Interview: Passenger on getting drunk, being vulnerable and playing a sad clown

Passenger

Passenger will release his 13th studio album, Songs For The Drunk & Brokenhearted on January 8th. Penned by Passenger – aka Mike Rosenberg – when he was newly single, the album features that raw and authentic vulnerability that Passenger’s global fan-base has grown to love.

Fans from all over the world will have the opportunity to tune into a very special performance of Passenger and his new record from the iconic Royal Albert Hall in London on January 10, 2021.

Due to a partnership with Ecologi and the Eden Reforestation Project, a tree will be planted for every physical copy of Songs sold via the Passenger store. All physical packaging is made from 100% recycled materials.

Passenger is an multi award winning, platinum selling singer-songwriter from Brighton, England. Although still known for his busking, he long ago made the journey from street corners to stadiums – most notably with “Let Her Go”, which reached Number 1 in 19 countries, was certified 7x platinum in Australia and has over 1.2 billion streams.

The first half of your 13th studio album, Songs For The Drunk & Brokenhearted is comprised of ten recorded tracks, with the B side being the same songs recorded acoustically. What was the reasoning behind choosing to include both?

When I play live, it’s just me and a guitar. And sometimes, very occasionally, there seems to be a bit of a disconnect when someone comes to my show and they’ve heard the album – it’s full band and a big sound – so I always like to give people the option of the two.

I also think that’s how the songs were written. I usually sit at my kitchen table with my guitar and write a song; and those acoustic versions are very true to the essence of what the song is. And I think the purist Passenger fans, will probably appreciate that.

Would you ever consider releasing an album full of acoustic songs only?

I released a little lock down album called Patchwork, which was pretty much that. It’s just guitar, vocal and a little sprinkling of electric guitar as well.

I think it’s a nice idea just to do an acoustic album, but if it’s literally just acoustic guitar and voice for the whole time, I find my mind starts to wander a little bit sometimes, especially with my stuff. I think other people can do it. But, I feel like when I do it as a standalone record, I’m always tempted to add something else to give it a bit of spice.

By doing it this way, it kills two birds with one stone and gives people an option.

Songs For The Drunk & Brokenhearted, set for release early next year, was recorded before the pandemic, but its release date was pushed back, with more songs later added. Patchwork, however, was recorded afterwards in your home studio during lockdown and released this year.

Patchwork was a nice, yet productive way to spend that time and all the profits generated from that records go to the Trussell Trust, which is a food bank charity in the UK.

I usually record my records in Sydney. This was different and much smaller, and we had to rethink how we did things. [My home studio] is not big enough to record the whole band live, so we had musicians coming in and out doing separate sessions. I really enjoyed it. It’s important to mix up the process. I think you can get very complacent and comfortable making records in a certain way.

Yeah, I wrote tonnes in lockdown. I think it probably goes either way – either you write loads, or you don’t pick up a guitar for the whole time.

So, all the physical packaging of the Songs For The Drunk & Brokenhearted CDs and vinyl will be made of 100% recycled materials. And, for every physical product sold from your web-store, a tree will be planted on behalf of Ecologi and the Eden Project, a great initiative that you’ve has partnered with. Why is this such an important cause for you?

I think, to be honest, if you’re making a physical product in 2020, it’s one’s responsibility to try and make as little impact as you possibly can. It was my manager, Dan who came up with the amazing packaging – even shrink wrap is biodegradable – and for every physical copy sold, we’re planting a tree as well. It’s not going to save the planet, but it’s at least a step in the right direction.

I’d say ultimately, streaming is probably an awful lot better. If you think about the materials that were being used in the 80s and 90s, in the glut of the CD boom, we’re probably better off for the streaming. I don’t have the graphs to show you [laughs] but my instinct would be that with the demise of physical product, it can only be a good thing, surely.

It has been well-documented that widespread social-distancing measures during the covid pandemic had unexpected positive benefits on the environment and the planet – including a reduction of air pollution and cleaner waters. Do you think it’s possible to reverse the ill effects we’ve had on the planet, and what do you think we need to actually do to make it a reality?

