The elfin-voiced, West Sussex balladeer Mike Rosenberg, better known by his stage name Passenger, has just released his sixth album, Whispers, a gentle folk-rock collection that debuted at No. 2 this week on Canadian charts, right behind Jack White’s Lazaretto. His calling card, however, is the 2012 blockbuster single Let Her Go, and he’s not about to let the trembling hit tune go.
I know you’re touring overseas at the moment. Where are you right now?
I’m in Tel Aviv. We played a show last night, and we’re just about to do some busking in town.
That’s something Passenger is known for. Is it a publicity thing, tied into your history of busking earlier in your career?
You know what? I didn’t realize it, but Let Her Go has been a massive song over here. But we booked a gig where we played to about 1,000 people last night. It sold out really quickly. So busking now means that we go out and play for people who weren’t able to get into the show, for whatever the reason.
How does it compare with the busking you did before Let Her Go broke big? I don’t imagine you’re doing it for the coin any longer.
I had been busking for five years before everything got crazy. It was a way of getting my music to the people, while making a little bit of money as well, so I could keep on funding my own records. It was a wonderful thing to stumble across. Without it, what’s happening now wouldn’t have been able to happen. I have a lot to thank busking for.
You have a lot to thank Let Her Go for. It was a tremendously popular song, to the point where some people are a little sick of hearing it.
Well, I still love the song. I’m very grateful for it. It’s opened so many doors for me, and it’s introduced so many people to my music. I know it’s been played a lot, but there is something so special about playing it at a gig. People react so incredibly to it. Everyone knows the words, and it means an awful lot to an awful lot of people.
There’s so much emotion to it. I would compare its intensity to Dan Hill’s Sometimes When We Touch or James Blunt’s You’re Beautiful. But those songs haven’t aged very well, because they’re just too much. Do you know what I mean?
The one thing I don’t want to do is to disrespect the song. I don’t want to show up for a gig and play it really quickly, lacking any emotion, just because I’ve played it a lot. I don’t know if it will age well, but it’s a good problem to have, you know?
Let’s talk about a song on your new record. On Heart’s on Fire, you sing “you know those love songs will break your heart.” Is that what you’re trying to do, break our hearts?
Some of what I write is based on personal experience. We all go through these difficult times. To be able to have that outlet, like writing a song and pouring all these emotions into it, it’s an amazing thing to have and it’s something that probably keeps me much happier in life as a human being. I’m certainly not trying to make people sad.
I heard Dan Hill sing Sometimes When We Touch at Massey Hall a few years ago. Honestly, it was kind of awesome.
I bet it was. These songs are something to relate to, and it’s important for people to know they’re not on their own in feeling these things. I’ve felt it myself, hearing other people’s songs. When you hear them, it’s like the artist is speaking to you. The artist knows what you’re going through. Basically it’s a three-and-a-half-minute hug.
Passenger plays Montreal’s Metropolis, Aug. 14; Toronto’s Sound Academy, Aug. 16; Vancouver’s Malkin Bowl, Sept.7.