We’ve all witnessed the meltdown of the record industry in recent years, which has left some artists struggling to make a name for themselves. Networking sites like YouTube and Facebook are both teeming with young hopefuls trying to strike gold at a time when previously accepted business models just no longer apply. But from out of all the post-apocalyptic fog and confusion, one artist has found a rather unique way through; enter Mike Rosenberg – or, as many people will know him, Passenger. Mike started off in a band, but when things went awry, he decided to hit the streets and take his music to the public by busking. Fast-forward to now; we caught up with him while he was in the midst of a sold-out European tour with a new album in the stores, and a legion of fans worldwide. We’ll get to how he made the transition from street musician to globetrotting superstar in a moment, but first we need to clear something up…
Despite the break up of your band, you have held on to the name Passenger for your solo act – so how exactly did this come about?
The story is basically that Passenger started as a band eight or nine years ago; we made a record together and did a bit of touring around the UK, and a bit in the States. For many different reasons the album didn’t do as well as maybe it could have done, and so we all just went our own ways. It was a big change for me and it was quite upsetting to have the band break up and my manager leave at that time too. I also broke up with my girlfriend and everything sort of fell apart a little bit and so, at a roll of the dice, I just went busking. I needed some money because I was quite heavily in debt and I needed to pay off some bills and I thought for the time being I’ll just go busking and see what happens. Little did I know that busking would be such a wonderful way of getting my music to people. I actually spent the last three or four years just travelling around, mainly in the UK and Australia, splitting the year between the two places and busking, slowly but surely building a fanbase.
Did you start off busking in your hometown of Brighton?
Yeah, exactly. I recorded my second album Wide Eyes, Blind Love in a friend’s bedroom for around 200 quid and that’s the album that I’ve been selling ever since when busking. I’ve sold over 20,000 albums and that record meant that I have been able to fund the rest of my career. I’ve funded every album since from just busking and touring.
So, effectively you took your busking career on the road?
It just struck me, from the success that I had locally, that it was a really great way of doing it because you don’t just turn up to play in a town you’ve never been to before and have no one come to the gig because why would they? They’ve never heard of my stuff and I’ve never given them a reason to come to the show so I started going to towns and busking for three or four days and having a show at the end of it. So for the days I was busking I was handing out cards for the gig and selling CDs and it would vary; in some towns you’d have only 20 people turning up, other towns you’d have 200. But it would stop those totally empty rooms happening which, when it does happen, is just soul destroying.
Busking is a gig that’s theoretically open to everybody if they’re brave enough, but there’s a lot more to it than that. What would you say is the survivor’s guide?
You learn so much along the way. I think the main thing is that I was using a wonderful acoustic amp – an AER – and they just sound great. I put the vocals and the guitar through the amp and it would just sound really, really beautiful. It was a real step up from anything else that I’ve tried as far as portable amplification goes. So that’s the main thing; just to get it sounding really lovely so that people will walk past and it already sounds like a gig and doesn’t sound like some dude just hammering out ‘Wonderwall’! Also, there are certain cities that really work and some that just don’t; places like Bath, Edinburgh, and York where there are a lot of pedestrianised areas with quite a lot of people wandering around with time on their hands are the best.
What guitar did you take out busking? A lot of players I know who busk don’t want to take their precious instruments out and subject them to the elements.
To be perfectly honest I’ve never really had the money to get precious instruments. I had a Larrivée for a long time, which was good. She, unfortunately, was a casualty of the road a couple of years ago, so I moved on to Gibson J-45s and haven’t looked back. I’ve got a couple of them that I bring on tour and busk with them as well and they’re a really great all rounder. Especially for a solo performer, they’re so big-sounding that when you’re strumming it really fills a stage or a street corner or whatever you’re trying to fill and, for me, it’s a really good picking guitar as well.
What are the differences between busking and going on stage to perform in terms of your mindset?
To be honest I grew to love both of them equally. When you’re busking there’s such a buzz when it goes well and you’ve got around 100 or so people standing around and you know that none of them woke up on that day knowing who the hell Passenger was or who had never heard any of my music before, and then suddenly you’ve just made 100 new people aware of it and maybe 50 people walk away with a CD. That buzz is just fantastic because it’s all generated by you; you’ve got your amp and your CDs and guitar together and you’ve gone down, set-up and generated this by yourself. I think a lot of the time with music is that you’re constantly getting frustrated by waiting on other people to do stuff for you. You’re waiting by the phone for an agent to get back to you or a label to offer you something or whatever it may be. But, with busking, what’s so refreshing about it is that you can just do it yourself and you don’t need anybody to tell you, “Okay, you can go and do it now…” You just pack your stuff and if you want to busk for eight hours a day you can and if you want to busk for one hour a day you can. There’s something really liberating about that, which I love. I guess that the other massive difference is that it’s obviously free and so it means that five-year-olds can enjoy it and 85-year-olds can enjoy it, people who are in wheelchairs or people who can’t come to a gig can come and watch it. Also, people with no money can enjoy it, and I think that’s really a lovely way to offer your music to people.
Did you find that busking actually teaches you how to deal with an audience?
