Michael David Rosenberg, better known as Passenger, started his music career busking in the streets of England and Australia. In 2013, his hit song "Let Her Go" reached #1 in 19 countries. Now, he's back with the release of his thirteenth album, Songs for the Drunk and Broken Hearted. He recently chatted with staff writer Nora Onanian about the new album, his writing process, musical influences, and more.
YOU JUST PUT OUT YOUR THIRTEENTH ALBUM SONGS FOR THE DRUNK AND BROKEN HEARTED IN JANUARY. I HEARD YOU ACTUALLY FINISHED IN EARLY 2020, BUT DECIDED TO PUSH BACK THE RELEASE AND MAKE SOME BIG CHANGES. I WANTED TO START BY ASKING YOU ABOUT THAT DECISION.
Michael Rosenberg: Yeah, it was a weird one. I mean, the album was sort of finished by January or February 2020. It was going to come out in May, and it just sort of felt so sad to throw out an album that we put so much love and work into with so little support. We just couldn't do anything around it. We couldn't make videos, we couldn't tour, we couldn't do anything. So that was sort of the reason. But in hindsight, I'm actually so glad that it happened because I ended up writing a ton of new songs. I think we added three new ones and took three of the older ones off. And we tinkered around with the album as a whole. I think it made it a much, much better record.
YOU'VE DESCRIBED IT AS YOUR BEST ALBUM YET. HOW DO YOU THINK YOU'VE GROWN AS AN ARTIST FROM WORKING ON THIS PROJECT?
MR: A disclaimer to that should be that I probably say that about every record I release.
So you have to take that with a pinch of salt (laughs). I mean, I think definitely I've grown and changed a lot as an artist, as a writer, as a vocalist. The whole thing has kind of progressed immeasurably. I've actually been doing these Sunday night live sessions recently where I've been going back and playing a different Passenger album every week. So going back to these old records, some are like 10 or 11 years old. I'm relearning those songs and all that kind of stuff. It's really hit home how much I've changed as a writer and as an artist in general. I think it's a good thing. It's a nice thing to see change as it happens.
I'VE NOTICED THAT A LOT OF YOUR MOST SUCCESSFUL WORKS HAVE BEEN IN RESPONSE TO HARDER TIMES IN YOUR LIFE, MOST NOTABLY BREAKUPS. COULD YOU TELL ME ABOUT WHAT YOUR WRITING PROCESS IS LIKE AND HOW YOU GET INSPIRATION?
MR: I don't think I'm the first singer-songwriter to harness those emotions that sort of rattle around in a breakup. Or, as you say, any kind of strenuous time in your life. I think it sort of makes for a very creative time as well. As a songwriter, I just write wherever I think and feel and see and do. So if I happen to be going through a time, that percolates around and ultimately comes out in the songs. I also think that that's when people turn to music. When people are going through really tough times, that's when you need music. It's no coincidence that a lot of the world's biggest pop songs are about that subject matter. That's what people can relate to.
AT WERS, WE'VE REALLY BEEN ESPECIALLY LOVING THE ALBUM'S OPENING SONG, "SWORD FROM THE STONE." THAT WAS ONE OF THE ONES THAT WAS ADDED LATER, RIGHT?
MR: That's right, yeah.
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT WHAT THAT ONE MEANS TO YOU?
MR: Yeah, so that one was a sort of lockdown addition and I love it, man. I write a lot of songs and I like most of them, but this one was really special. Every now and again, you sort of stumble across something really special. It's very direct and very honest. I think in the same way, "Let Her Go" just kind of fell out of me very quickly and organically, I think this was a very similar process. I didn't think too much about this song, it just kind of happened. It's a song that everyone can relate to. I don't think you had to have been through a breakup to understand what this song is about. We've all been through probably the weirdest year of all of our lives. And I think this song hopefully is very relatable. It touches on the sort of emotional rollercoaster that the lockdown has been and time going quickly and then slowly. And we're all going through that moment. Hopefully, this song can kind of support people through that a little bit.
YOU'VE ALREADY TOUCHED ON IT A LITTLE BIT, BUT WHAT HAS IT BEEN LIKE FOR YOU MAKING MUSIC AND PUTTING OUT THIS ALBUM DURING THE PANDEMIC?
MR: It's been a mixed bag, really. Making music has been kind of stressful and we've had to think about how we do it. But as a result, I think it's actually led to a really great end product. I think you get a bit complacent with how you make music, especially when you're making your twelfth, thirteenth album. You kind of get comfortable with how you do everything. So the pandemic has kind of thrown everything up in the air a little bit and it's made us do things in a different way, which probably was no bad thing creatively.
Putting out music has been interesting as well. Everything's been on Zoom, everything's been digital and online, which for some of the part is really cool, actually. The fact that I can sit in my kitchen and talk to people from all around the world every day is awesome. But of course I miss the live gigs. I miss getting out there and hustling and promoting the album and playing for people. I mean, that's kind of the whole point. So it's a mixed bag. There's been a lot of downsides and some weird upsides as well.
YEAH, I WAS GOING TO ASK - I KNOW YOU'VE BEEN DOING A LOT OF LIVE STREAMS, BUT ARE YOU MISSING THE PERFORMING LIVE AND TOURING IN PERSON?
