Search The Line of Best Fit
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Passenger LEAD Album Photo credit Mila Austin
Nine Songs

Prolific English singer-songwriter Michael Rosenberg, better known as Passenger, talks Jen Long through the key songs that have impacted his artistry and life.

10 November 2023, 15:00 | Words by Paul

Calling in from his home just outside Brighton, Michael Rosenberg is in a reflective mood as he looks back over a career that’s spanned two decades and fourteen albums.

Despite releasing his debut record Wicked Man’s Rest in 2007 when Passenger was still a band, it took several years of hard work for Rosenburg to finally break through, by then as a solo act, with his 2013 seismic single “Let Her Go”. The track blew up around the world, has been streamed billions of times, and won him accolades such as an Ivor Novello.

Taken from his fourth record All the Little Lights, it was a pivotal moment in Rosenberg’s life. To celebrate the songs and the impact they’ve had, the album is getting a reincarnation, released today as a re-recorded anniversary edition featuring collaborations with artists like Ed Sheeran and Gabrielle Aplin. “It’s a weird thing to try and explain to people because it’s an awful lot of work to call it a re-release. It’s not just one of those things where it’s like, chuck it out with a couple of live versions. It’s everything from scratch,” he explains.

A few years ago it might have seemed like a strange exercise to reinvent the past, but thanks to the stratospheric success of Miss Swift, re-records are beginning to feel like standard practice. “It’s really helpful that she’s been doing it, obviously for very different reasons,” Rosenberg says. “I think it does ready people for the idea of this. A lot of people have been calling this Mike’s Version. I don’t imagine the world will stop in the same way.”

One of the artists that features in both his Nine Songs choices and on this new recording is Sheeran. Together, they duet on “Let Her Go”, somehow making the behemoth of a song even bigger. “Me and Ed have been friends for fifteen years,” he smiles. “He took me on tour as his support act for the year leading up to ‘Let Her Go’’s success and he had so much to do with that song getting massive. He was such an intrinsic part of that song doing what it did that it’s a really lovely full-circle moment to have him sing on it.”

Alongside Aplin and Sheeran, the record also features Nina Nesbitt and Foy Vance, who duets on fan-favourite “Life’s for the Living,” as well as popping up in Rosenberg’s Nine Songs choices. “I love all four artists that are involved, I genuinely love their voices and their music and what they bring to the musical landscape. I also met all of them around the same time. Actually, all three of them were other support acts for Ed at one time or another,” he smiles. “This is what I mean about Ed, he’s just such an important part of Passenger in general, but this era specifically. I didn’t want to just bring in collaborators for the sake of it, I wanted there to be a story, a genuine story behind it. All of these people I was playing gigs with at that time. It feels like a genuine celebration of that time and full circle moment for all four of them, really.”

Similar to his choice of collaborators, for his Nine Songs Rosenberg has selected artists that have impacted his life, either via their creative inspiration or direct influence.

"The Sound of Silence"by Simon & Garfunkel

MICHAEL ROSENBERG: My dad’s from New Jersey originally, but is a big Paul Simon fan. I grew up listening to all of the classic songwriters, but Simon & Garfunkel were kind of the mainstay. They performed live in Central Park, I think it was either ‘89 or ‘91, something like that. We had the cassette in the car everywhere we went. It got to the point where nothing else could be played. If we were going on a journey that was anything over an hour, it was Simon & Garfunkel - The Concert in Central Park. They played ‘The Sound of Silence’ as an encore, and it was just magical. The crowd were all shouting for it, it just gives me goosebumps thinking about that moment. What a song to come on and smash out for your encore.

Music hits you in a different way when you’re seven. You don’t analyse it, you don’t think about the snare sound or the reverb they’re using. It hits you in a big, amazing, beautiful way. It’s one of those sad things, when you do music for a living, although it’s the best job in the world, you sort of see behind the curtain a little bit. I think there’s something magical about listening to music and not understanding it at all, but just loving it.”

BEST FIT: I always think of that bit in the movie Almost Famous when the mum has the copy of Bookends, and she points at their eyes like, “they’re on pot.” It’s so funny to think that Simon & Garfunkel were at one stage considered controversial.

It’s mad isn’t it. Also, I think it was ‘The Sound of Silence’, they recorded some beautiful acoustic version of it and then their record label, being the kniving shitbags they were back in the ‘60s, just went off and put drums and bass on it without telling them and released it. Thank you! But, it’s now a global smash. So, actually, thank you.

"Angel From Montgomery" by John Prine

It could have been any number of songs, I love John Prine so much. You know when celebrities die and it’s like, ‘Oh my god, David Bowie’s dead?’ It’s a massive moment and you feel sad and you have a connection with it, but John Prine felt like a friend dying. I went to see him when I was sixteen at Shepherd’s Bush Empire and it was the most amazing show. The way he took his audience on this emotional rollercoaster, telling a hilarious story one second and then smashing them with a devastating song the next, he was a master of his craft and I learnt a lot from him.

