Singer-songwriter Passenger finds increasing audience with songs of hope and empathy
As a lawyer, as a teacher, and perhaps most importantly, as a mother, I have a pretty good sense of when people are telling me the truth and when they’re being other than their authentic selves. Perhaps that is why I have turned down opportunities from time to time to meet people whose work I hold in high regard—I’m afraid that if I meet them I will be disappointed by the disconnect between who they really are and who I want them to be.
So I was simultaneously optimistic and cautious when I sat down with Mike Rosenberg, the English singer-songwriter who performs and releases his music under the name Passenger, last Saturday night. Rosenberg was in Nashville, Tennessee to play the Ryman Auditorium for the first time, an experience he described as a childhood dream. I’m a big Passenger fan; I listen to his work more often than any other artist (with one exception, of course). The stakes were high for me.
A half hour later, Mike Rosenberg, in his bare feet, offered to “show me the way out” of the backstage warren, even though tourists and fans were milling about less than 15 feet from his dressing room door. I was touched by the simple courtesy. Frankly, I was a little surprised that he was willing to spend time with me at all, let alone engage in an actual conversation with me. Passenger is increasingly a big deal. He has millions of followers on social media and sold out nearly every one of his U.S. gigs on his current tour. But I learned that Rosenberg hasn’t let that success go to his head. I was relieved to discover that he’s exactly who I thought he was—as regular a guy as such a phenomenally talented artist can be—a man who is thoughtful, quick witted, and funny, as well as genuinely grateful that people are interested in listening to his music.
“I come from really humble beginnings,” Rosenberg explained, “and you sort of make a decision when you make music … I’m either going to make pop music and get on the radio … or you say, you know what, that’s not what’s important to me, I’m going to make music I love and that I’m proud of … So that’s what I did.”
While making music that he loves and can be proud of, Rosenberg also “hit the musical lottery” in 2011 when his song “Let Her Go” unexpectedly became a #1 hit in 20 countries and multi-platinum in the United States. The video has racked up 1.4 billion views on YouTube and it is only the 23rd music video to join YouTube’s elite Billion View Club. Despite his success, Rosenberg says that to visit a town like Nashville and have the opportunity to sing for “people who have come down to listen, and to sing, and to feel something is so humbling.”
A native of Brighton, a seaside town about an hour south of London, Rosenberg began learning classical guitar as a child and writing songs as a teenager. He left school at 17 and began busking (playing on the street and selling CDs out of his guitar case) around the United Kingdom, Europe, and Australia. He refers to this busking period as his “great adventure.” In 2003, at the age of 19, Rosenberg formed the group Passenger with his friend Andrew Phillips. As a band, Passenger released Wicked Man’s Rest in 2007. The band dissolved two years later, but a newly solo Rosenberg kept the name Passenger. Unsure of the path forward, Rosenberg returned to Australia and began busking again. He then released three full-length albums in the next two years—Wide Eyes Blind Love (2009), Divers & Submarines (2010), and Flight of the Crow (2010).
In 2012, everything changed. Rosenberg was invited to open for his friend Ed Sheeran’s European and American tours, exposing him to large audiences, and “Let Her Go,” a single from All the Little Lights (2011) became a global smash hit. Passenger followed up with Whispers (2014) and Whispers II (2015). On September 23, 2016, he released his eighth album, Young as the Morning, Old as the Sea (2016), which debuted at #1 in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.
Although Rosenberg doesn’t need to busk anymore, he still does from time to time. In New York City last August, he set up in Washington Square Park and played to a small crowd for about 40 minutes. His guitar wouldn’t tune for his last song, so he handed it off and sang acapella. On a beautiful summer day in New York City, the crowd was so quiet you could practically hear the birds. That respectful silence was repeated at the Ryman Auditorium on Saturday night. Allowing his band to take a break, Rosenberg sang “Traveling Alone,” and immediately followed it with Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence.” At multiple moments during the songs, Rosenberg sang a line sans his acoustic guitar and the audience allowed the moment of silence to linger.
The kind of deference granted to Passenger in New York City and at the Ryman Auditorium speaks to the mutual respect between the artist and his audience. Given this unique dynamic, I asked Rosenberg about the challenges as he transitions from busker to global recording artist with millions of followers on social media.
“Back in the old days … Facebook especially was a brilliant way of keeping in touch with people. If somebody saw me busking one day, they could grab a flyer, say hello on Facebook and I’d answer every single comment for years,” Rosenberg shared. “It was a brilliant way of doing things because I was so touched that they enjoyed the music so much that they would get in touch and say so.”
