Interview: Passenger on writing in lockdown, his new album and how 2020 changed him

Not content with headlining Black Deer 2018 and having a number one album on the UK americana charts in the same year, Passenger aka Mike Rosenberg also has the 24th most viewed YouTube video of all time. Just think about how many cat fail or cinnamon challenge videos you’ve watched – this guy’s video for ‘Let Her Go’ has smashed them all (although still not ‘Baby Shark Dance’ sadly). His new album ‘Songs for the Drunk and Brokenhearted’ lands this week, with an array of characters that could be any one of us at our lowest ebb (although remember Tennyson’s wise words). It’s a different record from the one he thought he’d be releasing in the Spring of last year when the world changed for everyone but one which contains some of the most beautifully written songs of the year seeped in folk and classic americana vibes – and hey, we’re only seven days in. Americana UK Editor Mark Whitfield talked to Mike about how the last year has affected his songwriting process, the importance of compassion even when it’s difficult, and the beauty in the mundane.

Hi Mike, so first obvious question for you – how was 2020 for you and have you been coping?

Best year of my life, all the touring, all the travelling [laughs]. I mean yeah everyone’s been saying the same thing, it’s been a struggle, a real challenge. A lot of sort of juggling about, changing of plans, adapting and stuff, so yeah, it’s been a headache but I think we’re starting to shape what we’re doing again.

I watched a few of your Sunday evening live streams which felt a bit surreal at first but quickly found their feet, they were kind of like a comforting bit of the week for me – what was that like for you so regularly?

Yeah it was amazing to connect with the world, I loved it, I loved playing for people. It was a nice bit of structure for me having this thing every week to prepare for and engage with. But it was also I have to say bizarrely exhausting – having a week of lockdown, pretty much complete isolation from the world, and then for 45 minutes on a Sunday night I would play to a few thousand people… yet still I wouldn’t, I’d be in my living room with my cats, and I’d play and then it’d be over and there’s nothing coming back really – it’s not like a gig where you get so much energy back from the crowd and come off and you buzz and have a beer with your mates, and there’s that whole kind of cooling down period. And I was just suddenly back in my living room making dinner! It was quite a weird scenario. I loved doing it though, I really did, and I would have kept on doing it but one guy with a guitar week after week, there’s only so much you can reinvent that you know.

No they were great, and I think a lot of people have said just how exhausting being in front of a screen is, you wouldn’t think it necessarily should be but there’s none of that downtime you get with face to face.

Exactly right man – but no I’m really glad I did it and it was a lovely way of keeping in contact with people.

Moving on to your new album ‘Songs for the Brokenhearted’ – it’s just a lovely, lovely record, and almost feels made for the times we live in. So you had an album of songs ready to go and then decided it wasn’t quite finished – what was it about it that made you make that decision?

I think if the world hadn’t have collapsed in the way it had done, we would have gone ahead and released the initial version of it. We released a single in March and were all set to release the album in May, and it just felt like such a shame to have put so much work and love into this record, and then just be kind of punting it out into the universe with not much around it. You know we couldn’t make videos, I couldn’t go busking, I couldn’t do all the stuff I would normally do around a record. So I just kind of thought, you know what, let’s just put it on ice for a bit. So we did and then in the end I ended up writing a ton of songs in Lockdown. I actually released a little album called ‘Patchwork’ which was like a charity record. So I think it kind of kept momentum going in a nice kind of subtle way. And the hidden benefit of this was that I wrote so many songs I actually ended up adding three of the new ones on and taking three of the weaker ones off ‘Drunk and Brokenhearted’, and I think it’s a far better record for it. So you know it was a bit of a happy accident really, and I think it’s taught me a bit of a lesson moving forward to just kind of maybe take a little bit more time over records. Just because you finish the tracking you don’t need to punt it out immediately. A bit of downtime, a bit of time for the dust to settle and everything to percolate a little bit is no bad thing.

You apparently wrote a lot of the new album in the shadow of a breakup – it’s difficult to ascertain any huge change of direction as your songs are often so sad! – but how much did being newly single after a relationship affect the songwriting process for you?

