Passenger's overnight success took six years, one band breakup, hundreds of gigs in small European pubs, countless hours busking on the streets and five albums. So when the melancholy folk song "Let Her Go" sold 1 million copies in October, Mike Rosenberg was ready. "When you're a kid, you think there's going to be this crazy moment where you sit back with a cigar and think, 'This is it, you've done it,' as you leave Glastonbury in a helicopter," says the 29-year-old one-man band from Brighton, England. "It's just not the case. It happens very slowly."
Passenger unofficially began when Rosenberg was roughly 17, when he announced to his parents that he was dropping out of school to become a musician. This stressed out his mother until she saw he was applying himself to singing, songwriting, playing guitar and busking on the streets. "She hasn't been worried since," he says.
About six years ago, Rosenberg and Andrew Phillips, a more experienced friend who specialized in film and soundtrack composing, formed Passenger. They wrote songs and toured, making what Rosenberg considered "a really great, raw and organic collaboration." But when they wound up putting out an album, 2007's Wicked Man's Rest, Rosenberg felt they compromised their vision in order to please other people. "I was a lot younger then and didn't have such a strong vision for what I wanted it to be," he says. "A lot of the eccentricity and what made it great had been kind of ironed out. As a result, it didn't really please anyone – it wasn't cool enough for the cool kids and it wasn't poppy enough for the pop kids."
The original four-piece band broke up, and Rosenberg took to the streets of Europe, carrying his rucksack, a suitcase full of CDs and guitar and rotating the same two T-shirts. He was constantly writing songs, posting albums on Facebook and feeling lucky if he received three likes. "I didn't expect anything," he says. "I only wanted the songs I'd written to document that time in my life, and if 10 people bought it, then great, and if 1,000 people bought it, then great. I certainly wasn't doing it to make money."
Rosenberg has an endearing, gravely singer-songwriter voice that vacillates between Cat Stevens and David Gray, and over time he's developed a lyrical style of sounding pretty and upbeat while singing about bleak subjects. Last year, he released his third album All the Little Lights — the title track includes more than one well-placed f-bomb, and "Staring at the Stars" deals with the isolation of Internet pornography and contains one of Rosenberg's best lines: "Who needs love when you've got silicone and strap-ons." His go-to crowd-pleaser is "I Hate," which disparages Facebook friends, The X Factor and festival toilets.
Through his travels, Rosenberg hooked up with fellow British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, who was younger but had experienced success more quickly, collaborating with pop stars from Taylor Swift to One Direction. Sheeran began to champion Passenger's songs and the two played shows together throughout Europe, Australia and the U.S. The connection helped turn "Let Her Go" into a smash. It sold 1 million copies in October, and more than 2.5 million overall, in addition to over 155 million YouTube views. "That song was ready to be the face of what I did and be a really good advert for Passenger," he says. "So much of this was dependent on being there at the right time. 'Let Her Go' was just another piece, really."