MR: Yeah, massively. Really I've been on the road pretty much nonstop for the last 10 or 15 years. To suddenly have it completely cut off was a very weird feeling. The first few months of lockdown were really tough. But it is what it is. I think I'm in the same boat as everybody else. We probably all have a new perspective on how important live music is for all of us. So that's no bad thing to understand how precious this all is.
IS THERE A SONG YOU ARE MOST EXCITED TO PERFORM LIVE?
MR: I suppose "Sword from the Stone" just because it seems to be doing really well. We're getting a lot of lovely feedback from it. It definitely would be fun to see how that goes down in a live space. It would just be lovely to feel that connection again. It's something that I've had for so many years now. I'm very lucky with my fans. I feel like my gigs are really, really respectful. You know, a lot of, pin-drop silence moments and all that kind of stuff. So I miss that. That's a real buzz and that's a real adrenaline hit. I'm gonna have to start, I don't know, skydiving or something to get my adrenaline hits if this goes on much longer.
I THINK I SAW THAT YOU'RE ABOUT TO START TOURING THIS SUMMER, HOPEFULLY?
MR: Yeah. I mean, we've got some dates in for sort of the end of August, early September. And I'm hopefully coming to the states actually in the Fall. But I mean, who knows. Fingers crossed for that to happen. I should be in Boston at the House of Blues in October. I can't wait. I genuinely love playing Boston. It's such a great music town, such a welcoming crowd, and I really love that venue as well. So fingers crossed we can make that happen.
YES, I HOPE SO TOO. SHIFTING GEARS A LITTLE, I'M ALSO REALLY CURIOUS ABOUT THE ALBUM ART ON SONGS FOR THE DRUNK AND BROKEN HEARTED OF THE CLOWN. DID YOU KIND OF HAVE THAT VISION OR DID THE ARTIST TAKE IT IN THEIR OWN DIRECTION? AND WHAT DOES IT REPRESENT?
MR: It was something I came up with. I'm lucky to have worked with Sarah Larnach, who has done my album artwork for the last million years. It's really nice now that we have this kind of relationship. I can get on FaceTime with her and explain my weird idea, and then she brings it to life. God, she's nailed it this time. I mean, she's brilliant all the time, but she really smashed it for this record.
I think the clowns to me represent a few things. Mainly that thing of when you're going through a really tough time - and I think the English are very bad at this, or good at this depending on how you look at it - we sort of put on a brave face and pretend that everything's fine. And we're encouraged to. And you're not really allowed to show your real emotions. I feel like clowns are kind of in the same boat like that. They have to put on a show and the makeup and the costume and everything. And behind all of that, you can kind of see that there may be something else going on. So it just seemed to visually represent what the songs were kind of banging on about.
YEAH, I THINK THERE'S A LOT OF REFERENCES TO THE MASK AND TO CHARACTERS AND STORYTELLING THROUGHOUT THE ALBUM, WHICH I THINK IS REALLY NEAT.
MR: Thanks. Exactly. That's exactly right.
ON THE MORE MUSICAL SIDE OF THINGS, ARE THERE ANY ARTISTS WHO SPECIFICALLY INFLUENCE THE SOUND ON THIS ALBUM?
MR: Yeah. Funnily enough, I think the Smiths a couple of times seem to be sort of poking their heads up from the influence box. I think [in] "What You're Waiting For" and "A Song for the Drunk and Broken Hearted," there's that jangly kind of Smiths guitar sound. And I guess the idea of upbeat songs, but kind of downbeat lyrics. The sort of juxtaposition of those two things I've always loved. And I think the Smiths and Morrissey do that really well.
I also think actually, weirdly, the Beatles. And I think the Beatles are probably in everyone's albums since the 1950s. But I've never spotted it in my own work as obviously as I did with this record. Just some of the chord progressions and stuff. So, yeah, I mean, a whole host of other artists I think I'm constantly inspired by. Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and John Prine and those guys as well. A bunch of good people, hopefully.
I'VE GOT ONE MORE QUESTION. I WAS WONDERING IF YOU COULD TALK ABOUT HOW YOU HAVE USED YOUR MUSIC CAREER TO GIVE BACK AND THE IMPORTANCE OF THAT TO YOU.
MR: I'm lucky enough to be on a major label, which means I've got a lot of creativity with creative control.I think the most substantial way that I've given back is I've done three charity albums now. One with UNICEF, one with Shelter, which is a homeless charity here in the UK, and then recently with the Trussell Trust, which is a food bank organization. It's just a really nice and simple and easy way to genuinely do something. Not just kind of turn up and play "Let Her Go" at a charity event, which is great as well, and I try to do that when I can. But this just means that I can record fairly cheaply and give all of the proceeds to these very deserving causes.
And the great thing as well is that the way music is consumed now, on Spotify, on YouTube, on all of this kind of stuff, it means that these albums kind of take over year on year. So hopefully there is a source of revenue for these charities in an ongoing way rather than just kind of one hit and it's done. It's a little way that I can help. And it feels like a nice way to give back.
YEAH, THAT'S GREAT. WELL, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR TAKING THE TIME TO TALK. IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE YOU'D LIKE TO SHARE THAT YOU DIDN'T GET A CHANCE TO TALK ABOUT?
If people want to check anything out, it's passengermusic.com. And I've been doing these live streams on Sunday night, I guess Boston time it would be kind of Sunday afternoon. So if people are sort of knocking about and want to watch something, head on over to my YouTube channel or Facebook page for that.
Passenger's twelfth album, Songs for the Drunk and Broken Hearted, is available now.