Passenger’s 13th Album Goes Out to His Fellow Broken HeartsPhoto by Mila Austin Music Features Passenger
Sometimes an album turns out to be exactly what it promised it was in its title. Like Songs For the Drunk and Broken Hearted, for instance, the latest—and 13th overall—effort from Passenger, the folk-pop persona of former British street busker Mike Rosenberg. It details a recent real-life breakup the Brighton-based singer endured after a three-and-a-half-year romance, starting with a letter-to-his-ex opener “Sword From the Stone” and wending its lyrically-somnolent-but-musically-upbeat way through “Tip of My Tongue” (“If I would’ve known what I know today/ I would’ve lived my life like a smoking gun”), “Remember to Forget” (in which he reminds future suitors that he’s a “heavy drinker and a chain smoker”), a Saw Doctors-sprightly “A Song For the Drunk and Broken Hearted,” and the closing “London in the Spring” (“I’ve got love to give/ I’ve got my life to live,” he optimistically chirps). And the deluxe edition features bare-bones acoustic versions of each song, running in reverse order, for those sad sacks who really want to commiserate.
It wasn’t as if he was drowning his sorrows in potent pandemic potables like scotch, his poison of choice, cautions Rosenberg, 36. “So I don’t wanna overplay the alcohol thing—it wasn’t like I had six months of destroying myself,” he says. “But I just think that when you come out of a relationship—and maybe this is an English thing—it’s the most obvious comfort to reach for. It numbs the pain for a little bit and even lets you escape it for a little while. So I thought, ‘Hang on—this is an opportunity! What a cool idea it would be to write a handbook like ‘Songs,’ a self-help guide for how to get through this period of you life!’”
He liked the concept-record idea so much, he ran with it, and even paused it long enough this summer to self-issue a separate lockdown-inspired disc called Patchwork, with proceeds going to a food-bank charity. The man has always been industrious, though. Long before his chipmunk-chipper singing voice bowed in via the monster hit “Let Her Go,” a single that was #1 in 16 countries back in 2012—earning him both a Brit Award and a prestigious Ivor Novello—he spent every year busking seasonally, playing half the year when British streets were warm, then plying his trade in Australia when it summer started in the UK winter. And the Passenger songs just kept coming, like the recent standalone single “A Kindly Reminder,” a scathing putdown of Donald Trump ignorance (“I’ve heard you say climate change isn’t real/ But that’s not how the world’s leading scientists feel”).
Paste: So where have you been sheltering in place?
Mike Rosenberg: I’ve been in my house just outside of Brighton with my two adorable cats, but very little human contact. So it’s been interesting. The cats are called Charlie and Rosie, and I don’t think they’ve got an exact breed—they’re just two silly little cats, and I don’t think they’re anything special. Well, I mean, they’re special to me, but nothing out of the ordinary, genetically speaking.
Paste: Have you noticed your pets starting to get a tad neurotic when you leave the house, even just to get the mail?
Rosenberg: Yeah! And they’ve got some sort of insane idea that this is gonna go on forever, and that no one is allowed to leave, ever again. So that’s good, I guess. That’s setting a new precedent.
Paste: I can’t believe this is your 13th album. I had to stop and add them all up.
Rosenberg: Yeah. I’ve always written a lot. But the lockdown album (Patchwork) was a nice surprise. But in the most challenging times of my life, I always turn to writing, and lockdown was no different. I had very little to do, and I’m so used to touring and recording and being stupidly busy, so I just wrote and wrote. And it got to the stage where I was like, “Hang on—there’s a little record here!” I wrote it in six weeks, we recorded it in two weeks, and then we released it two weeks later. So there was a real—and I know this sounds wrong—lack of thought that went into it, if you know what I mean. It was direct, very quick, very from-the-heart. And it was a nice way of doing things, actually. But lockdown, as a single man, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, I can assure you. But this was a nice way to be productive in a famously unproductive period of time. And we’d recorded most of this album [Songs] before lockdown, so it was ready to go in March. And we were going to release it in May, but it felt like a real shame. After putting so much work into this record, it felt like if we’d released it during lockdown that all of the tools that I usually have at my disposal to gain momentum around a record—whether it be busking, or doing radio promo or doing gigs—none of that was available. So it felt like such a shame to just throw a record out into the universe without some kind of support for it. So I held it back, and I ended up writing three new songs, and I think it’s a much better record for it. So I’m really excited about this new album—there’s just something very special about it.
Paste: So were you and this girl together a long time?
Rosenberg: About three and a half years, which is a long time for me. I dunno. man. I think it’s famously difficult to live the kind of life that I live and hold down a long-term relationship. So I’m not the first touring musician to admit that. And I have so much respect for her and love for her, but I think, timing-wise, it just wasn’t meant to be. It’s just one of those things—people change, people evolve. And you’ve constantly gotta be honest about that stuff, for everyone involved. So it was pretty amicable, and we’re still friends, and it’s cool. But there’s nothing like a breakup to inspire a bit of writing, I can assure you of that.
