PASSENGER RIDES AGAIN
by Norman Warwick
Mike Rosenberg, the British indie and pop/folk/rock singer-songwriter, records under the band-name of Passenger, was the founder, main vocalist and songwriter of the folk rock four-piece of the same name based in Brighton, the UK. that released just one album. Nevertheless, they opened up for several high-profile indie acts throughout the UK, including Kate Nash and the Hold Steady, but in 2009, when the members of the band chose to go their own separate ways, Rosenberg opted to keep the name Passenger for his solo work and in 2012, he released his third solo album, All The Little Lights, which was recorded at Sydney’s Linear Recording and featured a more fully fleshed-out sound than had its predecessors.
Let Her Go was the second single to be released from the album and was the track that scored Rosenberg´s first solo success, albeit under the name of Passenger. It was top of international charts in several countries including Australia, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Holland, New Zealnd. Sweden and Switzerland.
Explaining the song’s meaning to Female First at the time, Rosenberg said, ´In my mind the song has two meanings; the first is quite literal as I wrote it after a break up and it is about letting her go. But then there is a bigger idea going on and Let Her Go is more about not really understanding and knowing what you have until it is gone and I think everyone can definitely relate to.´
My own generation (born as baby boomers in the early fifties, some seventy years ago) have grappled with that notion at least since Joni Mitchell firs warned us that ´you don´t know what you´ve got, till its gone´ in her song, Big Yellow Taxi.
Of Let Her Go, Rosenburg told VH1, at the time of the single´s success that, ´It didn´t take long to write at all. Under an hour, I think. As I wrote it definitely felt like it has had something,…. I´d never had a song played on the radio. I had never believed I ever would have a song on the radio, because generally, folk music doesn´t get on commercial radio,.. it just doesn´t. I suppose I thought that kind of success was for other people, people who really tried to get that kind of success, but I had never really tried.
Rosenberg was backstage after finishing a set at a university bar in Australia when he came up with this song. It was whilst he was the support act for another band, when he was backstage at a university bar in Australia following his set that been met that night by the utter indifference from his audience. In a melancholy mood, he came up with this song about his ex-girlfriend. He says the song just came “pouring out” of him.
Even so, structurally, this is a very unusual song. Included on his All The Little Lights album the song is based on acoustic guitar and strings, it has a 25-second intro before opening with its first chorus into the first chorus of ´Only need the light when it’s burning low´ On the last of that three line chorus, ´And you let her go´ the song picks up, introducing drums and sliding into an instrumental break before finally hitting the first verse just over a minute into the track..
Beginning with the chorus is the equivalent of a movie that is shown out-of-sequence (like Pulp Fiction) – we know the big scene, but don’t know what led up to it. Passenger tells us the conclusion up front, then explains what he went through – the anguish he endured before he could just let her go.
The chorus comes back three more times, including at the end of the song where it repeats twice, ending with the voice isolated on the last lines to accentuate the conclusion: ´You let her go.´
The song was even used in an advertisement for a Budweiser called Puppy Love, in which a determined puppy finds a way to re-unite with his Clydesdale friend. This was first shown during the 2014 Super Bowl final between Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos.
The song had been given its first exposure, however, in the Netherlands after a Dutch radio plugger heard the track in a café. Within three weeks of it being on the radio, it was #1 in Holland.
The woman who inspired the song, albeit by breaking the wrioter´s heart knows it is about her apparently, although ´Passenger´ told Rolling Stone in 2014 that ´I think she´s still got kind of mixed feelings about it. She´s happy for me, but its pretty weird.´
That my generation grew up pop music, and the UK folk revival of the sixties and the initially acoustic, softly. softly protest of Dylan and the angelic rebukes of Joan Baez doesn´t mean that, now into our seventies, many of us would pay much attention these days to a song like Let Her Go by an artists such as Passenger. Perhaps I was not alone, though, among my contemporaries in finding the song pretty and catchy and something of a throwback to what we listened to as kids. Perhaps, here was a new Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam), a Paul Simon even and perhaps this song was a promise of many more like it still to come. I didn´t quite know where I might find them but I hoped they might find me as this one had. However, the blob disappeared off my radio, my antennae picked up nothing knew and I was left with only the sound of silence. I might occasionally read of another passenger album, or single, or successful concert but it all moved away into the margins and I returned to taking tea with the tillerman.
