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Mike Rosenberg, known to softened hearts as Passenger, finds himself in a wonderful predicament. From days spent wandering the streets as an anonymous busker, playing his songs to passers-by, he has seen his audiences grow into the thousands, as record sales are in the millions.
Wandering in solitude is now almost an impossibility and he’s not as spoiled by free time as he used to be, which he tells us has become something of a cause for concern, as hours spent busking and precious one-on-one time with fans seems to be an increasingly dwindling luxury.
We managed to catch the singer-songwriter in a rare moment of relaxation to talk about his route to fame, which has been accelerated beyond all imagination, and his new album, Whispers — the follow-up to 2012's smash All the Little Lights — which he says is the best thing he’s ever done.
Watch: Passenger – Heart’s On Fire
You’re known for your humble beginnings, your shows grew from busking on the streets to gathering thousands of fans in some of the most beautiful venues in the world. How did your time busking inform your performances in front of your fans now?
P: It’s definitely something I’m really, really happy with, how it all developed. You turn up on a street corner that you’ve never been to before and play and actually engage people and gather a crowd. It actually makes it easier to then step into a venue where you have people who actually like your music in the first place, they’re on your side and they want you to have a great gig.
I think that experience has been very valuable, as far as that goes. It’s not only helped my performance and songwriting, it’s helped me learn about myself and grow personally.
Busking can be quite the intimate performance platform. On your Facebook there are so many people posting photos of you on the street, playing, or actual fan photos you’ve taken with people who have come to see you. So while you’ve played to masses in their thousands, how do the individual experiences like these resonate with you?
P: It’s been the most wonderful part of all. Those one-on-one experiences of meeting people, talking to them… there’s a core group of fans who have been there over the years, coming to the gigs, meeting me when I’m busking, spreading the word, bringing along their mates and their families… those people are just so important to me.
I try as much as I can with the busking, with answering people on Facebook, trying to grab photos with people, whatever it is – trying to get that engagement, keeping that connection going. It does get harder as the shows get bigger. There are more people, and always less time. As much as I can, I really do try to keep that side of things going. It’s so important.
And it’s so great to see, because it wouldn’t be easy. Is that what brings you back to the busking platform when you can? Even with all your experience, do you find it continually tests you as an artist?
P: A bit of both, really. I’ve been busking again a lot recently and honestly because I’d really missed it. I had been busking for years, and I found myself playing less and less, and talking about playing more and more. It’s a weird feeling. Busking for me ticks a lot of boxes.
For the people who come to see me, it offers a free gig, particularly if going to the concert isn’t a viable option. Then busking gives people the chance to just come and listen, they can stay as long as they like. There’s no rules with busking, that’s what I really love about it.
It’s all about the fans…
P: It really is. It’s about people who support me and my music. The very least I feel I can do is to give back to them.
I read in a recent interview that you weren’t entirely happy with your previous album when it was released, which is surprising considering how it would’ve introduced many of your fans to your music. I was wondering why that was, and how the new album, Whispers, will compare?
P: Well, it’s not that I didn’t like it… by the end of it, I was having trouble with my voice throughout the record and, to my ears, my vocal performance isn’t as good as it could have been. I think it’s just in my crazy little head [laughs]
I’ve been told many people couldn’t hear the difference. I think also that it was quite an ambitious record. It was my first time working with [producer] Chris [Vallejo]… by the end of it, we’d really figured out what we were doing, and of course it was then too late to go back and change it.
With Whispers, we went in, we knew each other really well [and] what each of our strengths were, we had a really good understanding of how to make this record together. Looking back on [All The Little Lights] now… before all the success happened, before Let Her Go happened, I was just a little unsure of it. Looking back now I do think it’s a good record. Very different to the albums before it.
Usually I went in, single guitar, played it live. It was very natural, very raw. Since then we’ve stepped it up, production-wise. Everything is a bit more polished, which often worries me, being a busker, considering my background. But as you say, and it’s ironic, that was the album that reached people. So what do I know? [laughs]
Well, when you talk about added production value and such things, it brings to mind personal standards and a bit of perfectionism, which is also very different to busking in a way.
P: Exactly. Plus actually making the record is such a different headspace. It’s not as simple as showing up and playing the songs. But you know, we’re getting better at it now. I can sit down and listen to [Whispers] and not cringe [laughs] I feel like it’s the best thing I’ve done, as far as the songs go, but also the feel of the record is more confident, more relaxed, and I guess grown-up.
These days you really are the definition of a troubadour, travelling the world and playing. It would seem that there are shows lined up for as far into the future as you can see… could Australia be a tour destination after that?
P: Absolutely. We’re just about to announce some extra dates in the coming days. We’re planning to spend some extra time visiting some of the other cities outside the capitals, get to know the country. Hopefully this next visit, time won’t be so scarce.
Watch: Passenger – Whispers