Paste: Have you started seeing someone else?
Rosenberg: I think definitely, for me, it’s become more about plunging myself into music and writing. There was a little bit of time where I wasn’t as focused on Passenger as I have been in the past, and that’s really nobody’s fault. But I’ve kind of re-engaged with it in the last year or so, and the magic has sort of come back into it. And I have to say, I think the respite from touring has really helped with that. Touring just grinds you down, and I’m always relentlessly touring. I just won’t stop. So I think the pandemic pushing the “pause” button on touring really helped me build my energy back up and rediscover the love for music again.
Paste: At what point did you start to feel distant from the Passenger persona?
Rosenberg: Good question. It’s funny that you call it a persona, because it really is, and I’ve started to actually almost think of it as two people. There’s Passenger, and then there’s Mike, and they’re actually two very different individuals, and they need very different things. And for years, I’ve just been giving Passenger everything he wants, and Mike’s taken a bit of a back seat as far as that stuff goes. But, like with everything in life, you’ve gotta find a balance. And it’s difficult, because the work that I do is so all-consuming. You can’t phone it in, and you can’t do it half-assed, because it just doesn’t work that way. So I think the pendulum has probably just swung in the opposite direction for a bit, until I was like, “You know what? I want to have a life! I want to go to my friend’s wedding, and I want to go see things! I want to go visit my niece! I want to do real-life things, as well as all the amazing touring that Passenger gets to do.” So hopefully now maybe I’ve struck that balance.
Paste: Did you yell angrily at poor Passenger? Like, “Dude! You cost my my girlfriend!”
Rosenberg: Ha! I dunno about that. But I think it was a gradual process, as well. “Let Her Go” was such an explosion that—honestly—it was like two or three years before I even came up for air after that. Then I did another couple of albums, another couple of tours, and then I was like, “Hang on a minute! I don’t actually need to tour like this anymore!” So five years after following the craziness of “Let Her Go,” I think I just stopped and told myself I wasn’t a busker anymore and I didn’t have to say “Yes” to every single opportunity. I could just take a step back and make more measured decisions.
Paste: Did you go into therapy? Some of the Songs lyrics read like therapy-speak.
Rosenberg: Very perceptive. I do see a therapist. In fact, I was on the phone to him about an hour ago. And it’s been massively helpful. Because you know, no one prepares you for this stuff. And I was a busker, and I was fine with that—I was playing to 100, maybe 200 people a night, and it was cool. And then suddenly, my life completely flipped, and all of a sudden I’m on TV, I’m doing these festivals, and I’m playing headline shows to thousands of people, and it was a massive change. But you’re just kind of expected to hit the ground running with that. So I found it incredibly helpful to finally think about all that stuff and put it into perspective.
Paste: It sounds like that—just by putting the Passenger persona in its own definitive box—you know how to control it now.
Rosenberg: Exactly. And I’m sure there are many more winding roads left to go with it. But I feel like I understand it more now, and—if you can hit that sweet spot—it’s truly the most enjoyable thing I could imagine doing with my life. I mean, you’re going and playing your music to people who really want to listen to it. But, like with anything, if you do something too much, it really saps the fun out of it. So I think there’s a bit of self control that’s needed, and it’s a fine line from being stern with yourself to being an asshole to yourself, and I’m definitely a bit of an asshole to myself at times. Because Passenger is a bit of a spoiled baby. He needs Super Nanny! That’s what he needs!
Paste: In new cuts like “Suzanne” and “Sword From the Stone,” you wonder aloud what your ex is thinking, how she’s doing. But all you really need to do is check her Facebook status and, say, see the photos from Cabo she’s posted with Chuck.
Rosenberg: Yeah. Fucking Chuck! I always knew it was gonna be Chuck! Everyone saw it coming. People warned me about Chuck, but did I listen? Did I? Fuck no! But hey—that’s a good point. And it is quite a weird time to be writing songs, although “Suzanne” was definitely meant as a tip of the hat to Leonard Cohen, even though mine is a fictional character. But it’s weird not only because every song, ever, has been written already, but it’s just a very strange time to navigate at the moment, and it’s been a really interesting challenge to write songs this year. I mean, I’ve really enjoyed it, but it’s been such a rollercoaster ride of a year, I wouldn’t be surprised if the amount of music that comes out in 2021 is absolutely enormous. Because every songwriter has been thrown into this.
Paste: But your unique voice makes even dark musings sound bright.
Rosenberg: That’s an interesting point. But with a Passenger song, I think there are a few levels that you can enjoy it on—you can either just tap your foot and think that it’s a nice, sweet little song, or see that there’s a bit more darkness and depth to it, if you really want to go there. It’s like when you watch a great Pixar movie with your little niece. She’s laughing because one of the characters falls over, and it’s colorful and funny. But I’m finding it funny because of all the jokes that are aimed at the parents and the adults. And if you can do that with your music? I think that’s really special.