- 01 Mar 13
Sick of playing two-men-and-a-dog open mic nights, Passenger’s Mike Rosenberg was about to jack in his music career. Then he swapped Brighton for Australia, started busking and became a sensation.
“It’s pretty mind-blowing, man!” Mike Rosenberg – aka Passenger – still can’t quite believe his sudden surge to online stardom. With more than 8.5 million YouTube views of his single ‘Let Her Go’ in recent months, things are seriously taking off for the UK singer. “After five years of self-funded albums and busking and staying in hostels, it’s ridiculous to suddenly have all of this acclaim.”
Appropriately, midway through a sold-out European tour, the 29-year-old actually is a passenger as he speaks down the line to Hot Press from a tour bus commuting between shows in Hamburg and Berlin.
“This time last year I was doing a regional tour of Australia and playing in all of these tiny little towns – playing rooms of about 50 or 100 people – and getting a much better suntan than I am at the moment! It’s crazy that so much has happened in one year. I played to 1,500 people the other night, and I think tonight’s venue holds about 800.”
The Passenger name originally belonged to an alt. folk quartet he founded in 2003 with his friend Andrew Philips in their native Brighton. Although their 2007 debut, Wicked Man’s Rest, was critically well-received, Philips quit the band in 2009, leaving Rosenberg to soldier on solo under the same moniker.
It was, he now admits, a low point.
“Andrew leaving unfortunately coincided with the end of a relationship, and my manager at the time also jumped ship. I was just floating around Brighton and London, playing open mic nights to people who didn’t listen. I honestly came very close to stopping, but then, as a last throw of the dice, I started busking.”
While playing on the street kept him well-oiled and allowed him to self-finance demos, the inclement UK weather wasn’t much fun.
“Busking was going really well until it started getting cold. So I just thought where is it gonna be warm enough to allow me to busk, and somewhere people spoke English, and somewhere that I thought people might get my music – and Australia ticked all the boxes. Ever since then, I’ve just been going back and forth, building it up really slowly. Australia really connected with what I do.”
He first went to Oz in October 2009, where his witty, heartfelt and self-deprecating songs soon garnered him a loyal following. Things really began to take off following an appearance at One Movement, a major industry festival in Perth, and the release of his solo debut, Wide Eyes Blind Love. His sophomore release under the Passenger name, 2010’s Flight Of The Crow, further expanded his fan-base.
However, it’s his most recent album, 2012’s All The Little Lights, and subsequent tour support slots to the likes of Ed Sheeran and Jools Holland, that has sent things stratospheric. It was while he was touring around the US with Sheeran last November that Rosenberg first realised something serious was happening.
“My social media was going crazy and I could feel momentum building like it never had done before. It’s a pretty exciting feeling. Then I guess when ‘Let Her Go’ started getting airplay in Europe, I realised that things were starting to really happen.”
Is he sick of the song yet?
“Not at all,” he insists. “I like the song and feel very grateful towards it, as it’s given the rest of my music a platform. I might be sick of it in years to come but, for now, it’s just lovely to have a song everyone can sing along with.”
Despite the millions of YouTube views, he’s unsure how many actual album sales it has resulted in.
“Yeah, we’ve sold a few albums, but I couldn’t tell you how many,” he admits. “It’s an odd time for record sales, isn’t it? To be honest, I don’t really think too much about them. I play live so much that that’s really what I think about, and what keeps the money coming in. So the fact that we’re selling any records at all is a bit of a bonus.”
Recorded in Sydney, All The Little Lights featured a core Australian band comprising Boy & Bear drummer Tim Hart, jazz bassist Cameron Undy, and keyboardist Stu Hunter. Although he’s playing onstage with that band in the YouTube video, most of his live shows are actually solo affairs.
“Generally, I perform on my own. It’s confusing because Passenger started out with a band, and I have played with bands every now and then over the last few years, but generally I’ve found a greater freedom in playing solo. Also, it seems that it’s an easier format for the audience to connect with.”
When Philips left the original Passenger band, he snidely derided Rosenberg as being “a bit of a tit for singing in a ridiculous mock foreign accent.” His vocals are certainly waspishly distinctive (a touch of Tracey Chapman on helium to this writer’s ears). But how would the singer describe it himself?
“It’s painful and horrible!” he laughs. “Nah, I don’t know. Some people say I sound like Cat Stevens or James Blunt. I’ve had pretty much every male singer thrown at me. But to me, it’s just naturally how my voice comes out.”
All The Little Lights is out now on Netwerk Records. Passenger play Vicar Street on April 29.