He was so human, he just felt so real and so attainable in some way. I released my first album, back in 1958, and it didn’t do very well and so my managers at the time sent me off to Nashville to write songs, because it was obviously the songs that were the problem, not their terrible management. I had a shit time, it’s not my scene at all. I had a day off and I walked around Music Row, which is where all the labels and publishers are, and Oh Boy Records, which is John’s label, is based there. I knocked on the door. It’s just the most mad, eccentric thing to do, some weird English guy walking around with his guitar trying to play songs to people. John was sadly not there that day, but I don’t know… I just remember knocking on the door, trembling, thinking, ‘Oh my god, there’s a small chance here that he might be around and I might say hello.’ I just love the guy, I think he’s really special and just such a massive loss really.

Passenger was a band for many years and the guy I wrote with and produced with, a guy called Andrew Phillips, he’s a brilliant composer, he got me into John Prine. Very inspiring as well because he didn’t look like a supermodel. It felt to me like he never bent for the music industry. I think he’s one of those songwriter’s songwriter.

I saw Bonnie Raitt cover this song this summer. I love that this song takes the perspective of a middle-aged woman.

And isn’t that just an amazing first line? A guy singing, ‘I am an old woman.’ The whole song is just crushing, isn’t it? It’s brilliant.

"Round Here" by Counting Crows

We used to go to the States on holiday every other summer to see my dad’s family and my auntie had a beach house in New Jersey. I was about twelve, a really obnoxious, idiotic twelve-year-old and I went and hung out on the boardwalk with loads of cool, older kids who were all smoking and listening to Green Day. It was a ‘90s dream and Counting Crows was one of the records they were listening to. The songs are brilliant on that record but there’s a real sound to it as well that I don’t think I had been really exposed to. I don’t think Counting Crows were particularly big in the UK at that point.

I think that album in particular is just phenomenal from start to finish, real beautiful Americana, great writing, his voice is phenomenal on it. Just a real, seminal record. I think it definitely shaped my tastes massively. I think it was just that kind of age where you’re just sponging everything, just soaking it all in. I listened to it in the car the other day and I just knew every single note, I knew every guitar solo, every little nuanced ad lib of his vocal. It’s one of those albums that is just in me now.

When we grew up, because I think we’re a similar age, when you wanted an album you had to buy it on CD or tape or get a friend to copy it. So you just really didn’t have that many albums and the ones you did have you listened to on rotation to the point that if you listen back now, you still know every single lyric.

I remember having OK Computer in my Walkman in year ten and partly out of laziness and partly because it’s one of the best records ever made, I just left it in there for months. Which is probably why I started being ‘on pot.’

"Try a Little Tenderness" by Otis Redding

I listened to loads of soul music growing up - Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Nina Simone. It could have been any number of artists with any number of songs but I think ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ always broke my heart a little bit more than all the rest. It’s probably a bit dated in its sentiment now, but it’s just really beautiful and I just wanted to give him a shout out because he was a big influence for me.

I remember getting a cassette tape of Otis Redding and exhausting it. "(Sittin On) the Dock of the Bay" was probably the first song that pulled me in, but I think once you’re into Otis’ world, there’s all sorts of beauty to be had. That song, I don’t know why it makes me want to cry, but it does.

"River" by Joni Mitchell

I think that album is probably, song for song… It’s a big statement, but I think Blue to me is like a best of. It’s like it’s twenty-years of someone’s work collated into a best of record, but it’s not. It’s just an album. But it’s a fucking good one. Every single song on that album is brilliant. I love Joni Mitchell, so much. I love everything about her. I love how her career twisted and turned. I think she’s probably up there with the best lyricists of all time. I think she’s flawless. Her vocal back then was just like no-one else. She’s a god-given talent.

And then she had her comeback at Newport Folk a couple of years ago, and she’s doing those Joni Jam shows now.

I’m still waiting for the call, actually.

Is this a Christmas song? It’s far too sad to be a Christmas song.

It’s a dream of a song, and the only bearable Christmas song that’s ever been written (me being a sad old man). I just love that song so much. Again, it could have been any song from that record. I just think that record is an absolute triumph, a masterpiece.

"I See Fire" by Ed Sheeran

I mentioned before how pivotal Ed has been for me. Not just helping me get to more people but just as an inspiration. I met him when I was seventeen and I remember watching him in this little pub like, who is this? No one can do this, especially a little ginger seventeen-year-old from Suffolk. I’ve been lucky enough to tour with him, seen countless shows and been a very small part of his whole journey. I’ve been lucky enough to have boozy nights with him where we’ll just song-share into the early hours. I’ve heard all of his massive hits in that setting, which is just amazing. You kind of know when you’re hearing one, after a while. Hearing ‘Perfect’ or ‘Thinking Out Loud’ at two in the morning and you’re a bit battered but you’re also like, this is really good.

