Passenger hasn’t always been a one-man folk band.
The group was founded nearly a decade ago by British singer-songwriter Mike Rosenberg and his friend Andrew Phillips, and their first and only recording together, 2007’s “Wicked Man’s Rest,” was a chaotic blend of drum machines, chimes and electric guitars. Spanning the musical gamut from soft rock to rockabilly, the sound reflected a band searching for its identity. The collaboration ended when Phillips left in 2009, but Rosenberg kept the moniker as he set off on his own.
“I was quite a bit younger,” says Rosenberg, 29. “I had these songs I knew I wanted to get to people, but I didn’t know how to do it.”
Rosenberg began writing on acoustic guitar and playing street corners in Brighton and eventually across Britain as he honed his sound, which is heavily influenced by singer-songwriters of the ’60s and ’70s.
“My dad’s originally from New Jersey, so he got me into that stuff at a really early age,” Rosenberg says. “I remember listening to Simon and Garfunkel on really long car journeys. When you’re a kid and you listen to music, it just feels magical. You don’t understand how it’s made, who’s making it or what’s going on. It just hits you.”
Emotional resonance is at the heart of Passenger’s songs, although it’s easy to be carried along by the melodies. “Community Centre,” the opening track from 2010’s self-produced “Divers and Submarines,” is anchored by an understated, melancholic refrain that intones its protagonist’s regret even before the lyric “I never wanted to stay / But the morning came so soon.” Rosenberg distills the journey of an ambivalent alcoholic into 21 / 2 minutes, ending by asking the group, “Anybody up for a drink?”
Rosenberg has a knack for tackling dark subjects with a light touch, whether using a joke or a disarmingly honest remark that makes disappointment less daunting.
“It’s very easy to sing a song about being miserable and sad and talking about your ex-girlfriend all the time,” he says. “I’m not a miserable guy. I think it’s important to get all of your personality across in the music.”
When writing the track “Things That Stop You Dreaming” off his most recent album, “All the Little Lights,” Rosenberg struggled for months to find that balance. The verses flow at breakneck speed with stream-of-consciousness ease, but the line he wrote first was the simple refrain — “If you can’t be what you want / You learn to be the things you’re not” — a stark outlook on embracing what lies in the gap between what you dream your life might be and what it actually is.
“It’s kind of learning to deal with disappointment, but be okay with it as well,” says Rosenberg, who took that sentiment to heart over the years he spent as a street musician and while writing “All the Little Lights.”
“At times when I was busking, it was frustratingly slow. Some days you’d go out and feel like you were trying to convince people one by one,” he says. “Long-term, I think it’s brilliant, because people feel a long-term connection to the project, not just the song on the radio.”
But that song on the radio, “Let Her Go” from “All the Little Lights,” has topped the charts in 16 countries and gone platinum in Britain. No one is more surprised by the song’s success than Rosenberg himself.
“I never thought it would be a hit, because up to that point, I’d never had a song on the radio,” he says. “I was busking, had no record label and did everything independently. I had forgotten I could ever have a song on the radio. That kind of success was for other people.”
Rosenberg, who spent much of last year touring as support for his friend Ed Sheeran, is midway through his first headlining American tour for “All the Little Lights,” his first album for the independent label Nettwerk.
The shift from busking on the street to playing for as many as 10,000 people a night has been seismic, but Rosenberg’s approach has remained the same.
“When I play live, it’s just me and a guitar, because my songs are so lyrically based,” he says. “Just having a guitar doesn’t complicate it, so people can hear the stories and the lyrics.”
Kompanek is a freelance writer.
Appearing with Stu Larsen on Tuesday at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. 202-265-0930. www.930.com. Show is sold out.
For a sampling of Passenger’s music, check out:
From “Divers and Submarines”: “Community Centre”
From “All the Little Lights”:
“Things That Stop You Dreaming”