I spoke to him on the phone just a few months ago, and Michael Rosenberg, who goes by the stage name Passenger, remembers me as I reach out to shake his hand.
“How’s it going?” he asks. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?” It’s like we’ve known each other for ages. We sit down backstage as he’s getting ready to perform, and he’s in shorts, a T-shirt and slops.
He says his time has been pretty busy. “We’ve done festivals in Europe over the summer and just been touring in the US and UK. We just came off a tour of Australia and New Zealand and these are the last gigs of the tour. It’s been pretty intense.”
Passenger performed in Durban just the day before this swealtering Johannesburg afternoon and Rosenberg says Durban was the most sweatty he has been in his whole life. “It’s like playing in a swimming pool. But it was brilliant.”
He says he was so amazed at how many people turned up and at the stunning backdrop in the botanical gardens.
“It’s one of those moments where you’re just like ‘how is it that my music has reached so many people’? It was great moment for me.”
He says: “South Africa in general has blown my mind,. We went on safari and hung out in Soweto … getting a real feel for it and understanding this country. It’s a beautiful and amazing place.
“Soweto was an amazing experience and so was the safari. For English people it’s astonishing because all we have are cats and dogs and foxes. We don’t have elephants.”
I tell him that South African scoff at the word ‘safari’ and he laughs. I tell him it’s called a ‘game drive’.
Passenger recently released Whispers, and Rosenberg says the response to the album has been great.
“We always knew it was unlikely to be as commercially successful as the previous one. Let Her Go broke any expectations we had. When I put Whispers out, all I wanted to do is for people to connect and fall in love with it.
“Im really happy with the response. This year has been really great because on one hand the crazy hype surrounding Let Her Go has died, but Passenger has grown in a nice natural way and it feels solid.”
He says Heart’s On Fire was huge in South Africa in particular, and he doesn’t know why but the biggest response was from here.
Rosenberg is a tad awkward and very self-deprecating, traits that come through in his performance. And on stage in Johannesburg, he gave us an afternoon of anecdotes, tales about his travels and strange stories about his really tight jeans.
He says it’s those stories that matter. “I write wherever I am. I love writing at train stations because of the acoustics.” He previously said to me that he loves hearing people’s stories in public spaces and telling them in song.
He picks up his Gibson and starts playing, and says it took him a while to stumble across the guitar. “I play on my own so it’s essential that my instrument is part of me. Gibson has a lot of power behind it.” It’s beautiful and it sounds even better when on stage.
Passenger led Johannesburg by the hand through a journey of tales about his life and his songs, which we felt was our own journey by the end of it. But Rosenberg still thinks he’s a passenger, not a leader.
“I humbly thank you for being here today,” he said to the audience. “It’s an honour and a privilege to tell you my stories.”
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