Along for the ride

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Passenger fills his indie-folk ballads with just enough melancholy to remind us he’s British.
Courtesy of publicist/Photo by Jarrad Seng

Mike Rosenberg is in a New York coffee shop when we get connected to chat. Maybe it’s the British accent, but he’s terribly charming.

Whot culd be bet-tah,” he asks me, effortlessly posh, “than being in a cawfee shop in New York?”

In the moment I cahn’t really disagree — but maybe the accent is swaying my opinion.

The 32-year-old singer/ guiarist is better known by his stage name Passenger. Rosenberg wasn’t always on his oddy knocky — in 2003, Passenger was a five-piece band founded by Rosenberg and his songwriting partner Andrew Phillips. The band released just one album before breaking up in 2007, and Rosenberg decided to continue on as a solo artist under the moniker. He already had a fan base, and hell, Passenger was a pretty cool name.

“I guess there are so many male singer/songwriter names people need to remember. Passenger felt more ambiguous and mysterious in a way,” he says with a laugh. “What’s nice is at the time when we called the band Passenger it was just because it sounded cool… there wasn’t any story behind it, it was just like, yeah, that’ll do.

“Since I went solo and started traveling and busking, the name started to fit better and better. It’s really funny the way it’s worked — the way I write and the style that I make my music, I think passenger is a perfect word to sum it up. It really, really works.”

A passenger is someone along for the ride, someone who isn’t in charge of navigating the trip. Maybe Rosenberg is just a passenger in life.

If so, life took faithful passenger Rosenberg to international stardom in 2012. If you think back, you may remember sobbing in your parked car or blinking back tears in a department store when his song “Let Her Go” was in heavy rotation on U.S. radio stations:

“Well, you only need the light when it’s burning low/Only miss the sun when it starts to snow/Only know you love her when you let her go … ”

The ride to the top was fast, and slightly unexpected. Shows went from intimate gigs on the streets of the U.K. and Australia to massive festivals of 40,000 people. Rosenberg didn’t even have a record label at the time.

“Obviously there’s a five-year-old in me that’s wanted it the whole time and was super excited about everything,” he says. “It was phenomenal for it to start snowballing in the way that it did.”

But he admits it was unsettling.

“Up until that point I had been very in control of how Passenger was going, then all of a sudden this song is doing its own thing.”

Rosenberg’s airy tenor voice no doubt stuck in people’s minds, an amalgamation of James Blunt’s lovesick throaty warble and Cat Steven’s soothing storyteller croon. The result is warm and calming, even as Rosenberg sings about love lost or souls passing.

Delving deeper into Rosenberg’s catalog, past the smash hit, I begin to recall a recent episode of This American Life in which British author Alain de Botton tells Ira Glass that if there’s one thing the British do well, it’s melancholy. (“The weather helps,” he added — dryly.)

And Rosenberg’s music is certainly filled with melancholy.

But in the context of music, it seems the reason the British do melancholy well is by infusing it with other emotions, or, at the very least, wrapping it up in pleasant melodies. Think of Morrissey singing “Girlfriend in a Coma,” or Amy Winehouse’s dance-able refusal in “Rehab.” Many of Damon Albarn’s lyrical musings on Blur’s iconic album Modern Life is Rubbish are poignantly humorous looks at the bleakness of… well, modern life.

No question: Rosenberg represents his countrymen well and creates music in the British way with his nuanced melancholic refrains. On the third Passenger album, All the Little Lights (from which “Let Her Go” was born), there are songs like the jovial sounding “Staring at the Stars,” which is ultimately about unattained childhood dreams. But it’s hard to feel sad in the face of a playfully plucked banjo while Rosenberg sings, “And all our girlfriends are long gone/We watch too much internet porn/Who needs love when you’ve got silicone and strap-ons?”

A career built on busking has made Rosenberg personable, even at huge live shows, where he tells jokes easily and sometimes performs with no shoes on. He sings playful crowd pleasers like “I Hate,” which bemoans everything from Facebook statuses to plastic surgery to assholes at live shows.

“Well I hate them fussy eaters/You cook them fajitas/They only eat pizza and chips/And I hate stepping outside for a smoke/And some guy coughs/like your lungs are his/And I hate queuing up/For festival toilets/Especially when you need to shit.”

“I think with my music I try and be as honest as possible and try and sort of talk about everything I see and I feel,” Rosenberg says. “I think involved in that there are a ton of different feelings, melancholy, cheeky moments and silliness. I think there’s a level of hope to it as well. I try and convey all of those things, all of those things within my personality and within every day life.

With indie folk, Rosenberg adds, “It’s not fair to write just sad music.”

However, “Let Her Go,” in its indie-folk simplicity, can leave you sad — and angry. It’s a song that shamelessly explains how one partner didn’t see the value of their mate until they ended the relationship. Whether you are the cavalier dumper or the stunned dumpee, “Let Her Go” rends the heart and makes you wonder how, exactly, things got so messed up.

But despite being an emotionally moving song, if you really dive into the lyrics, Rosenberg’s first smash hit comes across, quite frankly, like a narrow introspection of one person’s screw up.

And Rosenberg knows that.

His upcoming album, Young as the Morning Old as the Sea, incorporates those same melancholic musings on love and the passage of time, but it also expands into an adult’s desire to find inner peace.

In a nutshell, Rosenberg has grown up a little bit. Gotten older. That old chestnut.

“You know, taking a step back and seeing the bigger picture and not being so obsessed with my feelings and what’s going on in my head and my heart, looking at what’s in the broader picture,” he says.

The title track takes listeners on Rosenberg’s mental journey across the globe in search of what seems like a Maslowian state of self-actualization.

He sings, “I wanna feel the Russian winter/I wanna go to my Polish grandmother’s home/I wanna see Hungarian lanterns/I wanna walk on a road that leads to Rome/I wanna be free as the winds that blow past me/Free as the air that I breathe/Young as the morning and old as the sea.”

Back home in Brighton and Hove, Rosenberg runs a little coffee shop — perhaps why he’s so happy at the coffee shop in New York. Maybe if things quiet down one day, Rosenberg says he’d like to focus on bringing the American-style-coffee-shop music scene to Britain. One way or another, music is what he does. It’s who he is.

If life is a trip, Rosenberg’s been a lucky passenger.

See Folks Fest schedule for more details on Passenger’s performance, page 29.