I think it’s possible. It feels very possible when you go to places like Denmark and everyone’s recycling and riding around on bikes. Then you go to other parts of the world, and it feels like it’s an impossibility. Just because there’s so many people who don’t have the luxury of thinking about using recycled materials and all that stuff – they’re just trying to get by.

So, until the disparity of wealth is properly dealt with, I think it’s gonna be a big ask unfortunately. But it’s encouraging that kids are so engaged. This new generation is taking [climate change] a lot more seriously than the generations previously. I’m really hoping we’re seeing the last of these dinosaurs – and we can start turning things around after that – but it’s gonna be touch and go for sure.

You penned Songs For The Drunk & Brokenhearted when you were newly single. Was the writing of this album a kind of therapy to move on and heal?

Yeah, songwriting has always been that for me. Not just for breakups, but just dealing with life in general. I think it’s a very strange world we live in, and everything I experienced usually percolates around the brain box for a little bit and then gets channeled into the songwriting, so a breakup is no different. It’s a very extreme version of that.

And obviously, you go through a tonne of different emotions and a tough time, and eventually, it all finds its way out into the songs. Everyone feels this stuff, and everyone goes through this stuff, but not everybody has the ability to write the song. I feel very lucky to have that as an outlet.

I would imagine it’s difficult to relive those painful memories over and over again, especially as you’ll be stuck with those songs for quite a while.

Yeah, they’re painful. To write the songs, they’re hard to get it out when you’re creating them. But, to make an album, you have to listen to the song so many times, that quite honestly, by the end of that, and by the time the album is released; it’s not like I don’t feel them anymore – I completely love them, understand what they’re about and I feel them – but not in the same brutal way as when I’m writing them.

Do you ever consider the listener when you’re writing? As in you write something they can connect with what’s going on in their own lives, or is writing strictly therapeutic for you?

Yeah, I try. There’s a magic line where you write something for yourself and it’s personal enough to feel real, but you also open it up enough and make it, not generic, but widely understandable.

And you can go the wrong side of the line either way, I think, and I certainly have done many times. But I think that when you when you get that line, right, it’s magical. A song like “Let Me Go”, for example, probably connected in such a deep way because it had both.

I feel like my songwriting’s got more simplified a little bit. Back in the day, I used to try and be as clever as possible with all moments of all songs, trying to sort of prove what a clever songwriter I was. And I think that’s gone a little bit. Now I really understand the importance of simplicity and the beauty of it.

Have you ever written a song you deemed was too personal for your audience ears that you decided not to release it?

I’m always as honest as I possibly can be. It doesn’t scare me. In fact, the more honest [and] vulnerable they are, the better. “Sword from the Stone”, for example, is about as honest as I’ve ever been in a song. It feels like I literally edited nothing. It feels great and the reaction’s been amazing to that song.

I think when you’re making this kind of singer songwriter music, you have to be honest [and] vulnerable. On a quite deep and subconscious level, the listener intrinsically understands if you’re telling the truth, or if you’re trying to bullshit them. I aim for total honesty within my songs if I can.

Sometimes, especially this year, because I haven’t been playing much, been out and about and touring. It’s only then when you put it all together, you’re like, “There are actually people listening to this.” I know that sounds stupid. But, quite often I’ll post a video or whatever, and you see all the comments – and it’s lovely and it’s great – but it doesn’t feel real.

It’s quite a shock sometimes to me that there are people out there listening. It blows my mind! I feel utterly an incredibly grateful to have those people.

What music do you listen to when you’re drunk?

If I’m happy drunk, I tend to go for a late 90s-early 2000s, R&B cheese-fest. We’re talking Usher, Ja Rule, Nelly, Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado and Timberland kind of region. It’s a fucking jam!

But then, sad drunk, you want to go for John Prine or someone who’s gonna understand all your woes.

What music do you listen to when you’re brokenhearted?

Probably the second [laughs] and Bon Iver is a solid choice. He’ll get you through a good breakup.

Some people like listening to happier, feel good songs when they’re feeling down, while others enjoy crying along with those sad and depressing tunes – where do you fall on that spectrum?