Yeah I’m not the first singer-songwriter to find new material in the wake of a break-up, that’s for sure [laughs]. But I think there’s a reason for that – I think you know, you’re in a very vulnerable state, a very real state in that moment and I wrote a ton of songs just before we broke up and just afterwards, and I suddenly was looking at the songs and really noticed this theme – yeah it had a breakup theme, but it also had this slightly darker out of control pissed thing going on as well. Which is all part of it when you break up, you do make a few weird decisions and sort of drink a bit too much, you know, you’re sort of tumbling through life a little bit. So I really like that slightly sort of chaotic element to the record too.

“Yeah it had a breakup theme, but it also had this slightly darker out of control pissed thing going on as well”

I love what you’ve done with the videos, where they’re all themed around a depressing kind of working men’s club – although I have to say after this year I was thinking that looks quite nice going for a drink with people… All the characters are drunk and brokenhearted obviously. When you’re writing songs, do you ever visualise them in the sense of, oh actually this would be something to do really nice visually with this particular track?

Yeah definitely, I think I’ve always had this idea of interlinking some videos, I love that idea of having a sort of group of songs which work together visually. I think the reason I’ve never done something like this before is firstly budget, I’m an independent artist and to shoot three videos you know beautifully and properly is no mean feat. Secondly just time – when have I had the time before to really give a project like this the time that it needs? I think that this time around, as I mentioned before, in lockdown we had such limited tools at our disposal, but as we came out of the first lockdown suddenly videos were possible and I remember thinking this is pretty much the only thing I can do at the moment to gain some sort of excitement and momentum around the record. So let’s do it properly, let’s throw all of our resources into doing something really unique and special to sort of get the juices flowing for the album.

For me I think the video concept fit the album beautifully because your songs have always been about everyday people and there’s a real kind of beauty and fragility in telling those stories. Do you think they resonate because people identify with them more?

Yeah I think so, with ‘Suzanne’ and ‘Remember to Forget’, they’re not heroes those people, it’s not the most bombastic of stories I’m telling, it’s every day, there’s beauty in the mundane. I’ve always written about people throughout my career, I’ve always picked out these characters, whether it’s people I have met, or in this case, two fictional hypothetical characters. I think storytelling in songs is one of the reasons I got into music in the first place – you know, listening to Paul Simon and Cat Stevens and James Taylor. It’s a folk tradition to tell stories within songs.

Yeah one of the songs I love on the new album is ‘Remember to Forget’ and I think one of the things I love about it is that both in the song itself but also the video, there’s just such compassion in them for the character. Do you think in this age of social media we’re too quick to judge fallible people sometimes when they could be us?

I don’t think it’s even social media, I think it’s human nature to be judgemental. You know we’ve all met that guy in the bar when you’re having a pint with your mates and some drunk bloke stumbles over and starts telling you some weird story or shit joke and it’s obnoxious, it’s difficult to be kind in that situation. In my better moments I’m able to see he’s not just trying to be an arsehole because he wants to be, he’s trying to connect with people; he’s going about it all wrong but he’s obviously hurt and misguided and slightly out of control. But I think anyone’s poor behaviour can always be boiled down to you’re just a human being trying to make your way in the world. It’s not always easy to think like that [laughs] but yeah in my better moments I hope I do.

“I think anyone’s poor behaviour can always be boiled down to you’re just a human being trying to make your way in the world.”

I think ‘Sword in the Stone’ is such a great opener and it’s always lovely when you hear acoustic versions of your songs which then get fleshed out. You’ve apparently had really positive feedback about it?

Yeah it’s a funny one, I knew when I was writing it, when I wrote that chorus, that there was something special about it. There’s a spine-tingling thing that happens occasionally with songs, and I sent it to 4 or 5 mates when I wrote it, and usually when I send songs to friends or whatever, I get one or two responses over the next week or so, and everyone came back within like 10 minutes, and they were like what the fuck is this, there’s something special about this, and that reaction has kind of carried on with playing it to people in the industry, playing it to musicians. You never know, there’s no science with music – the stars align and lots of people hear the song or they don’t, but it does feel very immediate in the same way that dare I say it ‘Let it Go’ did, in the way that everybody gets the song immediately, everybody knows exactly what you’re saying and what you’re talking about. As a songwriter, when you’re able to say what everyone is feeling, then you’ve kind of hit the magic line. So we’ll see.. who knows, but I’ve got a good feeling about it.