However, as Tom Lanham wrote recently in Paste on-line, ´Sometimes an album turns out to be exactly what it promised it was in its title. Like Songs For The Drunk And Broken Hearted, for instance, the latest—and 13th overall—effort from Passenger, the folk-pop persona of former British street busker Mike Rosenberg.
Thirteenth album, really? It seems like only yesterday since I was hailing Let Her Go as a new dawn, and now, here we are thirteen albums, and already Passenger is an artist of more longevity that most in an ephemeral world. Here was an article I had to read. After all I had always thought the artist could travel far, and while I blinked, it seems, he did !
Mr Lenham said that this thirteenth album details a recent real-life breakup the Brighton-based singer endured after a three-and-a-half-year romance, starting with a letter-to-his-ex opener Sword From the Stone and wending its lyrically-somnolent-but-musically-upbeat way through ´Tip of My Tongue´(“If I would’ve known what I know today/ I would’ve lived my life like a smoking gun”), Remember To Forget (in which he reminds future suitors that he’s a “heavy drinker and a chain smoker”), a Saw Doctors-sprightly A Song For The Drunk And Broken Hearted, (a band I love, especially For Red Cortina) and the closing London In The Spring (“I’ve got love to give/ I’ve got my life to live,” he optimistically chirps). And the deluxe edition features bare-bones acoustic versions of each song, running in reverse order, for those sad sacks who really want to commiserate.
It wasn’t as if he was drowning his sorrows in potent pandemic potables like scotch, his poison of choice, cautions now thirty six year old Rosenberg.
´So I don’t wanna overplay the alcohol thing,´ he told the Paste writer.
´It wasn’t like I had six months of destroying myself, but I just think that when you come out of a relationship—and maybe this is an English thing—it’s the most obvious comfort to reach for. It numbs the pain for a little bit and even lets you escape it for a little while. So I thought, ‘Hang on—this is an opportunity! What a cool idea it would be to write a handbook like ‘Songs,’ a self-help guide for how to get through this period of your life!’
He ran with that idea of a concept-record, but managed to pause last summer to self-issue a separate lockdown-inspired disc called Patchwork, with proceeds going to a food-bank charity. He has past of seeming to enjoy hard work stretching back to even before his chipmunk-chipper singing voice bowed in via the monster hit Let Her Go, a single that was #1 in 16 countries back in 2012, earning him both a Brit Award and a prestigious Ivor Novello.
He spent every year busking seasonally, playing half the year when British streets were warm, then plying his trade in Australia when its summer started in the UK winter. And the Passenger songs just kept coming, like the recent standalone single A Kindly Reminder, a scathing putdown of Donald Trump ignorance (“I’ve heard you say climate change isn’t real/ But that’s not how the world’s leading scientists feel”).
The man from Paste offered further insight into this intriguing singer-writer with notes from an interview with the artist, in which Rosenberg spoke of these covid times.
´I’ve been in my house just outside of Brighton with my two adorable cats, but very little human contact. So it’s been interesting. The cats are called Charlie and Rosie, and I don’t think they’ve got an exact breed—they’re just two silly little cats, and I don’t think they’re anything special. Well, I mean, they’re special to me, but nothing out of the ordinary, genetically speaking. And they’ve got some sort of insane idea that this is gonna go on forever, and that no one is allowed to leave, ever again. So that’s good, I guess. That’s setting a new precedent.´
Rosenberg spoke, too, of the effect of covid on his work ethic.
