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When you’re an independent artist you’re always having to work within a budget you can control. After all, there’s no record company picking up the bills – you’re paying for it all yourself. For Brighton, UK born and bred yet very much the adopted Australian son singer songwriter Mike Rosenberg, being independent has proven to be the best road he could have taken. There was a time, back in the early 2000s, when things looked very different. There was a five-piece band called Passenger and the big money label behind it and there was a critically acclaimed debut album, Wicked Man’s Rest, but when the members of that band chose to go their own separate ways in 2007, Rosenberg opted to stick with the Passenger moniker and trust in his music, his voice and his guitar to take him where it would. He took to the streets and discovered not only that the experience enormous fun, but it also proved empowering for the likeable musical troubadour.
“The busking pays for everything really,” Mike admits. “It’s crazy. I’ve funded my last four records basically from busking, so it’s a godsend really. It’s an amazing thing to have stumbled upon because it is the dilemma for every musician – how do I put a hundred per cent of myself into my music, whilst keeping myself together? It’s not a new problem – it’s always been the case – but you find something like busking, which you can still do; while you’re making money you can play your songs and hopefully further your fan base – it’s ideal really. You don’t have to put forty hours of your time into flipping burgers or making coffee or whatever it is. I’ll always feel very, very lucky about that.
“Honestly, the more I do it, the more I enjoy it. You know, it’s great that it’s getting bigger for me but busking actually turns into a real way of life. The structure of busking and just being on your own, enjoying the cities and travelling, I dunno, there’s such a lo-fi thing that goes along with it and such an honest and simple way of living for that period of time that I really, really miss actually when I’m not doing it, so I really look forward to getting back out on the street again.”
Having obviously got a real taste for the busking and the travelling, he thought he’d check out sunnier climes, which is how, in October 2009, Mike first took himself over to Australia where he managed to support Lior and Sydneysiders Elana Stone and Brian Campeau, and then played One Movement, a major music industry-focus festival in Perth. Back in Sydney, he met a neighbour who just happened to be ARIA Award-winning singer songwriter Josh Pyke, and the initial idea that would become Flight Of The Crow formed in his mind.
The album proved the perfect entre into the Australian music scene, not least because Flight Of The Crow saw him joined in the studio by the cream of Australian independent musical talent, including Lior, Kate Miller-Heidke, Boy & Bear and Katie Noonan. By the time Mike felt it was time to return to the UK to launch the album there, he was selling out 500-seater venues across Australia. Before he left however, it was time to record a new album. “It’s very different to Flight Of The Crow… actually all my records,” Mike explains. “Flight Of The Crow sounded like it was made in the 1960s, which was kind of what we were aiming for, but this one is a bigger production and a bit more modern sounding.”
As always, there’s a certain element of the youthful Cat Stevens in the tenor of Mike’s voice that tells you the emotions that drive his songs aren’t very far beneath the surface. Recorded again in Sydney, for the new album, All The Little Lights, Mike was joined once again by a core Australian band that included Boy & Bear drummer Tim Hart, jazz bassist Cameron Undy, who also played on Flight Of The Crow, and keyboards player Stu Hunter, from Katie Noonan & The Captains. If there’s a theme to be drawn from the album it’s not just the usual stock-in-trade of the travelling troubadour – love – but the love of life itself.
Meanwhile the Passenger fanbase has been building very nicely, and very much from the ground up, with the busking feeding into the club gigs – all very organic. “It’s such a funny and slow process, the way we do it. We haven’t got a label, we haven’t got the big muscle behind it – it really is meeting every fan personally and trying to convince them to sort of buy into it, which is quite a bizarre way of doing it. But I think what I’ve found is people have a real personal relationship to it because it’s not just something on the radio – I might be busking and we’ll have a chat or have a beer after a gig or whatever – I think that personal thing is so important in making people feel part of the project and then hopefully becoming fans ultimately.”
Among the highlights of this past northern summer’s touring round the UK has been opening for one of UK pop music’s most influential figures, Jools Holland, as well as Ed Sheeran, who just had the #1 album in the UK, and Australian acts the John Butler Trio and Josh Pyke, with whom he co-headlined a UK tour.
“It was great!” Mike admits, that ubiquitous smile on his face. “I did shows with the John Butler Trio over here and in Europe as well. It makes such a difference when you play to those kinds of crowds compared to the busking, which as I say is like playing to each person individually sometimes, it is amazing to then be on a bigger stage and reaching such a big audience in one go.”
It’s been a remarkable journey for Rosenberg, a journey that has inspired some of the finest songwriting you’ll hear anywhere, whether on a street corner, a sweaty rock’n’roll room or a concert stage. Listening to him, whether on record or in performance, you can tell he’s having the time of his life, and it’s all there on his new album, All The Little Lights. And the most exciting this is you just know there’s plenty more to come.