A whisper to be heard

SOME DOUBT: "Before success came and I was busking, there wer some really difficult times. I thought, "Why am I doing this?", says British singer-songwriter Mike Rosenberg.
SOME DOUBT: "Before success came and I was busking, there wer some really difficult times. I thought, "Why am I doing this?", says British singer-songwriter Mike Rosenberg.

Just a couple of years ago, Mike Rosenberg was busking on British streets. Now the folk musician who performs as Passenger is topping charts around the world.


He had the biggest-selling single in Britain last year, with his song, Let Her Go. Written in just 45 minutes about the ending of a long relationship, the song became a No 1 hit in 18 countries.

Now his newly released folk pop album, Whispers, has just entered the top five in the British charts and jumped straight into the No 3 slot in New Zealand.

"With the album out and festival season, it's bonkers in a good way," Rosenberg says from his Brighton flat. "I've managed to escape here for a couple of days."

Emotional resonance, honesty and lovely melodies are at the core of his new record.

"Left to my own devices I usually put out an album once a year. But because of Let Her Go, and everything that happened with that, it just meant it took a bit longer to release the next album and I think it was a blessing in disguise.

"By the time we made it, I felt like I had a really strong group of songs. I feel like it's the best thing I've done."

Some songs, such as Bullets and Riding to New York, are true stories - his way, he says, of "documenting" people he's met. Others, such as 27 and Heart's on Fire, are personal.

"Each song had a different ingredient. It needs to earn its place. Writing is a bizarre process - you have to be patient. You just have to trust in the process."

Rosenberg started writing songs when he was 14. At 19, he formed Passenger with Andrew Phillips. When the band broke up in 2009, he went solo and kept the stage name.

He busked his way around Britain and Australia and released three self-funded solo albums.

"Busking is like anything else - you get better at it the more you do. You have to pick the right spot at the right time on the right day of the week.

"I love busking. I'm so grateful to it because it was the thing that kept me going and made it all possible. I didn't have a record label, I didn't have any money, I didn't have anything and busking gave me a way of carrying on with music."

Then Let Her Go came along and he found himself whisked off the street and touring as support act for Ed Sheeran playing to 5000 people a night. It included opening for Sheeran in Wellington last year, then playing a separate, small-scale solo show.

"Before success came and I was busking, there were some really difficult times. I thought, 'Why am I doing this? I've got no money, no- one seems to be caring too much about it' but the one thing that kept me going was the songs because I believed so much in them."

When they first met, Sheeran was only 16.

"We were playing the same gig to about 30 people. There are not many people that could do what 16-year-old Ed Sheeran could do. We've been mates ever since that gig.

"Before he became successful we played gigs together all the time and hung out, got drunk, and that's the cool thing about it. We gig together but we're friends and that's the most important thing."

This week, Sheeran's new album X went straight in at No 1 in New Zealand, and Rosenberg's is at No 20 after three weeks.

Rosenberg now finds performing on a big stage "a buzz".

"When you're the support act, you're not the person people have paid to see, so the challenge is to win everybody over in half an hour with five or six songs. It's a crazy challenge. It's cool.

"The tour with Ed changed everything. It was the catalyst. There are many things that fell into place, Let Her Go and touring with Ed, but really busking is the thing that kept it ticking over."

Honesty in music is what he strives for.

"I love all different types of music but the one thing I listen for is honesty and a sense of realness. You don't want to feel like someone's conning you into feeling something."

The album's title song, Whispers, has a powerful message.

"Life at the moment is such an onslaught of noises and screens and billboards and all of your senses are destroyed by it every day; I was feeling a little overwhelmed by it.

"You see, all I need is a whisper in a world that only shouts."


Whispers is out now. Passenger play Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, on January 31, 2015.

The Dominion Post