Vineland, New Jersey, in the garden of the house in which Rosenberg’s grandparents once lived. ‘We just knocked on the door,’ he recalls. ‘The bloke who lived there was very generous and let us set up on the lawn. It was pretty special to be able to record that. That song is very important to the record and very important to me as well.’

Runaway closes with another epic: Survivor. ‘That’s about a few things,’ smiles Rosenberg. ‘Living in 2018, with climate change and Donald Trump and everything else – but also life and love, all the big questions. So it’s about navigating through life. Surviving.’

Passenger has come a long way since the release of his first album, Wicked Man’s Rest, back in 2007. The initial incarnation, in which Rosenberg was backed by a full band, was followed by his reinvention as a solo artist and a period of busking, largely in Australia and New Zealand. Then came a year touring the world in support of Ed Sheeran. And then Let Her Go – followed, Rosenberg smiles, by ‘two years running round the world after that song’. He had to run fast: the song, for which Rosenberg won an Ivor Novello, is approaching two billion plays on Youtube.

Let Her Go changed nothing and it changed everything. ‘When you’re a busker, you’re an underdog,’ Rosenberg reflects. ‘Everyone wants you to succeed. When Let Her Go got big, it changed the way some people saw me. It was challenging to stay true to myself, to the principles of being a busker. There’s this weird balance of letting the snowball roll down the mountain and gather momentum whilst also trying to shape it: you don’t want it to turn into something you don’t want it to be. I just tried my hardest to make all the decisions for the right reasons, to carry on writing songs I believed in and recording them with people l loved and trusted.’

Whispers and Whispers II followed – and then Young As The Morning, which went to number one in the UK album charts. ‘In a way, that made me more proud than Let Her Go,’ Rosenberg reflects, ‘because it wasn’t off the back of a support tour. It got to number one on the strength of the fanbase, without a lot of support from mainstream media. I’m so proud of that number one. It felt like we created it from the ground up.’

Then came The Boy Who Cried Wolf, released at the tail end of the Young As The Morning tour – a low-key album, recorded in a week with minimal overdubs. And then, after a decade of constant activity, ten months off. And now Runaway. Rosenberg says he is excited by the idea of hitting the road again – solo, this time, after he brought in a full band for the Young As The Morning tour. And he’s still busking.

‘Years ago, it was just me and a suitcase of CDs,’ he smiles. ‘We used to get 50 people. Now it’s stage, a soundman, telling councils in advance. We might play to 3,000 people. But busking is something we’ve always done, a unique part of what Passenger is. And part of it is selfish too. Promo can feel like a conveyor belt – but if I include busking on a promo tour, it means I get to play to the real fans every day.’

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