Q&A with Passenger: Songwriter, collaborator, dreamer

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Five years ago, Mike Rosenberg, aka Passenger, saw his life changed with the release of mega-hit “Let Her Go,” which has clocked over 1.5 billion views on YouTube. We sat down with the talented artist before he took to the stage in Dublin, Ireland for his last tour show, to hear about these rollercoaster years, his creative drive, and Passenger’s surprise new album, The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

You’re celebrating a milestone, it’s five years since a certain song.

Yeah, since the “Let Her Go” video went up on YouTube. It’s quite weird how it’s working because this is my final gig and I’ve basically been gigging since that moment. It’s basically been five years on the road, and four albums.

We tallied 418 gigs in that time, but that doesn’t count any of the busking, any of the radio shows. I mean, with busking I’d say it must be close to 1,000 gigs.

You kind of need a snooze.

I really do. I’m on 1% battery at the moment. I got a 10% warning last week and I was like, “I really do need to put this in charge.” And I haven’t. In fact, I actually used the flashlight, which zaps the battery even more.

So for five years you’ve been non-stop, four albums, how do you survive that? I mean, we know the battery’s at 1%…

I don’t know the answer to that. I think there’s been this sort of burning desire in me. Passenger started as a band years ago and we made an album and we did a tiny bit of touring. This was in like 2000s or early 2000s. And it didn’t work for whatever reason and my manager at the time left and the band broke up and I was at a real crossroad as to what to do. I’d just come to Australia and supported a friend of mine and they were the first solo shows that I’d done.

And this is the first time I kind of opened up my eyes to the fact that I could play on my own and people would not run for the hills or fall asleep. And then shortly after that I started busking and I suddenly took on this amazing work ethic. I suddenly understood what was needed from me to make it work. I think when you’re good at something you can think it’s just gonna fall in your lap, that that’s enough and you’re talented and it’s just not true. You have to work really bloody hard.

So tell us more about this work ethic?

I just started becoming obsessed with it. I love busking—creating it all on your own. You go to a town you’ve never been to and sometimes you’d be there for three days, you’d sell 100 CDs, and you’d end up playing for a pub. That’s such a great thing, especially after being in a very different environment where there were labels involved and you kind of held back a lot at the time. It’s a lot of frustration, and then suddenly to go from that environment to very instant feedback from real people in the street was amazing—so liberating. And since then I’ve just been on an absolute sort of roller-coaster, hurtling around, especially with “Let Her Go.” It’s just been madness ever since that really.

And so what was it about that song do you think?

I think it was timing because I did a load of shows with Ed Sheeran. And so suddenly I was in front of thousands of people every night and it was just after I released the album, All The Little Lights. And “Let Her Go” seemed to be the right song at the right time. It was like a good advert for what I did in a very commercially kind of thing. For something to get that big you need so many little things to click into place, so many stars to align and the universe to kind of smile on you an awful lot.

There’ll be real purple patches for me when I write three or four songs in a week sometimes and there’ll be months where I don’t pick up a guitar…you’ve got to learn how to be patient and okay with it when it’s not happening.

I’m so grateful but also just perplexed by it, really, because I think after the band broke up years ago and I started busking, I had this kind of realization where I’m not gonna have number ones. I’m not gonna have this 10-year-old fantasy of a music career. It’s not gonna be stretch limos and whatever else. It’s going to be really hard work, it’s going to be pub gigs and kind of basically trying to convert people one by one to your music. And I was fine with that. You actually become really excited about that and it’s real, you can see it, you can grasp it. And so I was okay with that, and then to have this: one of the biggest songs of the decade. It’s silly, it’s completely laughable, it’s like winning the lottery.

Yeah, that’s amazing. But obviously all the success hasn’t dulled your work ethic. So when you think about creativity, can you step us through your process?

I try not to put too many sort of rules down for it—songs can come in different ways. I think there’ll be real purple patches for me when I write three or four songs in a week sometimes and there’ll be months where I don’t pick up a guitar. I haven’t got any ideas, nothing comes out, you’ve got to learn how to be patient and OK with it when it’s not happening.

I’ve always been really lucky ’cause I write tons and tons and I’m always an album ahead of myself. I always have been. By the time I’ve recorded an album and it’s released, I’ve got the next one pretty much ready, which is really nice because then you’re not in that grim situation where it’s like, ”Oh no, you need an album.” You cobbled together 12 songs somehow and you throw it out. That’s when people make bad records.

