By Courtney E. Smith
Mike Rosenberg, who performs under the name Passenger, will release a new album on June 10 called Whispers. It follows his highly successful 2012 release, All the Little Lights, whose single “Let Her Go” went from a slow-boiling folk track to a juggernaut hit song that went to No. 1 in 17 different charts and three different U.S. Billboard charts.
How did it do it? At least the in U.S., where his surprise hit single topped the Top 40, Hot Rock, Adult Top 40 and Adult Contemporary charts, it was largely driven by radio play that turned into YouTube views, with an assist from his many worldwide festival performances. After years of busking and playing in pubs, this single track has propelled Rosenberg into million-selling territory.
Radio.com caught up with Rosenberg on the phone to talk about Whispers, what the 200 million plus YouTube views of “Let Her Go” meant for his writing and why he thinks that calling out Twitter and the internet on his new single “Scare Away the Dark” was hypocritical.
Your new album is coming in June, would you give us an idea of what to expect from it?
The new album is called Whispers. I’m really proud of it, actually. I’m sure most artists say this, but I think it’s the best thing I’ve done. I think the songwriting has come on quite a lot and the production is better on this record as well. You can expect quite a big sound. It’s got backing vocals, a string section, brass and quite a lot going on but hopefully not over-complicating the songs.
Is there any single narrative string that you’ve woven through this album?
Not a the time, but now as I listen to it as a body of work it’s definitely got the sense of time, of people getting older. Growing up and growing old are themes that come in an out through the record.
There’s a transient feel to the album as well. I spend my life traveling and that seeps through into my writing. [As an artist] you meet people. You’re constantly in different places. You’re forever out of your comfort zone. You’re not just sitting around in your pajamas watching box sets, you’re out in the world — in new cities and new places. That does wonders for the writing process, or it does for me anyway.
Some artists would strongly disagree and say they need to be somewhere comfortable or familiar. But you’re happy to be a fish out of water to when you write?
That’s the thing, everyone’s different. I know a lot of my mates need to go off and lock themselves in a cabin in the woods somewhere to write. I’ve always felt really lucky that I can write in dressing rooms or on a tour bus or wherever I am.
You recorded this album in Syndney, again. Why do you keep ending up there?
I’ve got this weird relationship with Australia. For the last five years I’ve been playing on the streets so much and Australia has such wonderful weather. I ended up playing there an awful lot and over the years it felt like a great relationship with the place and the people there. I recorded this album in the same place I recorded All The Little Lights and with the same group of musicians and producer. I was very conscious of the fact that just because we had success with “Let Her Go” and that album that I didn’t necessarily want to change everything. I love the people that I’ve built relationships with. I trust them with my music. We have fun and enjoy making records together. I wanted to go back into that environment. We’ve all learned a lot since the last album so we approached this is quite a different way.
On “Scare Away the Dark” you spew a little bit of judgement on Twitter and computers. Do you think the digital realm is making us appreciate music or life less?
I think that used in the right way all of it is amazing. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Spotify — all of these brilliant things that are coming along, used in the right way and sensibly — are fantastic.
What’s the right way?
If you’re not careful, we get attached to our iPhones. I really noticed this when I was playing a festival last summer. I looked out at one point and it felt like everyone who was in that field, 10,000 people, were watching through their iPhones. I thought, “Hang on a minute, hasn’t this gone a bit far?” We’ve all come to this one place to feel something together, that’s the point of live music, yet we’re all off in our own little pods because we’re all looking through our tiny little screens at it. It got me thinking. I’m not having a go at that kind of thing. All I’m trying to say with “Scare Away the Dark” is to remember to go for a walk or a swim now and then [laughs]. Enjoy really basic pleasures that we as humans have. I think it’s essential that we hang on to that kind of stuff.
But you know that writing a lyric like that means you’ll have to answer questions like the one I just asked you repeatedly?
Yes and that’s cool. And look, I’m a complete hypocrite because I use Facebook all the time. I’m as bad as anybody else. I’ll be in the middle of some beautiful forest and trying to get reception so I can tweet about it. It’s terrible. But I’m certainly not judging anyone, it’s more of a “hang on a minute” thought about it. A little awakening, maybe.
“Let Her Go” has over 200 million views on YouTube.
I know, we were hoping for more actually [laughs].
When I say a number like that to you, what does it even mean?
It gets to the stage where it gets so ridiculous that you don’t take it in anymore. I remember when it hit a million and that blew my mind. I couldn’t believe it. I write folk music. I’m a busker. I come from very humble beginnings and to have a video and a song that’s gotten this big, I don’t know how to put it into words anymore. I’ve tried for the last year and it’s just baffling to me. Baffling and bewildering and brilliant. I’m very lucky that everything clicked into place.
It’s so popular and it’s a break up song, but in the happiest way. It’s a very reflective but universal song.
I think that’s the key with a lot of good songs: it’s what everybody’s thinking and feeling. As a songwriter you’re constantly trying to put it into a simple but clever way of penning a song. Millions of songs have approached that subject, so many great love songs or break up songs, but all you’re trying to do is say what everybody is feeling.
How has the success of that song affected the way you’ve approached songwriting since?
Honestly, I felt really lucky because by the time “Let Her Go” started doing really well I’d written a bunch of songs for this next record. So I never felt this crazy pressure to suddenly come up with 12 brand new songs that were going to be better and more successful than “Let Her Go.” I think there’s two ways of approaching this. You can either think, “Oh s—, I need another hit single,” and put a load of pressure on yourself or you can say, “Isn’t it wonderful that once in my career I’ve had a massive song.” I was No. 1 in Belgium and it’s hilarious. You can think of it like that and then everything else will be a bonus. If we had another successful song off this record then of course it’s brilliant but all I want from this [new] album is for people to listen to it and really connect to it and enjoy it. That’s all I’ve ever wanted for my music.