“For the last three or four albums I’ve been played an old J-45 from the 60s that I bought in Japan,” says Mike Rosenberg, who released Patchwork – his eleventh studio album as Passenger – back in July.
For forthcoming album Songs For The Drunk And Broken Hearted (due out 8 January), he felt like he needed a different instrument to bring his alternative folk songs to life...
“That J-45 is beautiful, but for the new album I picked up my Gibson Hummingbird which is definitely not from the 60s and probably closer to five years old,” he laughs, talking to MusicRadar via video chat from his home in Brighton.
“I think it has a warmer and softer tone, especially for the picking bits. It feels better to my ears. I bought it from somewhere in America, I think it was Chicago but it’s all a bit of a blur...
“I have to say, I’m not crazy about collecting guitars and gear. When I play live I use J-45s and I have about three or four plus that old one from Japan, the Hummingbird and then a couple of Martins. I probably own about 10 or 11 acoustics in total, there’s a nylon string and few bits and bobs knocking about.”
As he explains, that’s pretty much where his collection ends – opting for more direct and dry tones, as straight and uncoloured as can be. Despite the challenges that come with performing as a one-person band, he also feels the simplistic power of a single acoustic going direct has helped him stand out from the crowd...
“My setup is about as basic as you possibly could imagine,” admits Rosenberg. “Obviously there’s no band, I always play on my own. It’s literally just a Gibson acoustic and a tuner pedal. But it works, actually sometimes I think it’s helpful. For logistics like touring and travelling, it’s glorious.
“For festivals, when everyone else is getting smashed with full bands all day long, when you turn up with just an acoustic, it’s really different and stands out. It’s played in my favour over the years. Funnily enough, my soundman got so bored that he did actually make me a pedalboard… it had two tuners on it (laughs).
“I used Elixir strings for a while but found them a bit slick after a while. They didn’t suit my playing as well as others. So I use medium gauge D’Addarios. I’m not really fussy but it has to be mediums because otherwise I’ll just break them.
“I really attack the guitar when I’m strumming, so they have to be robust. That’s the other thing I felt about the Elixirs, it was like I was breaking too many E strings. They didn’t seem quite up to the battering!”
The English singer-songwriter cites his introductory years on classical guitar as the main secret behind his fingerstyle approach, developing the natural fluidity and warmth that lies at the heart of his music very early on. Looking back now, it’s something he would wholeheartedly recommend for any player starting out...
“I was really lucky,” explains Rosenberg. “My mum and dad bought me a classical guitar when I was about seven. I was kicking and screaming at times, like when I was 15 and all my mates were hanging out down the park and I had to practice my guitar. I wasn’t best pleased! But I look back now and am so thrilled they kept me at it.
“All of my fingerpicking patterns and ideas come from playing classical and flamenco early on. It just teaches your fingers so much. It’s like when kids can learn languages at the age of 10, becoming fluent in French in two months, while for some adults it can take 20 years and they’d still be shit. I learned all of that stuff early on, by the time I was grumpy enough to not want to do it, I was already good.”
The connection to the instrument, he observes, is greatest when it’s finger on string...
“That way you don’t have to pass the message on through something external. I had to learn how to play with a pick much later on. I used to strum with fingers as well, which is obviously not the way forward. I kinda went at it a bit backwards in that sense!”
Here the singer-songwriter talks us through the 10 albums which changed his life…
1. Simon & Garfunkel – The Concert In Central Park (1982)
“This was a reunion gig they did after not working together for some time, getting back together to play this massive show in New York. It was the only cassette tape we used to listen to in the car growing up. Any long family trips would have this on. It was a double cassette, so four sides of music and definitely felt like my first memory of finding music completely magical.
“When you’re a kid you don’t understand how songs are written or what’s going on behind the curtain of things. I remember the music just washing over me, those close harmonies from Simon and Garfunkel and then that killer band.
“Honestly, if I had to pick the best songwriter of all-time, it would have to be Paul Simon. This has some of his best songs, [it] marks a special moment for the musicians coming back together and with an incredible atmosphere around Central Park. In addition to the nostalgia I have personally, sitting in the back seat of a car and losing my mind, this had to be my first choice…”
2. John Prine – John Prine Live (1988)
“Very sadly he just passed away during lockdown. For those who don’t know him, he’s this fantastic old school singer-songwriter from Nashville. What I loved about his live records is that you hear a lot of his banter and storytelling.