´I´ve always written a lot but the lockdown album (Patchwork) was a nice surprise. But in the most challenging times of my life, I always turn to writing, and lockdown was no different. I had very little to do, and I’m so used to touring and recording and being stupidly busy, so I just wrote and wrote. And it got to the stage where I was like, “Hang on—there’s a little record here!” I wrote it in six weeks, we recorded it in two weeks, and then we released it two weeks later. So there was a real—and I know this sounds wrong—lack of thought that went into it, if you know what I mean. It was direct, very quick, very from-the-heart. And it was a nice way of doing things, actually. But lockdown, as a single man, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, I can assure you. But this was a nice way to be productive in a famously unproductive period of time. And we’d recorded most of this album [Songs] before lockdown, so it was ready to go in March. And we were going to release it in May, but it felt like a real shame.
After putting so much work into this record, it felt like if we’d released it during lockdown that all of the tools that I usually have at my disposal to gain momentum around a record—whether it be busking, or doing radio promo or doing gigs—none of that was available. So it felt like such a shame to just throw a record out into the universe without some kind of support for it. So I held it back, and I ended up writing three new songs, and I think it’s a much better record for it. So I’m really excited about this new album—there’s just something very special about it.
Tom Lanham prompted Passenger back to the more recently released thirteenth album by wondering had the relationship been with the lady who had become the music for this recording.
¨About three and a half years, which is a long time for me. I dunno. man. I think it’s famously difficult to live the kind of life that I live and hold down a long-term relationship. So I’m not the first touring musician to admit that. And I have so much respect for her and love for her, but I think, timing-wise, it just wasn’t meant to be. It’s just one of those things—people change, people evolve. And you’ve constantly gotta be honest about that stuff, for everyone involved. So it was pretty amicable, and we’re still friends, and it’s cool. But there’s nothing like a breakup to inspire a bit of writing, I can assure you of that.
I think definitely, for me, it’s become more about plunging myself into music and writing. There was a little bit of time where I wasn’t as focused on Passenger as I have been in the past, and that’s really nobody’s fault. But I’ve kind of re-engaged with it in the last year or so, and the magic has sort of come back into it. And I have to say, I think the respite from touring has really helped with that. Touring just grinds you down, and I’m always relentlessly touring. I just won’t stop. So I think the pandemic pushing the “pause” button on touring really helped me build my energy back up and rediscover the love for music again.´
Rosenberg responded to Lanhem´s enquiry about at what point did the artist start to feel distant from the Passenger persona, began by seemingly praising the journalist´s perception
´Good question. It’s funny that you call it a persona, because it really is, and I’ve started to actually almost think of it as two people. There’s Passenger, and then there’s Mike, and they’re actually two very different individuals, and they need very different things. And for years, I’ve just been giving Passenger everything he wants, and Mike’s taken a bit of a back seat as far as that stuff goes. But, like with everything in life, you’ve gotta find a balance. And it’s difficult, because the work that I do is so all-consuming. You can’t phone it in, and you can’t do it half-assed, because it just doesn’t work that way. So I think the pendulum has probably just swung in the opposite direction for a bit, until I was like, “You know what? I want to have a life! I want to go to my friend’s wedding, and I want to go see things! I want to go visit my niece! I want to do real-life things, as well as all the amazing touring that Passenger gets to do.” So hopefully now maybe I’ve struck that balance.
I think it was a gradual process, as well. “Let Her Go” was such an explosion that—honestly—it was like two or three years before I even came up for air after that. Then I did another couple of albums, another couple of tours, and then I was like, “Hang on a minute! I don’t actually need to tour like this anymore!” So five years after following the craziness of “Let Her Go,” I think I just stopped and told myself I wasn’t a busker anymore and I didn’t have to say “Yes” to every single opportunity. I could just take a step back and make more measured decisions.
The interviewer continued to make an impression with the observation that some of the lyrics Songs For the Drunk And Broken Hearted read like therapy-speak.
