INTERVIEW: Passenger

Passenger is an artist who has always unashamedly been able to unravel his vulnerability through music in such a candid and honest lens. Twelve years ago I witnessed the British singer-songwriter busking on the streets of Brisbane during Valley Fiesta, and I chatted to him for a magazine I was writing for at the time as an emerging artist I thought you should get acquainted with. This was 2009, and then three years later ‘Let Her Go’ was unleashed into the world and went Number 1 in over 21 countries. It’s safe to say that a lot has changed in-between that time, and in fact he’s released ten records, sold out numerous world tours, and ultimately found his voice as a highly acclaimed songwriter and artist. 

His twelfth studio album ‘Songs For The Drunk And Broken Hearted’ (out now) is a return to the intimate storytelling that his first couple of albums were heavily influenced by. Inspired by a break-up he recently went through, he explored the concept of the in-between moments of having that person so prominently in your life to then letting them go and no longer having their comfort or touch. It’s a tragic situation and awkward feeling that so many people have shared but don’t necessarily talk about candidly, so that’s what he’s done with this record. 

Contrasting the emotional storytelling with a bold production, he’s endeavoured to find that sonical sweet spot that The Smiths honed into their sound with a toe-tapping sensibility that when peeled back reveals a dark storytelling and messaging. 

I recently chatted to Passenger about the heartbreak that inspired the storytelling and sombre soundscape behind ‘Songs For The Drunk And Broken Hearted’, explored the process of writing a newer body of work and releasing that during lockdown before this record, as well as revisited some questions I asked him twelve years ago on his first Australian tour. Check it out BELOW;

THOMAS BLEACH: Your forthcoming new record ‘Songs For The Drunk And Broken Hearted’ is a confessional collection of tracks that reflects on the heartbreak stage of a break-up, and the emotions you go through to get out on the other side. When you listen back at the album in full, do you hear heartbreak more or a cathartic relief?

PASSENGER: I think now when I listen to the record it feels really joyful to me actually, which It certainly didn’t when I wrote it. I’m not the first singer-songwriter to harness a heartbreak to write a record, in fact it’s not even the first time that I’ve done it. But it’s obviously a very painful and vulnerable time as you’re so used to being with someone, and the comfort and warmth that brings,  and then suddenly your tumbling through life on your own. 

I started writing a lot of songs around that time, and what really interested me was that transition period from who you are in the relationship, to who you’re going to be. It’s a painful and uncomfortable few months but a really important time to document, I think. 

TB: ’What You’re Waiting For’ is a song that immediately stands out with it’s slightly upbeat production and the lyrics “If this ain’t enough, then I don’t know what you’re waiting for”. So can you explain how this track creatively came together? 

P: It was definitely sort of born from a very autobiographical point. I found myself in this wonderful situation with someone who was lovely and I had everything I could want, but I still wasn’t quite content or satisfied with it, and it was a really depressing realisation. So it definitely comes from that very personal point of view, but it also speaks to us at global level with the way we live with everything we have, and all the luxuries we have, and we are still all anxious and depressed. So I think it works at a micro and macro level. 

TB: Did it take long to put together sonically as well?

P: It actually took a few attempts because we were trying something slightly different. It has quite a The Smiths feel to it with the jangly electric guitar, which is very Johnny Marr. The Smiths are masters at writing these songs where if you don’t listen to the lyrics then they sound like total toe-tappers. But if you then listen to what Morrissey is actually going on about you will hear this very dark element to it. 

There are a couple moments on this record where I’ve attempted something similar, and this song is certainly one of them.

TB: Another song that I feel like would be one of those moments is ‘Sword From The Stone’, and what stood out to me was the line “Cause I’m fine, then I’m not. I’m spinning round, and I can’t stop, I can’t do this for long”. What are your favourite lyrics from this song?

P: It definitely is one of those moments too! I really like the line; “And both the cats say hi. I know they miss you too”. It’s these little details in break-ups that make the heartbreak so real. Like someone has to keep the cats, and that’s a fucking tragedy! I really like that song, and it’s actually probably my favourite song on the record. 

I wrote it in lockdown, and it was one of the final additions. It just feels really honest, and it just feels like an absolute outpouring of honesty, vulnerability and emotion. 

TB: ’Sandstorm’ is a minimalistic song that cinematically builds throughout it’s 5 minute duration. But as most people would know, there is another very famous song called Sandstorm which soundtracked the early 2000’s by Darude. So when you are writing tracks, do you ever think after about songs that are also named the same thing?

P: The reason I actually called it ‘Sandstorm’ was to try coattail on Darude’s YouTube views. Hopefully a lot of people click on the wrong ‘Sandstorm’ *laughs*. But no, I don’t worry too much when I’m writing songs that have the same name as another famous song. Like ‘Suzanne’ is a Leonard Cohen track, and that was actually more of a tip of the hat to Leonard. 

It’s very difficult to do something utterly original in popular music in 2020. So I think if it’s something super specific like a long song title, then I don’t think you can copy it. But something like ‘Sandstorm’ is generic enough to get away with it. 

TB: What was it about the song ‘A Song For The Drunk And Broken Hearted’ that personally felt like it summed up your feelings and vision for this record that you wanted to name it the title track? 

P: I just love the title. I think ‘Songs For The Drunk And Broken Hearted’ encapsulates the body of work really well. Whether it’s my broken heart and drunkeness, or Suzanne’s, or the guy in ‘Remember To Forget’, everyone involved in this record is kinda drunk and brokenhearted in some way. So I just felt like it was perfect. And like what we were talking about before with this record being written in the transitional period of a break-up, through that time I almost started to look at this album as a handbook, like a self-help guide on how to get through that time for people. So that title just felt fitting. 