“I must have been about 16 and it was the first time I had witnessed someone who could go from really funny to terribly sad within minutes. He’d tell a hilarious story and then go into a tragic song. The power of that emotional rollercoaster really resonated in me. I think he’s been a big influence on my live show in that regard…”
3. Joni Mitchell – Blue (1971)
“Whenever I listen to this record, I feel like it’s a best-of. Every song is massive. Again, there’s some great story-telling. The guitar work on this record is fantastic – it’s not perfect at all and quite rough, quite often with two acoustics rattling against each other. But that’s what gives it this robust, almost messy but still fantastically played… that’s really hard to do, I think.
“From a guitar point of view it’s wonderful but her vocal range at this point of her career was second to none. Maybe Freddie Mercury, but other than that… those two are right up there for me.”
4. The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead (1986)
“This is more of a guitar-y. It was the first album I heard by them and I remember thinking Johnny Marr’s guitar work being so ridiculous. I love how melodic it is and still so unique. The combination of Morrissey and Marr together was perfect.
“Morrissey had these dark but humorous lyrics against these jangly and upbeat Northern thing that Marr was doing was as special as it gets. This was probably their best work as songwriters.”
5. Radiohead – OK Computer (1997)
“I remember going on holiday with my family around the age of 13 or 14. I got The Fat Of The Land by The Prodigy on cassette the same day and rinsing both of them on my Walkman. I could have picked either album, but I remember OK Computer felt like the first time I started thinking about production. And the work on that record is incredible, to be honest Radiohead are renowned for those huge productions.
“Up until that point, on Pablo Honey and The Bends, they were more of a straight-ahead indie rock band. OK Computer was such an interesting manoeuvre from them. And of course the songs were fantastic – as a piece of art, it’s as good as it gets!
“I saw them at Rock Werchter in Belgium a year or two ago and they were fucking incredible. The light show and whole atmosphere was just insane. I’d never seen them live and felt it was a moment that was either going to be incredible or a huge disappointment. They played so many of my favourite songs and were untouchable in terms of goodness…”
6. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago (2007)
“I think this ushered in a new era for singer-songwriters. It felt really different. His whole thing about disappearing off into a cabin and making it himself – I don’t know how much of that is spin or not – but it definitely sounds like that’s what he did to achieve those sounds on the recordings.
“He’s the master of lo-fi. And lo-fi is so fucking difficult, trying to actually record an album very honestly and roughly. Whenever I’ve tried it sounded really shit, but on this record especially he achieved something quite amazing. Again, for me it’s all about the songs, and this album is bursting full of great ones.”
7. Fleetwood Mac – Rumours (1977)
“It’s Rumours… what else can I say? One of the greatest albums ever recorded. The different eras of Fleetwood offer such different things musically. Like Tango In The Night from the late 80s was more of a synthy record and I think it’s brilliant.
“I love all the stories around Fleetwood Mac – this impossible combination of people that was toxic and awful from the sounds of things, but they created such majestic music. They’re a real folklore, those guys.”
8. Gregory Alan Isakov – The Weatherman (2013)
“He’s from Colorado and my booking agent also looks after him in Europe. I got given a couple of CDs in 2014 and ended up really rinsing this one. I played it after every single gig and I think it was a world tour that year, so easily over 100 shows.
“And I remember every night, walking in off stage and tumbling into the dressing room. It’s a weird feeling, the gig has either gone really well or maybe not – you can walk into that room in all kinds of moods. That became a real consistency for me.
“This first track is called Amsterdam and has these lovely brush drums that come in. I trained my mind into coming down to that music, which really helped. As soon as I heard that and had a beer in my hand, I was cool.
“Whatever I felt so intensely on stage – the good, the bad, the ugly, whatever – it’s done. Now it’s time to drink a beer, have a shower or eat something. That’s the magic of music, it can take you back to a very specific place. This one will always be dressing rooms for me.“
9. Damien Rice – O (2002)
“I’m in admiration of the rawness of this album – I think he’s a genius, I really do, and this was the spiky end of his genius. It was up there and still stands up to this day. For me it was really encouraging to hear this kind of music and see it become really successful and go really well. It felt like no-one was really into stuff like this for a few years.”
“A bit like Bon Iver, but maybe around 10 or 15 years before, this arrived at the end of a very dance-y few years. Fatboy Slim and all that stuff had become massive. David Gray came out with White Ladder and Damien Rice with O, these two records that made me think, ‘Oh shit, people are writing songs again!’
10. James Taylor – The Best Of (2003)
“This really did change my life. I somehow missed James Taylor as a kid, then my mum’s friend gave me a best-of for Christmas one year. It just blew me away. I’m a big fan of a lot of his work, though there are definitely moments where he loses me and it’s not my thing…
“But when you put his 10 best songs together, stuff like Something In The Way She Moves and Carolina In My Mind, you realise it’s an incredible body of work.”
The new Passenger album Songs For The Drunk And Broken Hearted is out 8 January 2021 and available to pre-order now from passengermusic.com