It’s the classic second album situation where they’ve had their whole life to make the first one and then they have six months to write the second one. “Let Her Go” is on my fifth album so I already had a back catalogue for people to explore. Then by the time I finished the “Let Her Go” tour, which lasted for two years, I had Whispers One and Two ready to go. So I think that really helps because you don’t ever feel the pressure. If you write it’s a bonus—it’s not a necessity—and I think that’s a really good place to be. It just frees your thinking brain up to let your creative side take over.

Actually letting go in a collaborative situation is a really important thing to be able to do…not taking too much control and just trusting the people you have involved to do a great job. It frees me up to concentrate on what I’m doing.

So you mentioned the breakup of the band. You’re now back with a band. So how do you think about the solo versus the collaborative experience on stage?

It’s such a different dynamic. I mean, I was 20 when the first band setup started happening. I did not have much of a vision, I didn’t really know enough about music and about myself to really know what I wanted to put out into the world. As a result, there were some older members of the band back then—they were so much more experienced, so they kind of ended up taking the lead a little bit. Looking back, I’m sure we’d all agree that wasn’t probably the right way forward because I think for any project to work, the person who’s singing in front has to really believe in it and really understand it.

Any tips you’ve picked up along the way in terms of getting people to galvanize around a vision?

It’s a really interesting one. I think there needs to be someone leading it, but you also have to give people enough freedom to really sort of do what they’re good at and don’t cramp their style. Give people the freedom to do what they do best.

These guys are such good players and so tasteful as humans and musicians. I really trust them, so actually letting go in a collaborative situation is a really important thing to be able to do as well—not strangling it, not taking too much control and just trusting the people you have involved to do a great job. It frees me up to concentrate on what I’m doing, so it really works.

And how about on stage?

It’s so much easier. It was only when I put the band back together I realized how hard solo shows were.

For an hour and a half I just got a guitar. Arenas, stadiums, festivals, whatever. It’s exhausting, it’s so exhausting, it’s so much pressure. Every noise needs to come from you, you have to hold people for that entire time. Whereas with the band it’s not easy, but you can lean off it. You can let Benny take a guitar solo or whatever it is. You can have a moment just to kinda breathe and get yourself together again. And it’s so fun as well. Just being silly on stage, and I think sharing it with people in general has been really great.

And has that fed back into your own creative process?

Massively. I put the band together to make Young as the Morning, Old as the Sea, and it was great—it was a really good experience. It was so intuitive, it was so instinctive by that stage that we’d played so many gigs together. There wasn’t any talk, we just played the songs. We were just like, this is the song—we will come up with the arrangement and that was it. Such a breath of fresh air. This whole record has been painless. We recorded in a week. We mixed it in two days. The artwork came through and it was perfect. Everything’s just worked, just haven’t overthought it.

This whole record has been painless. We recorded in a week. We mixed it in two days. The artwork came through and it was perfect. Everything’s just worked, just haven’t overthought it.

You’re very analogue in the way you approach writing. You’re a pen-to-paper kinda dude but then you’ve also got this massive digital world connecting all of your fans. How do you think about technology and the way that you use it to connect your network?

I think when I was busking, Facebook was the thing that made it possible really. I think about if you had tried to do what I did 10 years previously, it’d be very difficult to collect people. Facebook’s such an easy way of being like, “Oh, come and say hi,” and then there’s a rapport going. That’s how I built my fan base. You can say what you want about Facebook. It’s not always positive, but it was hugely important for Passenger and building it. I think now it’s changed. I don’t have time to reply to everyone or have the head space. And now I really just try and give people as much music as possible.

I think it’s essential to remain interesting. If you just live in your own little box of ideas, you end up writing the same song over and over again.

There are cover sessions. And I think the reason why people press like on my page in the first place is not because of my boyish good looks or my grizzled road dog charm. No—it’s because they want to listen to music. So I give them as much of that as possible. I feel like everybody uses social media in a different way. I don’t wanna be one of those artists who just posts selfies all the time. That’s not why people like Passenger, I don’t think. I don’t take a good selfie. For me, I just try and keep it as genuine as possible. I wanna give people as much music and as much kind of insight into what we’re doing as possible.

