Passenger interview: ‘After five years of busking I’ll never forget how lucky I am to be able to do this’

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On the main stage of Rhode Island’s Newport Folk Festival, a bushy-faced Brighton busker is doing his best to turn off his crowd. “Hi, my name’s Mike, or Passenger, and I’m going to play some miserable songs,” Mike Rosenberg says by way of introduction. “I’ve only had one hit, so that’s a bit embarrassing. And it’s called Let Her Go, not Let It Go from Frozen. Amazing how people get them mixed up. She’s a Disney princess, and I’m an Englishman with a beard.” 

It’s not quite up there with the most infamous bit of audience baiting at the venerable, 59-year-old event on the US eastern seaboard. That would be Bob Dylan offending the folk refuseniks at Newport ’65 by “going electric”. But still. Passenger could try a bit harder to win over America.

Alternatively, he needn’t bother. A self-funded musician with no major label backing, the 34-year-old is doing quite nicely by being himself: self-deprecating, honest, funny, matey. 

It’s true that the singer-songwriter who styles himself Passenger has had only one hit, and that was five years ago. But it’s the hit that keeps on giving. Number two here and a number one in 19 countries, Let Her Go won Rosenberg the Ivor Novello Award for Most Performed Work. In its wake, his 2016 album Young as the Morning, Old as the Sea entered the UK album charts at number one.

At the time of writing Let Her Go has just passed two billion YouTube views. It’s a remarkable feat that tees up the release this month of the tenth and typically tuneful Passenger album.

Runaway is a poetic, Americana-influenced song cycle in which Rosenberg explores the lives of his Jewish grandparents, who escaped post-war Europe for the US, and the subsequent wanderlust of his American-born dad. True to prolific, entrepreneurial form, it comes backed with acoustic versions of every song, plus 30 — count ’em — videos, which Rosenberg is divvying up among streaming partners.

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As he says: “You have to play to your strengths, and my strength is the amount of content I create.”

But in a very Passenger way, Rosenberg credits not his own hard work but his audience and his lack of mainstream profile with supersizing his proudly route-one acoustica.

“Because my fans are really loyal, and because it’s not all over the radio and the media, it feels like it’s theirs. They’ve stumbled across it, and they want to push it to the next level. It’s pretty f**king humbling.”

We’re talking post-show, in the shadow of the battlements of the 19th-century coastal fort in which the compact, lovely and thoroughly grown-up Newport festival is held. They’re shucking oysters in the backstage bar, and offering free samples of Willie Nelson’s cannabis coffee. It’s a scorching weekend in this wealthy corner of New England, and a long way from the UK festival experience. As we speak, Camp Bestival in Dorset is being blown to bits by a storm.

Rosenberg, though, isn’t taking any of it for granted. “After five years of busking I’ll never forget how lucky I am to be able to do this kind of stuff.” Everywhere he goes — and the stoutly affable Rosenberg seems to be on tour constantly, whether at actual gigs or, still, busking — he gathers fans. His trick, such as it is, is to be normal. It’s literally just him, his guitar, his heartfelt songs and his chirpy bantz. 

Yes, he has a secret weapon onstage, a microphone concealed in his left Converse, the better to beat out a rhythm. But next to Passenger, Ed Sheeran and his ’mazin’ loop pedal seems like King Arthur on Ice. 

“It’s about letting people in,” Rosenberg shrugs of his approach to performing live. “And it’s about vulnerability. People get that. You walk out there with just a guitar and people go: ‘Ooh, that’s ballsy. This better be good.’ And nine of ten times they respond to you putting yourself in that vulnerable position.”  he says. “It is,” he concludes, “about being yourself on stage. It’s not rocket science.”

Speaking of Sheeran, Rosenberg has known him for a decade, meeting the then-teenager on the busking circuit and later supporting him on tour. He marvels at “how smart he is about navigating through the [music] industry — and he’s always been like that. When I met him when he was 17, he was on the money then, man.”

But where Sheeran has always had his sights set on selling out Wembley for a week, Rosenberg has other aspirations. 

“I think me and Ed have always wanted slightly different things. And I think we are different artists as well. Ed is brilliant at writing …” — a careful pause — “… the way he does.”

Big pop songs?

“Big pop songs,” he nods. “And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. If you can write a catchy melody and a song that captures people around the world, what better thing to do? Other than Let Her Go, I haven’t managed to do that. And that’s fine by me. Mate, I’d totally let go of the idea of becoming anything but a pub singer, I really had.”

But when just one of your songs has had two billion views, the streaming monies are kicking in with a vengeance. After half a lifetime, solo, on the road, Rosenberg has now bought a lovely house near Brighton. He has a new girlfriend, too, an illustrator, “and a couple of kid … Ah, cats I should say! Wow, what  a Freudian slip!”

Still, domesticity isn’t quite beckoning — he’s touring for the rest of 2018. At least. 

“I’m at a really good place, and I feel like I live a bit of a charmed life. I can play the main stage at the Newport  Folk Festival in front of 10,000 people, and do all the gigs and stuff I want to do. Then I can go home and get toilet paper on a Sunday morning and not get hassled.”

And with that, Mike Rosenberg is up and on to his next engagement: a busking gig in another corner of the festival. 

Runaway is out now. Passenger plays the Roundhouse, NW1 8EH ( on August 8

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