Rosenberg still personally replies to comments from time to time, but he’s adopted an innovative way to show his fans that he cares—recording special “Sunday night videos” shot by photographer Jarred Seng and shared on Passenger’s YouTube channel. This past Sunday night, he shared his cover of The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” shot near San Diego. In the first 48 hours, the video had nearly 750,000 views. Recent Sunday night videos include covers of “Heart of Gold” (Neil Young), “Angie” (The Rolling Stones), “A Change is Gonna Come” (Sam Cooke), and “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” (The Smiths). There are 157 videos on Passenger’s YouTube channel. Do yourself a favor and check out his videos for “The Long Road” and “Riding to New York.” You can also see his harmonies with “mate” Ed Sheeran on display in this video for “Heart’s on Fire.” (That last video has more than 15 million views.)
Rosenberg acknowledges that recording the Sunday night videos is “a ton of effort and sometimes really challenging,” but “hopefully,” he relates, “people get that it is for them that we’re doing it.” By and large, Rosenberg believes that people do get it and appreciate the effort.
“I think there was a time when people who got on board really early on with Passenger and loved it for what it was, it was busking, it was small, it was personal, it was the underdog, I think there was an adjustment period for the fans when it got bigger as there was for me … I had to let the dust settle and figure out how we moved on from there, but people have been lovely,” Rosenberg explained. “I’ve had to cancel a couple of gigs here and there, and whenever I do, through sickness, there’s no anger … there’s just sweetness and support and hundreds of messages wishing me well, and its moments like that where I’m just so grateful to have such genuinely lovely people who seem to follow me and my music.” That isn’t a coincidence, I suggested to him. We get back what we put into the world.
Rosenberg shared that his favorite artists are “pretty much all Americans,” including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Paul Simon. Given that he was performing at the Mother Church of country music, I asked him if any Nashville artists had been particular influences.
“If there is one guy from Nashville that has really, truly truly influenced me, it would definitely be [John Prine]. Not just his songwriting but he’s a hilarious showman and he can go from poignant and tear jerking to hilarity and I love that. I saw him when I was about 15 when I was in London and he really affected the way I kind of saw live music and that kind of storyteller, one man and a guitar kind of thing, it was really affecting. So, yeah, Mr. Prine would definitely be the guy.”
Passenger, along with The Once and Stu Larsen, covered Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” a couple of years ago. Given that many of Passenger’s influences were American folk aritists, I read Rosenberg a small portion of the speech that Joan Baez made when she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Friday night. “Where empathy is failing and sharing has become usurped by greed and lust for power,” Baez said, “let us double, triple and quadruple our own efforts to empathize and to give our resources and ourselves.” Through her own music, Baez argued that she seeks to “repeal and replace brutality.” How does Rosenberg balance the overtly political nature of the American folk movement that inspired him, I asked, and the reality that he is a global artist with diverse audiences, particularly in the Trump era?
Rosenberg’s long and detailed answer revealed that he has spent a lot of time considering this question. “It’s not just Trump that’s the worry,” he began. “I mean I think he’s the poster boy for what’s going on in the world, but it’s happening everywhere.”
“I think what really strikes me about nowadays,” Rosenberg continued, is that “people just shut down a conversation. … You’re either this or you’re that. … When did we lose the ability just to talk and listen and keep an open mind? It’s just mad.” Everyone, on both the right and the left, he argued are so “very sure of their ideals” that “they don’t want to hear anything else.”
The songs that Rosenberg writes and performs as Passenger are fundamentally about promoting empathy. He is a storyteller and he often tells the stories of other people in songs like Traveling Alone and Riding to New York. Telling someone else’s story requires empathy on the part of the storyteller, but it also demands empathy of his audience—listen to this person’s story, he implicitly pleads, and care about it (and them) as much as I do.
I walked away from our conversation on Saturday night and from Passenger’s concert believing, as Mike Rosenberg does, that the most pressing problem in the world today is that we’re not listening to each other anymore and we’re not giving each other the benefit of the doubt. Passenger’s effort to cure that problem focuses on reminding us that we can ignore the negative voices and do better, one person at a time. When introducing the final song of his main set at the Ryman Auditorium, “Scare Away the Dark,” Rosenberg echoed what he told me hours earlier.
“Whatever you believe, it feels like a very weird time … I think the most horrifying thing to come out of this is I feel there is this huge divide occurring, not just in the United States but across the world, there’s people on one side and people on the other, and the most terrifying thing about it is that we’ve stopped listening to each other.” So, he concluded, “whatever you do, let’s have some fun and let’s be together.” He then led more than 2,300 people in a rousing sing-a-long that continued after he and his band left the stage.
Well, sing, sing at the top of your voice / Love without fear in your heart / Feel, feel like you still have a choice / If we all light up we can scare away the dark
We should run through the forest / We should swim in the streams / We should laugh, we should cry / We should love, we should dream / We should stare at the stars and not just the screens / You should hear what I’m saying and know what it means
Sing, sing at the top of your voice / Love without fear in your heart / Feel, feel like you still have a choice / If we all light up we can scare away the dark
And after the music faded, the audience left the Ryman Auditorium with a song—and hope—in our hearts.
Originally written for The Huffington Post.