Even on the road you’re producing those Sunday sessions, a video a week.

Yeah, it’s exhausting. I don’t know how we did that. It was so tiring ’cause we were recording them live, so they’re field recording. So we’d take all the microphones and we’ll gear out to some freezing forest somewhere. Mate, it was exhausting, yeah. I wouldn’t do it again. I’m really pleased with how it came out and I think people really appreciated it, but flipping hell, five gigs a week, and then that as well. Cause it’s learning the song, it’s going and filming it, recording it, then mixing it. It was an insane amount of work.

So we talked a little bit about fueling creativity. Do you actively think about your creativity as something you need to fuel?

You need to rest.

When I’m playing gig after gig after gig and you’re physically exhausted…songs come from a place. I don’t know where it is, I don’t really know how it comes about, but you definitely need to rest and recuperate and give yourself a chance to regenerate whatever it is that makes music and allows you to be creative.

The worst thing I think you can do is start questioning and start thinking too much about it. It’s all logical questions that you’re asking, in a very sort of illogical situation.

So, what about co-creation? You’ve done an album, Flight of the Crow, that’s entirely collaborations, and you’re co-creating with a band now. How do you think about creating together?

I love it. I think it’s essential to remain interesting. If you just live in your own little box of ideas, you end up writing the same song over and over again. Every project I do, every album I do, I hope it’s different and you’re working with different people—shedding new light on it. And oh man, if you think about most of the best songs, movies, plays, or whatever, it’s all collaborations, isn’t it? It’s something that one person couldn’t create on their own. That’s what makes it so exciting—it’s many brains and hearts working together—that’s great.

And what can fans expect from this surprise new album?

I love this new album. It’s a bunch of songs mainly that’ve been around for ages, like “Setting Suns,” “Boy Who Cried Wolf,” the title track, and “I Love Her.” They’re like three years old, so they’ve been knocking about, and it’s not ’cause they’re not good enough to be on an album—they just haven’t found their way onto a record. And a couple of new ones as well.

But it’s just what I said before about it being so carefree. It wasn’t overthought, it wasn’t overanalyzed, we just played the songs. And they’re all live takes, so it’s just the band playing. And the great thing is, with the records I’ve made in the past, you layer it, so it’s like, I do my bit and while I think it’s good, we have to wait until we get the drums and everything on. And then you get them on, and you’re like, “Yeah, I think it’s the one, we just need to get strings on,” and it’s this kind of building process. Whereas when you do it live, you play it, you come in, you listen, and if it makes you have goosebumps, it’s the take. If it doesn’t, you go back and do it again.

Which is the whole point in music in the first place. Somewhere along the line we forgot that and started using auto tune and making records perfect, and that’s why you don’t feel anything when you hear those records, because it’s just like, “Well, this isn’t humans, it’s robots.” And then you listen to aJoni Mitchell record and not every note is perfect, but you feel every second of it. Yeah, we’re nowhere near as good as Joni Mitchell, but it’s that same kind of idea where it’s like, “It’s not perfect, but it’s real.” When something’s not perfect from the outset, you don’t expect it to be, and then the pressure’s off in a way. It’s weird.

So you feel like it’s re-injecting that human experience of listening to music, right? Just like, does it punch you in the gut?

Definitely. You think about all those records that you love from the ’60s and ’70s, and it’s almost like the little imperfections that are the best parts about them. It’s like a little cough, or you hear someone knock a glass or something like that, and it’s real. It puts you in that world with the artist. Somewhere along the line, we separated the listener from the artist to the extent where you feel like they’re on another planet. It’s not like that, certainly not with [this album]. Actually, we’re just trying to be as believable and honest as possible.

Okay. So now, last gig then it’s home for some of that R&R and to let the creative energy flow. Or maybe just some sleep.

Yeah, it’s so weird. I honestly haven’t had time off like this, ever. I’d say it’s since 2008. Because there was four or five years of busking before “Let Her Go,” and I wasn’t messsing about. I was hurtling around then, so it changed. The pressure upped significantly.

I see my career in three parts. There was the part with the band, solo busking, and then everything after “Let Her Go.”

Head over to Passenger’s website to see how you can hear The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

Want more Q&As like this one? Check out our chat with Sara Watkins, or Cindy Wilson of the B-52s.

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