I don’t know if this is just projecting my own tastes on to your music but there’s a kind of classic country vibe going on with some of the songs on the new record, particularly the title track which I think is just such an outstanding song – that guitar break in the middle is absolutely sublime. I know when we last spoke about the ‘Runaway’ album when you were headlining Black Deer, we were talking about americana and its impact on your sound. Does that kind of americana vibe continue to have an influence on your sound?

Always, it’s a massive part of my musical background. I think generally though this feels like a more British record to me – ‘London in the Spring’, quite a few Beatlesy elements and a few little Smiths moments as well. So yes there’s always going to be a lot of americana in whatever I do but a couple of people have mentioned it feels a bit more Anglo than the last few things I’ve done.

Yeah I do see that, there’s even a bit of Steve Harley in there?

Yeah absolutely, with the title track in particular!

I don’t know, there just to me feels like there is a real americana vibe underneath the record which sits well within the genre?

Absolutely, I don’t think I could stray too far from americana if I wanted to [laughs]. I absolutely embrace that.

This is obviously your second album this year – and I thought ‘Patchwork’ was a really nice record btw – the title track and ‘Swimming Upstream’ in particular. You do seem to have a kind of acoustic album and then full-on album on rotation. Why do you think you write so prolifically?

One of the keys to writing is not feeling pressure, and I think usually I’m writing while I’ve got a record still waiting to come out. The worst situation you can find yourself in, and I’ve known so many musicians to be in this position, is where you’re desperately trying to get songs together for an album. You know, you’ve had a successful record and then all of a sudden you’ve got to come up with something a year later which is even better, and that’s exactly the situation I want to avoid. I think the fact that I’ve always got an album waiting in the wings just takes the pressure off the writing. It means if I don’t write anything for a while then fine. And then like with the rest of life, if you don’t force it, if you don’t pressure it, then it generally seems to come easier.

With the acoustic and bigger record thing, it’s a good observation because it’s really true. I struggled early on in my career because part of me was trying to write these sort of big quite poppy catchy songs and produce them in a way that was big enough for radio if it happened, and the other half of me was like I don’t want anything to do with that, I want to write finger-picky folk records, and it was a bit of a tug of war and now it’s like well I’ll just do one and then the next. They’re not mutually exclusive, there are fans of mine who prefer one or the other, so it’s really nice to keep chopping and changing and mixing it up a bit.

So final question Mike – do you think the experiences of the last year have changed you as a person in any way?

Massively. Massively, you know like the last 10 years have been relentlessly touring and travelling. It’s a wonderful way to live but it’s also a massive distraction. You can throw yourself into it and completely distract yourself from everything if you want, and I think this year has forced me to stop and, painfully at times, sort of reflect on what’s going on and I don’t think I would have done that on my own terms. I think I’d have just carried on the touring conveyor belt until such a time as I couldn’t. So in a really strange way I think in some ways it’s been quite good for me to have stopped and stayed still for a bit and gathered myself. I think having had this time I’ll definitely approach the next few years in a different way, and just try and gauge a bit of a balance. It’s very easy just to sort of be Passenger the whole time and forget about Mike – I know that sounds really cheesy but they are quite different people and they have different needs and for a lot of the last decade I’ve sort of just worried about Passenger. Yeah Mike had a better time this year [laughs].

Passenger’s “Songs for the Drunk and Brokenhearted” is released tomorrow (8th January 2021). Find out more from Passenger’s official website here. This interview was conducted in December 2020.

About Mark Whitfield 2031 Articles
Editor of Americana UK website, the UK's leading home for americana news and reviews since 2001 (when life was simpler, at least for the first 253 days)
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