His whole show is amazing, it’s really impressive. Whether you love his music or not, it’s an amazing spectacle to see a guy smash out a stadium gig on his own with a loop pedal. "I See Fire" – from The Hobbit soundtrack – is a beautiful, celtic riff. I’m a Hobbit fan, a Tolkien fan as well, but it’s not really because of that. I just think it’s a beautiful song and a brilliant moment in the live set. He’s a phenomenal songwriter and performer and I think sometimes that’s weirdly overlooked. Because he’s so huge, people forget about his musicality. It’s like he’s a celebrity. He’s so famous now that sometimes you’ve got to stop and remember why he’s so famous.

I love that Peter Jackson’s daughter is a massive Ed Sheeran fan and was just like, "dad!!!?"

I remember touring with him and we all got really drunk in Australia and I missed my flight to Wellington with them. They went to Wellington and they went to Hobbiton or whatever, they went to Peter Jackson’s film set. What a shit day to miss. They gave Ed the sword that Frodo has. I think that was the moment where they hung out, and "I See Fire" was born from that day.

So you could have been on The Hobbit soundtrack?

If I hadn't had that extra jägerbomb, things may have been different.

"She Burns" by Foy Vance

I love Foy’s music so much. I think he’s one of the really rare ones left that writes from the heart and you just believe it, you believe everything he says. He’s led a very interesting life, he’s had a lot of heartbreak and I just believe his songs. I think that’s half of the battle with songs. Sometimes it’s a great song but I just don’t really believe it. I think we all have this in-built sensor for that kind of stuff, it’s a subconscious thing. With Foy, it lands really honestly, a lot like John Prine. This song in particular, because I fell in love with my girlfriend and that was very much part of the soundtrack.

You know when you’re falling in love and everything’s very teen drama even though you’re a man in your late 30s? Songs just suddenly take on a whole new life and that was one of them. I don’t think she really knew Foy very well and has since become a massive fan. I remember sending it to her in a WhatsApp with a soppy message.

Why did you want him to sing on the new version of "Life’s for the Living?"

It just made sense immediately. I could hear his voice on it before he recorded it. I could just picture it. I would say that was probably the case with all four of them, actually. Trying to marry a collaborator with a song, going through all the possibilities, it’s a gut instinct thing where you land on the right song and you’re like, ‘Oh my god they’d be brilliant on that.’ You just instinctively know. That song in the wrong hands could feel a bit cheesy, telling everybody how to live their lives, but with Foy I just don’t think it comes across like that. He’s just very real, very believable. I think he brings a real weight to the sentiment.

"Amsterdam" by Gregory Alan Isakov

My agent Colin also books Gregory’s gigs in Europe, so he sent me his record and I just fell in love with it, The Weatherman. I went on tour in two-thousand-and-something and it was just every time I got off stage, I’d get back to my dressing room and I’d put ‘Amsterdam’ on. It starts with these really shuffly drums and it’s just such a gentle album, such a gentle song and it just did this magical thing.

I play on my own, there’s no band, it’s an intense experience playing to thousands of people a night sometimes. Going from stage to dressing room, quite often that’s a solo process. You just end up being in your dressing room with no bandmates or anyone for a while. That can be a really bizarre contrast. This record just seemed to smooth off the edges of that experience. So I just listened to it every night when I was touring and it became this really comforting thing. Then I reached out to him two years later and fan-boy’d him and asked if he wanted to come on tour with me, and he did. We toured the States and then we toured Europe together and he’s just a really good songwriter. Him and Foy are probably my modern day writers that I look to for depth and quality and they’re both so sincere I believe all of it. He’s a really brilliant artist.”

And a really interesting life story. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a horticulturalist/musician before.

He’s a really interesting guy. I feel quite a kinship with him because we both come from Jewish families. He lived on the East Coast, which is where all my family are from, so instantly hearing his music and meeting him, I had this very strange kinship. We’ve got a very similar sense of humour, really make each other laugh, but then we go and play really sad songs on stage. I’ve always felt incredibly comfortable with him, like he could be a cousin or something.

Now he lives on a farm in rural Colorado. It’s a hipster dream. But he’s really legit as well - he actually went to horticultural college in Plumpton, weirdly. In East Sussex! There are all these weird links that we’ve got. But he’s genuine - he grows amazing produce and that’s his life and then he’ll be like, OK, I’ll go on tour but actually I’ve got to get back to my turnips.

"Let Go" by Central Cee

Your final track is an absolute left turn.

It was a year ago, we got this email overnight from Cench and his managers. They sent us the track like, we want to put this out in five days. It was a bit of back and forth, because I really love what he’s done with the track, but it’s a very different world that he lives in. Some of the lyrical content was not something I felt particularly comfortable with, so we had a conversation and found a compromise. I didn’t want to say no to something where it’s the way he expresses those same feelings I expressed, but he’s from a different walk of life and his expression is different from mine. I really wanted to say yes to it.

You don’t wanna be the mum tapping on the record saying, “they’re on pot.”

I would have been! He’s a really nice bloke and it’s really flattering. He’s a massive artist and it's a lovely way of getting that song to a different generation. It was just something cool that happened and I’ve become a big fan of his since. I really hope he continues his path to world domination.”

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