The next time you see someone busking on a sidewalk, stop and take notice – that song you hear amid the city noise could very well be the next Billboard chart-topper. Though it may not happen often, such was the case for “Let Her Go,” the multi-platinum worldwide smash by Mike Rosenberg, better known by his stage name, Passenger.
“When I wrote that song I was busking around Australia,” he explains. “I was playing a gig in the rural part of Australia and I wrote that song backstage in 45 minutes before I went out and played for about 25 people.”
Rosenberg knew he had a catchy song but didn’t think twice about it, sometimes incorporating “Let Her Go” into his sets for small solo shows as well as his opening slot on tour with Ed Sheeran.“It would be insane, at the time, to have thought that I could ever have a hit single, let alone one that got in a Super Bowl advertisement and did all this crazy stuff,” he says. “I had no idea. I wrote it and I thought it was a good song, a catchy song, you know, it had something. But not in my wildest dreams did I think it would ever do what it ended up doing.”
The track went on to sell more than six million downloads worldwide, catapulting Rosenberg from relatively unknown singer-songwriter to international household name over the course of just a few months. Where some artists would go to great lengths to recreate that kind of success, Rosenberg says that “Let Her Go” hasn’t changed his approach to songwriting.
“I don’t feel that I need to write another one, you know,” he says. “If it happens, then brilliant. Don’t get me wrong, that would be an amazing thing for it all to happen again, but yeah, I think I still write songs in the same way I always have.”
His recently released album Whispers reinforces his assertion, showing a songwriter who has grown in the spotlight without letting it outshine who he is as an artist. Lead single “Scare Away the Dark,” a satirical take on the dangers of over-
connectedness in the digital age, is a marked departure from the lovelorn “Let Her Go,” a shift in tone Rosenberg says was intentional.
“I think after ‘Let Her Go’ I wanted to show people that I don’t just write really sad love songs about my ex-girlfriend, that there’s another side to Passenger, as well, that’s a bit more up-tempo and more inclined to social commentary,” he says.
More prevalent throughout Whispers than social commentary, though, is a focus on coming of age and growing older, a likely side effect of spending so much time in the spotlight. “[Growing older] seems to be this kind of very subconscious theme running through it,” Rosenberg says of tracks like “Golden Leaves” and “Start a Fire.” “Maybe it’s because I just turned 30. Maybe I’m freaking out [laughs]. I’m getting a few gray hairs.”
All of the songs on Whispers share the urgency and intimacy fans of Passenger have come to love, traits that can be attributed to Rosenberg’s of-the-moment approach to songwriting. “I love writing everywhere, whether it’s backstage at a gig or on a tour bus or at a train station or in the park, wherever I find myself at the time,” he says. “It usually starts with a guitar idea and melody and lyrics follow and you just sort of uncover the song as you go.”
Musically, the influence of Rosenberg’s sudden fame also feels evident. Throughout Whispers there are out-sized, orchestral arrangements, like on “Thunder” and “Start a Fire,” that feel arena-ready, though Rosenberg, forever a busker, still prefers to take a more stripped-down approach to live performances. “What I love is when I play gigs it’s just me and a guitar – very simple, very direct and intimate, and you hear every lyric and you hear every detail,” he explains. ‘I think with an album, I love to do the opposite. I love to arrange these songs out, make them big, make them bold and, like you say, quite orchestral.”
Even as he tours arenas around the globe, though, don’t expect Rosenberg to give up busking any time soon. “It’s been the reason I could carry on making albums and carry on touring,” he says. “So yeah, busking is the essence of what I do. It’s made everything possible.”
As for writing another hit? Rosenberg isn’t feeling any pressure. “All I really want is for people to really get what I do and connect with the songs and find meaning in them,” he says. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted. So as long as that happens, I’m a pretty happy guy.”