It seems appropriate that Mike Rosenberg calls himself Passenger when performing his sweet acoustic pop songs, because so far it’s been a series of external factors that have ushered this former busker from Brighton to global success. Thanks to the enthusiasms of a Dutch radio plugger and his long-term mate Ed Sheeran, his song Let Her Go slowly became an international hit despite Rosenberg’s low expectations. But now, as he prepares for the release next month of Whispers — his fifth solo album but the first since fame struck — the 29-year-old is finally in the driving seat.
“I didn’t love that album when it came out so it’s ironic that it was the first one anyone noticed,” he says of All the Little Lights, which reached number three in the UK albums chart last year. “This new one is the best album I’ve made, without a doubt.”
He’s quite right. The meekness that characterised some of his earlier work has been extinguished, replaced by a bold voice that knows it will be heard. On the new record, there are lush strings, uplifting backing vocals (from a Canadian folk band called The Once) and several stirring anthems that seem designed to be sung back by big audiences. Rosenberg might have emerged in Sheeran’s shadow but now he’s competing at the same level.
It’s about time. Passenger was originally a full band that released a decent, stylistically wide-ranging album in 2007, Wicked Man’s Rest, before splitting up. Two of Rosenberg’s former bandmates now make experimental electronica on the prestigious Ninja Tune label as Grasscut. Passenger kept the name and turned to busking and lo-fi home recording, dividing his year between England and Australia depending on where the sun was shining — an honest way of working but not one that would get him on Radio 1’s A-list in a hurry.
“I did find it really freeing,” he tells me over an orange juice in an Islington beer garden. He’s an earnest, charming, extensively hairy chap whose fairly deep speaking voice is nothing like the feather-light sound he magically acquires when singing.
“There was a romance to it when I first started. I’d get a train to some town and wander about to find a decent spot. Sometimes I’d play for three hours; sometimes I’d get moved on after three songs. It’s very easy to rose-tint it now, but they were the best years of my life in some senses.”
This week he’s been trying to recapture that feeling with street sets across the country, including the Southbank — though now he has a PA system, a sound guy and an audience of hundreds. And no hat for collecting coins.
He played endless pub gigs back then too, once sharing a bill in Cambridge with a teenage Ed Sheeran. “I watched him and he blew me away. He watched me and bought my little acoustic album. He’s really sweet, he still says it’s one of his favourite records.”
They shared bills plenty more times. “It was a really nice, like-minded friendship. Then when he got massive he did amazingly well by me.”
On Sheeran’s first big UK tour, he tried to give lots of his old compadres support slots. “He could see that I was really working for it. I’d play my set and then be out there trying to force my flyers on people. Those first few gigs were the biggest opportunities I’d had for years, being in front of 2,000 people a night. Ed related to that because he’d been hustling for years too.” In the end, he supported Sheeran around the world on and off for a year.
Then came what Rosenberg calls “the Let Her Go situation”. His fourth solo album had come out in 2012 to the usual lack of impact, and he’d moved on to thinking about the follow-up. But someone who pitches songs to radio stations in the Netherlands heard his song Let Her Go in a café, and got in touch to ask if he could try to generate some Dutch airplay heat for this twinkling wisp of a tune. A quiet beauty that updates Joni Mitchell’s idea that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone, it’s a lovely thing but far from traditional radio fodder. “We were like, ‘Sure mate, knock yourself out’,” says Rosenberg. “Three weeks later, it was number one.”
It snowballed across Europe and Australia, eventually becoming the only million-selling British single of 2013 in the UK, thanks in part to Sheeran’s endorsement. It’s only now exiting the American charts, having become a triple-platinum seller over there too.
Like Sheeran, Rosenberg is an honest storyteller in song, who’s not averse to a sharp joke. “It’s the meaning of life and it’s streamed live on YouTube/But I bet Gangnam Style will still get more views,” he sings. Another catchy, jangly new one, 27, takes stock of his life by adding up time spent getting haircuts, smoking, eating and writing songs. It sounds like his next big hit to me.
Now, as he prepares to release his first album to have serious commercial expectations and play a major headline tour at the end of the year, his task is to keep his feet on the ground. He’s hardly spent any money, he says. He bought a nice new guitar and a small flat in Hove near his parents and his new girlfriend but he doesn’t wear a fancy watch and can’t drive.
“Some people expect me to have changed overnight because of one big song,” he says. “But if the past 10 years don’t keep me humble, nothing will. It’s not much good being a really famous a***hole.”
So now that he’s joined Sheeran at the top, he’s determined to lift the next person up. He’d urge you to check out his Australian mate Stu Larsen’s forthcoming album, Vagabond.
It sounds like he’s doing a good job of being a successful human being. But being a successful musician makes a nice change too.