´Very perceptive. I do see a therapist. In fact, I was on the phone to him about an hour ago. And it’s been massively helpful. Because you know, no one prepares you for this stuff. And I was a busker, and I was fine with that—I was playing to 100, maybe 200 people a night, and it was cool. And then suddenly, my life completely flipped, and all of a sudden I’m on TV, I’m doing these festivals, and I’m playing headline shows to thousands of people, and it was a massive change. But you’re just kind of expected to hit the ground running with that.
So I found it incredibly helpful to finally think about all that stuff and put it into perspective.
Lanhem suggested that It sounds like, just by putting the Passenger persona in its own definitive box, Mike Rosenberg knows how to control it now.
¨Exactly. And I’m sure there are many more winding roads left to go with it. But I feel like I understand it more now, and—if you can hit that sweet spot—it’s truly the most enjoyable thing I could imagine doing with my life. I mean, you’re going and playing your music to people who really want to listen to it. But, like with anything, if you do something too much, it really saps the fun out of it. So I think there’s a bit of self control that’s needed, and it’s a fine line from being stern with yourself to being an asshole to yourself, and I’m definitely a bit of an asshole to myself at times. Because Passenger is a bit of a spoiled baby. He needs Super Nanny! That’s what he needs!
And it is quite a weird time to be writing songs, although “Suzanne” was definitely meant as a tip of the hat to Leonard Cohen, even though mine is a fictional character. But it’s weird not only because every song, ever, has been written already, but it’s just a very strange time to navigate at the moment, and it’s been a really interesting challenge to write songs this year. I mean, I’ve really enjoyed it, but it’s been such a rollercoaster ride of a year, I wouldn’t be surprised if the amount of music that comes out in 2021 is absolutely enormous. Because every songwriter has been thrown into this.´
Tom Lehman rightly pointed out at this point that Rosenberg´s unique voice makes even dark musings sound bright.
´That’s an interesting point. But with a Passenger song, I think there are a few levels that you can enjoy it on—you can either just tap your foot and think that it’s a nice, sweet little song, or see that there’s a bit more darkness and depth to it, if you really want to go there. It’s like when you watch a great Pixar movie with your little niece. She’s laughing because one of the characters falls over, and it’s colourful and funny. But I’m finding it funny because of all the jokes that are aimed at the parents and the adults. And if you can do that with your music? I think that’s really special.´
So does Tom Lehman, it seems, and certainly, so do I. This album now becomes the second Passenger release in my collection and both have stepped on that hallowed ground long after I thought had locked and bolted those gates. Maybe I´ll leave my doors open to new incoming music for a while longer !
Songs For The Drunk And Broken Hearted is Passenger’s new studio album, that was to have been released initially in May 2020 but due to the Covid-19 pandemic it was decided to delay, which has allowed the artist to create more songs and modify the ones he already had recorded.
Under the production of Chris Vallejo, (who also co-produced the Whispers amongst others) the thirteenth album by Mike Rosenberg (as leader of Passenger) consists of ten new songs that reflect his new sentimental situation after becoming single again. Several of the themes are starring drunken and heartbroken characters.
Here’s what the contents of the disc look like:
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
7. A Song for the Drunk and Broken Hearted
9. Nothing Aches Like A Broken Heart
10. London In The Spring
The album is also released in a deluxe format that includes different acoustic versions of the songs from Songs For The Drunk And Broken Hearted:
1. London In The Spring (Acoustic)
2. Nothing Aches Like A Broken Heart (Acoustic)
3. Suzanne (Acoustic)
4. A Song for the Drunk and Broken Hearted (Acoustic)
5. Sandstorm (Acoustic)
6. Remember To Forget (Acoustic)
7. The Way The I Love You (Acoustic)
8. What You’re Waiting For (Acoustic)
9. Tip Of My Tongue (Acoustic)
10. Sword From The Stone (Acoustic)
Coinciding with the album’s release, Passenger has released the official music video for the song that opens it: Sword From The Stone:
So, start those search engines running and fin out how to order these albums and how to sign up for the artist´s informative newsletter, and put yourself in the driving seat for songs from your Passenger ! (Sorry !!)