Massively. I think I wouldn’t be where I am without the busking experience, as far as stage presence and that kind of thing goes. If you can play on a street corner, you can play any gig, really. If you can successfully win over a crowd who really have no idea who you are and have no obligation to stay, let alone give you any money or buy a CD, then when you actually play concerts and people have bought tickets to see you, then it seems a lot less of an uphill battle.
Going on tour with Ed Sheeran must have been something of a catalyst in your playing career…
Definitely. As wonderful as the busking was, you can only reach a certain amount of people at any one time. The busking would have had the same effect, but playing with Ed for three or four months just sped things up massively. The momentum and the exposure and playing to thousands of people a night instead of just tens or hundreds, it just changed the game completely. Because it was North America, the UK, as well as Europe and Ireland it just crossed so many territories, so yes, it was a massive deal for me.
You’re known for spending as much time in Australia as in the UK…
The Australian thing came about because I was busking for the first summer in the UK and going round from place to place and loving it, but it got cold, as it always does in the Northern Hemisphere. So I just thought to myself well, “Where could I go to carry on the busking that’s going to have a nice climate, people speak English and are going to get this music?” And Australia just seemed to tick all those boxes. So I went, thinking that I’d stay there for two or three months and ended up staying for six months on that trip. Then I came back to the UK for the summer here, and then back to Australia for another nine months… It was just back and forth, really; I think I had seven summers in a row which was pretty ideal, to be honest.
Going back to the very beginning, when did you start playing guitar?
I started playing classical guitar when I was about seven or eight. My mum and dad got me a crappy little nylon string guitar and I started having lessons and it was good, y’know, because it gave me such a basic knowledge of the guitar and later on allowed me to craft songs and understand how I was doing it and not just falling upon things by chance. It was great and I really appreciate my mum and dad pushing me, kicking and screaming a lot of the time, to rehearse and to carry on with it because I wouldn’t be able to play guitar like I can now without it.
The new album has a mix of strumming and fingerstyle…
I think a lot of the quieter, more ballad-like songs suit fingerpicking. I think that’s naturally what I go with. I’ve got slightly horrible fingernails which I have to grow out because the fingerpicking requires that tone but there are definitely songs that need strumming as well – the quicker-paced songs. But, yeah, it’s a real mix.
Do you experiment with any altered tunings at all?
I’m really lazy with that stuff; I’m terrible, I stay in standard tuning pretty much most of the time and I use a capo a lot as well. I really love the effect of having the capo on at the sixth or seventh fret because it gives it a really lovely tone and seems to fit really in terms of my vocal range.
Very Paul Simon, ‘Scarborough Fair’ and ‘Sound Of Silence’…
Absolutely. I think that’s no coincidence because I grew up listening to that guy and so it was definitely an influence. I always remember listening to records by Paul Simon and Bob Dylan; my dad got me into that stuff when I was really, really young. Specifically I remember listening to a ‘Simon And Garfunkel Live In Central Park’ cassette tape that we used to play on most car journeys. I remember thinking really early on when I was five or six that this was something that I really wanted to be a part of. Music at that age feels so magical, I had no idea how the instruments interacted with one another and how the songs were put together and so it just hits you as a big, wonderful source of mysteries. I remember the way Paul Simon writes just clicked with me quite deeply and so I listened to all that stuff from a really early age.
How does a song start for you – with the lyrics or the melody?
It can work either way, really. A lot of the time I’ll be fiddling around on the guitar and an idea will form first, and then melody and lyrics will come later. Sometimes a really strong lyrical idea or a line will hit me and I’ll create a song around that. I haven’t got a specific pattern with songs and I think that’s a good thing because it means that you get some quite different sounding tunes.
The current bane of acoustic players is people who come along to a gig, sit in the front row and talk all the way through your set, a situation that Mike has immortalised in a verse of his song ‘I Hate’…
I think that just about every acoustic performer struggles with that at some point in their career and it’s horrible and soul destroying – you’re trying to sing a song that means the world to you and there are people who are just chatting over them. Actually, the line in that song has been so helpful because it’s a funny way of asking people not to talk, you know? It’s been so helpful at gigs on occasions where there has been quite a bit of chat before that, and then you make a real point about singing that line and people go, “Oh, shit… Okay, cool, I’ll shut up, then.”
So what does the immediate future hold for Passenger now?
We’ve got four gigs left in Europe and then I fly out pretty much straight away to Australia because I’m supporting Ed on his Australian and New Zealand dates. Then I go straight into my own headline tour there, and so the next few months are over there. When I come back I have a few dates in Ireland and hopefully a bit of time off. To be honest I really want to try to find a balance because at the moment it’s just crazy. I’ve got no time to busk or do anything like that and I really miss it. I feel so lucky to be playing sold-out gigs all over the place and I feel really lucky about having it go so well; but at the same time I really want to have the time to enjoy it as well. Not be in a different city every day and just see a tour van and backstage and then do the gig and do it over and over again. It’s important to me to go out busking and walk around these cities and actually enjoy it. I didn’t work so hard to get here to never actually enjoy things, does that make sense?
Passenger’s Top Ten album All The Little Lights is out now.