Mike Rosenberg from Brighton is better known as Passenger. His 2012 single Let Her Go became the soundtrack to millions around the world – billions in fact. It was the 19th most-watched video on YouTube, seen by 2.4 billion viewers, and the 43rd most streamed song of all time on Spotify, listened to a staggering 916 million times.
Five years ago, Passenger teamed up with The Big Issue to raise awareness of the magazine at a series of busking gigs across the UK. He started off busking, coming across rising stars such as Ed Sheeran early in his career, and he has not forgotten the lessons he learned on the streets.
He tells us about his new album, touring with Ed Sheeran and why homelessness is a big issue for him.
The Big Issue: You busked for The Big Issue five years ago, and are still keen to help the homeless. Why is it something you care so much about?
Passenger: The obvious rise in the last year has been pretty worrying. I live in Brighton and the amount of homelessness there has gone through the roof. I’ve never seen it in the volume that we’re experiencing now. To be honest, busking was a massive part of becoming aware of homelessness. I used to run into a lot of Big Issue sellers and a lot of people on the street. It really opened my eyes to the kind of life that they live and the options that are open for them – or not, actually.
Do you think the problem has gotten worse?
I’m no expert but you can see it. I don’t think it’s really up for debate. You hear the appalling facts about how it’s grown in the last five to ten years. It’s a sign of society not looking after its most vulnerable.
You launched your album today at Shelter’s flagship store in London.
I met this brilliant woman who works for Shelter now, but she actually had an experience of being homeless herself. She was staying in hostels with her ten-year-old kid, and was pregnant at the time. To hear someone’s story first hand and how she turned it around was really inspiring.
How will the funds raised by the album be spent?
It’s going to Shelter’s Family Support Service. You know, when I was looking into donating the profits from this album, my naivety led me to think that it would just be going to the guys in doorways on the streets. Shelter deal a lot with invisible homelessness. It was really interesting to find out more.
The record is called Sometimes It’s Something, Sometimes It’s Nothing At All. What can we expect?
It’s just me, guitar and a string quartet. Ten really sweet little folk songs. Even though they were written over a long time span, the strings pull them all together and make them feel really cohesive as a record. I’m really proud of it.
You have released an album every year for the last six or seven years. What’s behind that?
I just write a lot, wherever I am. Whatever I’m doing I tend to keep on writing. I can find myself in a situation where by the time I’m releasing an album I have the next one written. It is a bit old school. A lot of people wonder if the format of an album is relevant anymore, but from a musician’s point of view it’s a really lovely way of grouping a bunch of songs together. This is my 11th record now and it’s starting to feel more like a book, with every album a chapter, documenting another year of my life, what I’m thinking and how I’m feeling.
We always hear how it’s difficult for musicians to make money from streaming services. Are you one of the few musicians actually getting some money from Spotify?
The big thing is I’m not with a major label. I’ve been independent since the get-go and I’ve been very lucky to get some good advice on keeping hold of copyright and that kind of stuff. That’s the only way I could do something like this, you know, but if I was tied into a five-album deal with the major, there’s no way of doing a charity album. I feel really lucky on a few fronts that I’m independent. Obviously it comes with its downsides as well. But for me, it’s much more about the creative control, that is exciting.
You said albums were seen as an old-fashioned concept. How have studios remained so important?
It depends on what you want and what kind of artist you are. I’m good mates with Ed Sheeran and he’s happy being with a major because it’s a huge machine. If you’re a priority artist then you get an amazing amount of exposure and money thrown. If you are more niche then it’s not necessarily the way forward. If you want Instagram followers and fame then the major labels are still really great for that.
Am I right in saying your friendship with Ed Sheeran started when you were both busking?
Yeah. I mean, I was definitely busking. I’m never really sure how much busking Ed did. I’m not saying he didn’t, I just don’t have the information on that. But we were definitely playing pubs around the same time and that’s when we met. We played a pub in Cambridge on the same night. I think he was 16 at the time and I was just blown away. You don’t watch many 16 year olds do what a 16-year-old Ed Sheehan could do. We’ve been mates ever since and he’s been incredibly instrumental in the success I’ve had.
Both of you seem to remain quite grounded, not forgetting where you came from.
When I was busking there were definitely times when I asked, ‘What am I doing wrong here?’ But looking back I’m so glad I had that time because it allowed me to develop as a musician and as a person as well. By the time I did get success I’d been on the other side of it. I knew what it was to stay in hostels, have no money and busk in the streets for people who couldn’t care less. I always had this little mantra I used to sing before I went busking. I won’t recite the whole thing but the end was ‘One day I’ll pay you back’. I feel like doing something like this, I can give back in my small way.
You can buy Sometimes It’s Something, Sometimes It’s Nothing At All at passengermusic.com or digitally from all the normal places