I think listening to sad songs when you’re sad, it’s like sitting with a friend who understands that they’re not trying to cheer you up. When you’re sad and someone’s [trying to] cheer you up, it’s the most infuriating thing in the world – and I feel like happy songs try and do that. Listening to sad music makes me feel like other people get it, and that makes me feel better in those situations.

You were recently in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. As someone who is used to travelling all over the world to tour – how was the experience flying and performing during the pandemic?

Yeah, it’s a bit weird to be on a plane during Covid. But, I was lucky to play a couple of gigs over there – socially distanced but still a decent crowd. Just to be on stage and connect with people in that way, I entirely took it for granted.

I played 200 gigs a year for the last however many years, and you end up forgetting how special it is. It’s like if you had your favourite dinner every single night, it wouldn’t be special anymore, and gigs are a bit like that if you do it every night. It does normalise it. So, playing again after all this time was beautiful.

Do you think then that Covid has made you more appreciative of simpler things in life?

Yes, without a doubt. I’ve felt for a long time, that we’ve getting less and less in touch with the simple things. It’s been a problem for a long time, and I think Covid has really shone a light on that on a global scale. I think everyone’s taking a step back, like, “Fucking hell! We’re all running around like lunatics and not enjoying any of this.” Like, there’s such an emphasis on quantity and speed, and everything needs to be today and immediately, and life has sped up enormously over the last twenty years.

I think a big part of why people are fairly anxious, depressed and unhappy is that we’re so out of touch with what really matters. I’m not saying anything new here, but I think maybe Covid has shone a light on that. Suddenly, going to meet a friend in a park for coffee feels special. And we probably all needed a bit of a dose of that. Unfortunately, it’s come in the form of a pandemic, but hopefully, there are lessons we can take forward from it.

One lesson I learned in lockdown was to be a little less hard on myself and let myself have a day off every now and again. I don’t know about you, but the first few weeks of lockdown, everyone was running around being like “I’m going to learn the clarinet, Latin and stuff like that. I’m going to better myself. I’m going to do all this stuff!” And then actually, after this weird, anxious momentum died down, like “I’m just gonna try not to put on 700 pounds and watch everything on Netflix” [laughs].

“Songs For The Drunk & Brokenhearted”, “Suzanne” and “Remember To Forget” are all a series of interconnected music videos, with you donning a joker-esque costume (as seen in 2019 American psychological thriller film directed and produced by Todd Phillips) in Songs For The Drunk & Brokenhearted. Whose idea was it to create a music video series?

I’m gonna take credit for that. I had the idea for a long time, and thought how cool would it be if you could link two or three videos together somehow and have interweaving characters and whatever else. Not having the normal tools to our disposal coming out of lockdown, it struck me that video was pretty much the only thing we could put our energy, time and money into that would actually generate some interest around the record. So, it just felt like, maybe now is the time to do something big and bold – and terrifyingly expensive – video wise. And so, we did.

I’m really pleased with it. I got to work with some great actors, director, like a brilliant team in general. It’s just very different to what we usually do, and the fans have really embraced that. I did get into character. I think it’s is quite hard not to when you catch yourself in the mirror and you looked terrifying. Although, I don’t think my acting skills are gonna worry Leo or Robert De Niro, but it was out of my comfort zone.

I think the clown idea for that song visually supplements what the song is about. That song feels to me like those nights when you’re in the pub and you’re feeling pretty crap about everything, but you still have to put on this show and dance for everyone, and pretend that everything’s all right.

I feel that the weird thing about clowns is that there’s the whole show, makeup and mask, and underneath, you’re never quite sure of what’s actually going on. I think that’s why so many people feel uncomfortable around clowns, other than they look a bit scary.

Now that you’ve tipped your toes in – would you like to explore more character work moving forward?

We’ll see. This was a very bespoke and unique situation, but never rule it out. I mean, most of my videos are just wandering about in places, so we definitely had to mix it up a little bit somehow.

Passenger’s new album Songs For The Drunk & Brokenhearted is out January 8th. Pre-Order the album HERE.

A pre-order from Passenger’s official site will get you exclusive access to the one time only broadcast of Passenger from the Royal Albert Hall on January 10th.

You can keep up to date with Passenger via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and his Official Site.

Header Image: Zakary Walters

 

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