Arts & EventsRBC Bluesfest Rewind: Ten Minutes with Passenger

RBC Bluesfest Rewind: Ten Minutes with Passenger

RBC Bluesfest Rewind: Ten Minutes with Passenger

Photo credit: Jarrad Seng

Mike Rosenberg took two steps back to take in his 2015 CityFolk audience. He’d just been willed back on stage by thousands singing his recently released tune “Scare Away the Dark”, a trend that would continue for the next three years. It was the first performance in front of an Ottawa crowd by the British singer-songwriter who goes by the stage name Passenger. He seemed genuinely stunned by the sheer amount of people reciting his words in a town he’d never been to before.

For Rosenberg, there have been a lot of towns!

He started out as a busker playing for whatever they’d toss in the guitar case, making his way from street corner to pub, sleeping on trains and living out of hostel dorms. One smash single called “Let Her Go”, however, changed his life and these days Passenger packs festival grounds and concert halls. Back in Ottawa for a performance at the opening night of RBC Bluesfest, Rosenberg passes me some water while wiping away a bit of the recent heat wave from his brow. I tell him I was part of that CityFolk crowd two years ago, having just discovered the man’s music.

“That’s so cool,” he says, coming off a string of interviews for the local media. He now settles into an air conditioner trailer awaiting another big festival crowd.

When asked how he stays grounded now that success has come knocking, how he doesn’t lose sight of that guy singing his songs on street corners, Rosenberg grins and without hesitation answers:

“By going back busking.”

He relays that he’s just finished a month of busking in Europe, something he still does because it’s good for the songs, good for the soul and reminds him of why he started it all.

“If there’s any part of me that thinks I’m getting too big for my boots or carried away with the wrong elements of the industry, busking just brings it back in. In this weird time of division that we’re living in, you get a few people standing on a street corner singing to ‘Scare Away the Dark’ or ‘Let Her Go’ … that’s unifying. It’s magical and amazing.”

After that CityFolk show, Passengers music has become the soundtrack to some of my ups and downs, seen me through some darkness, accompanied me on my own travels, and have become forever linked to memories and moments. Though he’s heard this all before, it’s still strange for Rosenberg to discover how his music has affected others the way other artists’ music still affects him. 

“You’ve got to be really careful not to take that lightly,” he says. “It’s a real responsibility sometimes to make sure you take that seriously when people say something like that.”

Four minutes of the ten I’ve been allotted has ticked by. Yeah, time flies.

In chatting with Rosenberg, you get the feeling that he’s always listening, not just waiting for his chance to speak. It’s like he’s collecting your experiences, emotions and memories. There’s always a tune there, churning around, waiting for the pieces to click into place. In his songs you hear that attention to detail gleaned from the tales told by the many people he’s met along way: the dying man riding a bike to New York City to see his grandkids one last time, the guy who had a drawer full of bullets he’d been collecting since childhood nixed by thieves in the night, that aging woman traded in by her lover now traveling alone, the man outside the hostel with the shaky hands who has drunk away his wealth.

“You just come into contact with so many different people and, if you’re open to it, so many stories. You have to listen to those people. A lot of times those stories are from vulnerable, interesting, slightly volatile characters. I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve been in a conversation where I think I’m going to write a song about this. It’s just been a normal conversation like the one we’re having today. Then, six months down the line, there’s a song.”

I jokingly say I can’t wait for “Journalist on a White Chair” to appear on his next album, Runaway, before one of those clouds of unexpected sadness rolls over me. They sneak up on you like springtime dandelion seeds, don’t they, until you notice them on your shoulder and brush them back into the air? In a few seconds I am remembering an entire relationship…her smile…her smell…the last time we spoke and how the final words I ever wrote her was quoted from Passenger’s “Golden Leaves”:

Now my dear we are two golden leaves

Clinging desperately to winter trees

Got up here like a pair of thieves

While the sirens blare outside

“You write heartbreak and unrequited love with so much ache,” I say, ruffling through my notes for any question that will shuffle her memory off into the shadows again. “What part of you do you mine to extract these heart-wrenching tunes?”

He looks up, perhaps noticing they’d been a painful crack in my voice, and slowly says “I think that part of is one that everyone has. We all have those feelings, those emotions, breakups, being heartbroken. Writing a good breakup song is not rocket science, it’s just being as honest as you can. You just try not to fall into the gazillion clichés that are waiting for you as traps while you’re writing it. I think people have heard so many sad songs that as soon as you cross that line into Cheeseville they just switch off because they’ve heard it before.”

I glance at the timer ticking down on my phone. Our ten minutes our almost up…our water bottles almost empty. There’s a few moments left to ask about “Let Her Go”, one of those heart-wrenchers like most Passenger break-up tunes. For this one, though, maybe it was the timing, maybe it was the melody, maybe it was all of that or none of that but the tune swept through a wider audience like a summer wind. Those it touched sure felt it!

“I imagine ‘Let Her Go’ was just like writing any other song for you,” I say.

“You’re right. I wrote it in about 45 minutes backstage at a pub gig and I didn’t think too much of it. I knew it was a good song but I’d written good songs before and I’ve written them since. That doesn’t mean they get 1.9 billion views on YouTube. Hindsight’s a glorious thing. I was a busker and it was another love song. I didn’t feel that there was anything particularly special about it. It definitely changed my life. I feel very lucky. A lot of people write very good songs but not a lot of people get the opportunity to share them with the world.”

As I stand up to return to the inferno outside the trailer door, Rosenberg catches me eyeing the setlist taped to the wall. “Let Her Go” appeared just before the encore as did “Scare Away the Dark”, sure to get another Ottawa audience singing Passenger back on stage.

“Now don’t go putting that up on Twitter,” he says with a laugh, then waves looking like he’s about to catch some much needed z’s.

As the door closes all I can think of is how that guy right there is a somebody I’d love to share a few pints with, lost in the darkened corner of a Brighton Pub discussing old heartaches, music and how wonderful life can be.

Comments (1)

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Stacey July 10, 2018 10:32 am

What a great article! Your opportunity to spend 10 minutes with Mike would be a dream come true for me! Your final thoughts mirror my own. If I had the chance to take pictures or sit and chat I’d sit and chat!