Interview: Passenger

One of the things I like to smugly get annoyed about is when you mention Passenger and someone says “Oh I really like them” and I’m like “Er, it’s a he” with a disapproving stare. To be fair, Passenger used to be a “them” when they had some added punctuation to their moniker but that was an age ago, and a decade on Mike Rosenberg has become one of those established artists who sometimes flies under the radar in terms of press coverage but still manages to have UK number one albums and more importantly writes some of the most achingly lovely songs you’re likely to hear right now. His new album is being promoted as his first foray into americana, although he’s had form for many a year. Americana UK chatted to him about the new record, the current state America is in and whether he feels like a survivor in life.

I’ve been lucky enough to hear the new record in advance and it’s absolutely beautiful, with echoes of Ryan Adams, the Jayhawks, Tom Petty. Can you tell me a bit about how the album developed?

Thank you firstly, that’s really sweet.  I write a lot you know, this is my tenth record, and I had all these songs and I sort of started putting them all together. I was playing through all of them and I realised there was this group of about 9 or 10 that had this really cohesive feel with each other, and it was this American kind of theme. Like there’s 2 or 3 on the record that are directly about Detroit, Yellowstone National Park, a story about my grandparents and my dad who are American; but with all of them it felt like there was this running theme throughout, this kind of big road trippy epic American landscape kind of thing. So yeah it’s an interesting one, it kind of grew from there into this big… well you know, embrace it, embrace it musically, let’s have mandolin and banjo and lapsteel and all of these wonderful colours that I’ve maybe shied away from in the past.

I know your dad is American although you didn’t grow up there. Have you always felt a connection with the US?

Definitely. I mean I’ve been going to the States since I was 2 years old, my dad grew up in New Jersey and I’ve still got tonnes of family around that sort of East coast area so yeah it feels like a kind of second home to me.  And obviously I’ve toured there a lot as well. So it’s a funny thing, I never thought I would make an American record but it’s happened so here we are.

You’ve said you feel the record has a really strong sense of americana and I think that’s true in both a geographical and musical sense.  I think there’s definitely a link back to ‘Travelling Alone’ for instance from your ‘Whispers II’ record which I always thought was an absolute country classic.  Have you been interested in the genre for a while?

Of course yeah, I’ve grown up on American songwriters my whole life – listening to Paul Simon and Bob Dylan and people like John Prine, you know, classic real songwriters, they’ve been the lion’s share of what I’ve really focused on as a writer, and as influences too.  I mean Americana has always been an influence, I think I’ve just embraced it slightly more this time around.

“Paul Simon and Bob Dylan and people like John Prine, you know, classic real songwriters, they’ve been the lion’s share of what I’ve really focused on as a writer, and as influences too.”

In the States Billboard groups americana and folk together into one chart, separate from country, but they’re all genres that tell stories which I think fits your music so well.

Yeah that’s right, and I think folk is just the English version of that right? If you go back to early folk it’s all storytelling, that’s exactly what it is, some guy telling a story in a pub to 50 people with a  guitar you know. I think all of this music springs from the same thing – it’s that need, probably quite an ancient fundamental human need, to tell stories and I think that’s probably why we still respond to it in such a soulful way.

Tell me a bit about the song ‘Ghost Town’: “They don’t make cars like they used to here, times they change and factories close…. See the pride and the shame like fire and the flame, well it burns through every man. And drops them like drunken soldiers on the river banks” Did you get a sense of the deindustrialization that’s happened while you were over there and the effect it’s had on people?

Yeah I mean America is a funny place, it’s a land of extremes I think.  There’s fantastic, and there’s gobsmackingly dreadful. In every realm you could imagine, they do extremes very well or badly, depending on how you look at it.  Somewhere like Detroit which is the city ‘Ghost Town’ is about – I was pretty ignorant to the story before I went a few years ago when I played a gig there.  It was great and I loved the city, and I had a few beers with some locals who told us all about how the motor industry used to be based there: General Motors, Ford, Packard – huge numbers of jobs, a huge amount of work. And then you know the bottom fell out and a lot of these companies moved on, and as a result there’s just mass loss of job, mass exodus from the city and now you have these neighbourhoods just empty, rows of houses that nature is taking back, trees growing out of the top of their roofs, the remnants of people’s lives just scattered around the place, and it’s a really sort of tragic thing to witness. So we spent a couple of days around those areas and making a video and it was really moving actually.  I should say there’s some really positive stuff going on in Detroit as well.  It’s not all doom and gloom, there’s a great arts scene, there’s a really buzzing sort of vibey industry coming out of Detroit as well. So I don’t want to paint too much of a bad picture, but there is this side of it, and I suppose going in as an outsider you wonder how it gets forgotten about, how a city that was the home of Motown, that was affluent, that was so important, is just on its knees and it’s seemingly kind of swept under the carpet.  It’s peculiar.

