By the start of last year, Mike Rosenberg knew his life was about to change. To what extent, he had no idea, which was probably just as well. Had someone told the Brighton-born singer/songwriter, familiar to millions as Passenger that he would top the charts in 20 countries during 2013, he might have gone out of his mind.
That his bewitching, break-up ballad Let Her Go took its time to win over the world – it became a hit in mainland Europe in the autumn of 2012 and reached the Top 5 of the Billboard chart in February 2014 – allowed Passenger to process his success, get used to the size of crowds coming to see him and, crucially, continue to write and record heartbreakingly beautiful music.
Whispers is Passenger’s sixth studio album. Its oldest songs date back to before the mayhem began. Although he didn’t know it when he wrote it, the title track captures the chaos in his head when Let Her Go started to snowball. Even the songs most recently written have evolved by being played live dozens of times, at shows and on streets everywhere from Amsterdam to Australia.
What you won’t hear on Whispers is how fame has changed Passenger. Because it hasn’t. The album was recorded in the same small Sydney studio as its platinum-selling predecessor, All The Little Lights, with the same co-producer (Chris Vallejo) and many of the same musicians. Despite its sumptuous, symphonic sound, no big budgets were blown. In total, it took just five weeks to record.
What you will hear are stories – some real, some imagined – of love, death, growing up and getting old. And on Scare Away The Dark, already a fan favourite, a riotous rant about technology taking over our lives that proves Passenger can be as laugh-out-loud funny on record as he is telling tales on stage.
“This is easily the most ‘up’ album I’ve ever made,” says the 29 year old. “It’s quite cinematic. There are lots of big stories and big ideas. There are also some sombre moments about loneliness and death but, hey, it wouldn’t be a Passenger album without those. Mostly though, it’s a really positive album.”
Those big stories and big ideas required a big sound. Hence, Whispers boasts brass and strings that build to tremendous crescendos and, as Passenger puts it, “a bunch of people on backing vocals”.
“For me, the live experience is very different to making an album,” he says. “Live, it can be incredibly powerful just to have an acoustic guitar and a voice, to be able hear all the lyrics and present the songs in a really intimate way. On record, it’s asking a lot of the listener if you have only those two elements – I like to have lots of ingredients to lose yourself in.”
On Whispers, Passenger plays guitar, glockenspiel, melodica and various percussion instruments. He left the piano parts “to someone who can play properly”. You’ll also hear flute, clarinet , harmonica and pedal steel .
Those big backing vocals come courtesy of Passenger’s great mate and touring partner Stu Larsen, a singer/songwriter from Sydney called Georgia Mooney and a folk group from Newfoundland in Canada called The Once.
“I met The Once last year at Celtic Connections in Glasgow,” says Passenger. “their voices are phenomenal and as soon as I heard them I knew they’d work amazingly well on the album – they ended up coming to Sydney and singing on pretty much every song. I’m so happy with the backing vocals. They sound both choral and like a bunch of mates in a room just singing along, which is exactly what I wanted.”
Whispers’ grandest love song is probably Heart’s On Fire, which starts out sparse on finger picked guitar and builds in to a dramatic, passionate, strings-soaked plea to the person you can’t get out of your head. Close your eyes and you can picture it being played by an orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall.
“Heart’s On Fire is a nostalgic song,” explains Passenger. “It’s about when the timing with someone isn’t right, even though the person might be. And although you’re not with that person at the time, there may be a moment in the future where the relationship makes more sense.”
With its Western-like opening, intriguing arrangement and alliterative subject matter – growing old depicted in terms of nature – Start A Fire is, says Passenger, the most ambitious song he has ever attempted.
“It’s pretty epic and like nothing I’ve ever written before,” he says. “It’s the tale of a guy’s life as he comes to terms with growing old. It’s not about me – some of my songs are hypotheticals – but it’s something everyone must feel at a certain age. It’s a very sad song if you listen closely to the lyrics.”
The most arresting tale on Whispers is a true story of a 3am encounter with a man dying of lung cancer. Only the hardest of heart could reach the end of the five minute-long Riding To New York without shedding a tear.
“I’ve been trying to quit smoking for ages,” explains Passenger. “Mostly I’m off it, but a while back, I was in Minneapolis, in the middle of the night, craving a cigarette. I broke and walked to a gas station at 3am on a Tuesday morning. Outside, there was an old guy sitting on a motorbike, smoking. As I walked past, he said ‘This is the best cigarette I’ve ever had in my life’. It was such a strange thing to say.
“I asked what he meant and he told me he was dying of lung cancer. He had no idea how long he had left to live, but he had decided to buy an old bike, ride across the country and arrive in New York to spend the rest of his days with his family.
“I ended up not buying cigarettes that night and over the next few days the song almost wrote itself. It has a string section, a bit of brass, ambient electric guitar and piano. And it all came out of that brief, bizarre, 3am experience.”
With Whispers, you could talk tales all day, but it’s better to just listen to the songs. Let Her Go’s success continues to spiral – in 2013, it was the ninth most Shazamed song in the world and the best selling British single; it recently soundtracked the most popular ad at the Superbowl; at last count it had 222 million views on YouTube – but for Passenger, it has simply opened some doors. Thousands, rather than hundreds, now come to his shows and know all of the words to most of his songs. He even continues to busk, as he has since he went solo in 2009.
“I’m planning a lot of busking over the next few months, before the festivals start,” says Passenger. “I can’t just rock up with an acoustic anymore – I’ve had to adapt. But busking is still my favourite thing to do. It’s such an honest form of playing music. It’s for everyone and it’s free. What could be better than that?”