Mike Rosenberg assumed his new record was done. With fresh wounds from a broken heart, he poured his pain into Songs for the Drunk and Broken Hearted, largely a collection of characters working through their own distress and misery. Once COVID-19 hit, resulting in strict lockdowns, Rosenberg found himself writing again and quickly realized the album was far from done.
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“I started writing and writing and writing in lockdown and got to the stage with seven or eight new songs,” Rosenberg offers American Songwriter over a recent phone call. Known professionally as Passenger, the British musician and hit-maker instantly knew he needed to release this unique batch of music ─ and it began with an EP called Patchwork released last summer.
But he had even more to say.
“We didn’t overthink it or overanalyze it,” he says. “Having the luxury of living with the record an extra few months was a really good thing. It’s a much stronger album for it.”
Among the new additions is album opener “Sword from the Stone,” a plaintive tune that “sounds so lockdown-y,” as he puts it. “There’s a real isolation and desperation to it. Being separated from people and being on your own in a way that none of us have really experienced before” fueled the emotional core like a steam locomotive, he says.
“What I think is really powerful about this song is the verses are very conversational. It’s almost like you’re writing a letter to someone or speaking to them on the phone. It’s almost like small talk. Then, the chorus is this big explosion of honesty. The juxtaposition between the two is a really powerful thing.”
Next Friday (January 15), Rosenberg will release a “Gingerbread Mix” of the song, produced by Ed Sheeran, a long-standing friend with whom he got his start busking back in the day. “There’s always been talk of a duet or working together in some capacity. I’d sent him this song cause I was really excited about it,” he says. “Ed’s such a clever guy. His musical understanding and ear is exceptional. To have someone like him come and do a version is beyond a privilege. I’m very lucky to have friends like him.”
“It’s a fine line with this stuff. I don’t want to dine out on the Ed Sheeran thing too much. We’re friends, and we genuinely worked on the song together,” he continues. “I didn’t want to do ‘featuring Ed Sheeran’ or anything like that. I didn’t want to make it a coattails situation.”
Later, Rosenberg veers outside of his comfort zone for the swirling “Sandstorm,” on which he splits apart roles as working musician and (now-ex) boyfriend. “In my last relationship, I felt like I would go on tour for months and come back home and my girlfriend would be in her routine. She’d be sort of used to life on her own, and then, I’d burst in with my suitcase and big personality. I felt like a hurricane or a sandstorm.”
Hushed vocals gallop across a cinematic soundscape, beginning soft and moody before erupting into a topsy-turvy production. “I definitely knew it needed that slow build into something quite chaotic. I like how it starts quite subtly and then gently builds,” he observes. “It’s probably the biggest moment on the album. It definitely takes the listener on a journey in the middle section.”
An essential cut, “Suzanne” pulls back the reins as Rosenberg slips into the perspective of an older woman gazing back on her youth. “Suzanne, is it everything you wanted?” he questions. A tragic beauty sprouts from his fingertips, and the words feel both heavy and exhilarating. Time’s merciless hand lies at its center, and Rosbenberg’s voice appears deceptively comforting.
“It’s something that happens to everyone, and none of us can outrun the hands of time. There’s something so sad and basic about when you’re young and you have it all,” he says, “but there’s no way of understanding that. The only time you understand what you had is after the fact. That’s for everyone. It’s very simple, but it’s an idea that’s a recurring theme throughout my writing.”
Rosenberg has frequently chosen the unextraordinary stories to share in his work, rather than the obviously heroic or extraordinary. “There’s a real beauty in the everyday and the mundane. They’re stories that still should be told,” he adds.
“London in the Spring” underscores the constant emotional push and pull throughout the record and closes the album’s first half. Written initially during Brexit, Rosenberg was driving through London after a day of busking on street corners. It was a bright, sunny afternoon, and the city seemed to pulse with both its ornate beauty and a swelling melancholy.
“We drove past Big Ben and the House of Parliament ─ and everything that’s beautiful about London. But there was this really sad undercurrent to it. It suddenly felt like this place where people were making shit decisions for all the wrong reasons. There is a huge disparity of wealth in London, anyway, and it’s going more and more in that direction. I remember feeling very mixed about the city.”
Songs for the Drunk and Broken Hearted ─ a 20-track project featuring stripped performances ─ is indebted as much to Rosenberg’s heartbreak as it is a fresh understanding of time. “Time seemed to speed up and slow down,” he observes of lockdown. “It was so abrupt, and there was no getting used to it. I likened it to musical statues, a game as a kid where you’re all dancing around at a party and you stop the music and you just have to stand still. It felt like that. Wherever you landed, that’s you for the next three months or whatever it is. It’s a year we’ll look back on with disbelief.”
In having more time ─ to write, to create, and to simply exist ─ he discovered freedom from deadlines over the past year. With previous records, he may have barreled through the songwriting and recording process to meet particular targets, and he always seemed on the move to what was next. “This experience has taught me there’s no need for that now. There’s a fine line. I also don’t think I’ll be one of those [artists] who agonize over a record for five years,” he remarks.
“My heroes are people like Bob Dylan and Neil Young. You look at their discography, and it’s immense. I love the fact that not every record is perfect or even good, actually. Over the course of a career, there is such a wealth of music and beautiful back catalog. You forgive all the little minor moments you didn’t quite get onboard with.”
“No one operates in an optimum way when they’re just smashed 24 hours a day. Creativity takes a massive hit. There’s an emphasis on speed and output, rather than quality. That’s such a dangerous road for creativity to go down,” he continues. “[Last] year has been an opportunity for everyone to step back and realize that the world hasn’t stopped. The worst possible thing has happened, and the world has continued.”
Rosenberg still follows his songwriting muse, often churning out content at a brisk pace, but he has learned to stop “barking up the wrong tree,” he says, if a song is just not clicking. “Now, if I follow a song to the end, it means there’s something good about it. Honing in on what you do and what you want to say only comes from experience.”
Passenger is slated to appear on the Bringin It Backwards Podcast on Monday (January 11).
Photo by Mila Austin