Another song that struck me was ‘To Be Free’: “They came spilling across the sea, never knowing where they’d come down, or who they’d be.” Obviously biographical but it seems to have a special resonance at the moment with some of the things going on with immigrants in the US.

Yeah you know it’s funny I wrote it about my family because they were Jewish refugees my grandparents and ended up in the States, and that’s obviously trickled down and had a knock on effect to my dad and his siblings and even me and my sister. And again it’s a story I never thought I would write, it’s a very delicate one. But I did and yeah, absolutely, it’s never been more relevant than now. I think the refugee crisis that we’re facing and the people who are making the decisions about it, it’s a terrifying combination really. I hope a song like this can in some small way be of some comfort to some people who are being displaced or have been displaced and have to try and pick up a new life somewhere else.

I do think you’ve got 2 absolutely stand out tracks: ‘Heart to Love’ and ‘Eagle Bear Buffalo’. It might be a difficult question but are there any tracks you particularly feel proud of from the new record?

You know what no one’s picked those 2 tracks out, that’s really cool, that’s lovely to hear. I think for me… it’s funny, I really try not to look at music in a what could be commercially successful kind of way, but you know I don’t write Bulgarian free jazz, my music is quite accessible, it’s quite poppy and melodic, so with every album you’re like, if I’m going to pick some singles I might as well. So you know ‘Hell or High Water’ is very hooky, very catchy and something people can really relate to, and I actually think ‘Survivors’, the last song, is a pretty epic barnstormer, so we’ll just see.

That final track on the record does make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Do you feel like a survivor in life?

I think we’re all survivors to be honest. I mean some of us more than others, some of us have to survive far more horrendous things than others, it’s all relative – whatever your experience is. It’s not an easy time to live in 2018 I don’t think; there’s fabulous things that come with technology and where we’re at, but there’s also some really odd things for us to deal with. The world is very small, everything is accessible, everyone is attainable. The world of social media and the impact that’s having on all of us is massive. And so even just those things… dealing with Brexit, Donald Trump and global warming.

“there’s fabulous things that come with technology and where we’re at, but there’s also some really odd things for us to deal with.”

A lot of material for songs!

Yeah absolutely and I think ‘Survivors’ for me is just sort of dropping the guard and being like: is anyone else fucking struggling with this? It’s a moment of reaching out.

Did you ever think about adding “A Kindly Reminder” as a bonus track on the new album?!

I didn’t (laughs) I didn’t think that would go down too well with the American demographic or some of them. You know it’s funny, I wrote that song just after Trump got into power. I’m not overly political in my music, there’s a couple of songs where I’ve touched on politics but I leave that to people who really know their stuff. I’m a normal guy, I didn’t spend my 10,000 hours in politics, so I don’t feel like I have a special opinion or anything particularly valid to say, but you know, someone like Donald Trump is so perplexingly terrifying that I just felt moved to express my opinions. And you know what, it was the first thing I’ve ever put out where I knew before putting it out that it was going to be a bit controversial and it’s going to ruffle some feathers, and it was quite a weird experience getting a lot of pushback online.

And did you?

Yeah of course, a lot of Americans, and not just Americans, a lot of people on YouTube were like “Right, cool, I’m not going to listen to Passenger anymore” and all of this kind of stuff. I don’t think a political opinion should necessarily turn you off someone’s music… but anyway it’s fine, all good, it all comes out in the wash!

Passenger’s new album ‘Runaway’ is released on August 31st in the UK, and he is currently touring around the UK – you can find all the dates (and other nice treats) here.

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Author: Mark Whitfield

Mark Whitfield has been the Editor of Americana UK for the last 17 years and still feels like this is his pretend job, mainly because it is.

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