TB: When we are going through a break-up we do find ourselves usually retreating to a bar, and having a moment of reclusiveness by ourselves around a group of strangers. So what is one of the most weirdest nights you’ve had out at a bar? 

P: The story that immediately springs to mind is when me and my friend Stu, who is actually from Queensland, were touring America and we played a gig in Mexico City as ‘Let Her Go’ had just started to kick off there. We had been on three flights to get there and we were knackered. The guys who picked us up were like “we’re going to this party if you want to come?”, and we were like “nah man, we are going back to our hotel to rest”. And they started to explain how these parties were renowned in Mexico, so we agreed to come for one drink. It then turned into this insane tequila marathon *laughs*. There were all of these exotic animals all over the place, so there was this huge snake being passed around and birds of paradise flying around everywhere. And at the end of it, Stu and I were absolutely hammered sitting on the street corner cuddling a jaguar. Like no bullshit. We have photographic evidence!

TB: Earlier this year you released the EP ‘Patchwork’ which was a collection of tracks you wrote and recorded during lockdown. Having been in the finalisation of preparing this next record, did it feel weird putting out a newer body of work out before the one you had already been working on?

P: Yeah! It was a mess *laughs*. ‘Songs For The Drunk And Broken Hearted’ was originally finished in February and was going to come out in May, and I held it back because it just felt like a shame to throw it out into the universe during lockdown without any means of gaining momentum. I couldn’t go busking, couldn’t do any videos, couldn’t really do any promo, it was just a real shame to throw a record out in that sense. So I held it back and then just started to write. I wrote like a mofo during lockdown, and it got to the point where I had these eight songs that fitted together so beautifully, so I decided to quickly record them in my home studio and get them out. It was a really nice and productive use of the time, and all of the profits generated from that record are going to The Trussell Trust which is like a food bank charity here in the UK.

But it was a bit of a head fuck to go from one project to another and then go back to the other one. But we actually ended up adding three new songs to ‘Songs For The Drunk And Broken Hearted’ and taking three of the weaker songs off it. And I think the record is such a better album because of it. 

This has all been a really big lesson for me because usually I make a record, throw it out, and then go tour it. And what this has taught me is to maybe in the future let the dust settle, make sure you’re happy with everything two months down the line before you start the mastering and packaging process. 

TB: What was something you learnt about yourself and where you wanted to head musically through ‘Songs For The Drunk And Broken Hearted’ that you used or focused on while working on ‘Patchwork’?

P: I think they’re honestly just really different concepts. The idea behind ‘Patchwork’ was always to keep everything super stripped back. Like don’t overthink it, just record the songs sweetly, simply and beautifully, and that’s it. Where as I think ‘Songs For The Drunk And Broken Hearted’ is a much bigger and bolder attempt. It’s full band, there’s strings, brass, and the whole kitchen sink in there. So it was really nice to do the two in succession. 

TB: Okay let’s go down memory lane. Twelve years ago, I interviewed you when you were busking on the streets in Brisbane for Valley Fiesta. So lets revisit some of those questions and quotes you said during that chat. 

P: I dread to think what I said back then *laughs*. Let’s do this! 

TB: Back then you said that you think there should be a sense of humour in pop songs, do you still think that’s relevant within your own music?

P: Yeah, definitely. Even in the darkest moments I think it’s good to have a little sense of humour and take the piss out of yourself. Especially with this type of music, you can be so serious and precious. As a songwriter you aren’t just trying to capture the sad and gloomy moments of life, but it’s also your job to also talk about all the ridiculous and hilarious stuff that goes on as well. So I definitely stand by that. 

TB: What would you say was the most intended humorous moment on ‘Songs For The Drunk And Broken Hearted?’. Because to be honest, this record feels quite serious. 

P: There’s a line in Suzanne where I tell her I think she’s had enough, which is quite funny, or quite sad depending on how you take it. It’s a weird line, but I find it pretty funny sometimes. But yeah thinking about it, maybe I’ve taken myself too seriously on this record… that’s a terrifying thought. 

I think ‘Remember To Forget’ is also kinda light hearted at parts. But you’re right, it’s a pretty serious album, but I guess I did it approach it at a fairly gloomy time.

TB: I asked you to describe ‘Wild Eyes, Blind Love’ and you explained it as an album that’s laid back, low price and a quick and cheap album.

P: *Laughs* that is still true! I’m surprised I was so open about that. I recorded it in 6 days in my friends Loft. I was completely broke, and couldn’t afford to do anything else really. 

TB: How would you describe ‘Songs For The Drunk And Broken Hearted?’

P: Not as cheap as ‘Wild Eyes, Blind Love’, that’s for sure! Having said that I recorded it all in my home studio with my friend Chris who is sort of my engineer and producer. Over the years we’ve done a strings record at Abbey Road, and all of these amazing things with a much bigger live setup. But funnily enough this record kinda felt more like ‘Wild Eyes, Blind Love’ in the way it was made because it was just me and Chris in a room the whole time, and we had musicians coming in and out. So it was definitely a smaller feeling record, but definitely not a smaller sounding record. 

TB: You said that you didn’t like getting comparisons to James blunt and James Morrison. So who is someone recently that you haven’t liked getting compared to, and who’s someone you have liked being compared to? 

P: I used to get the James Blunt thing all the time because my voice was high and we both wrote sad songs. I just found it a lazy comparison back in the day. Nothing against James because he’s a lovely bloke and I think his music is amazing, but I just found it super lazy.

Nowadays I get Cat Stevens a lot. I also got Mark Knopfler the other day which was really cool. But I think the really lazy comparison now is Ed Sheeran even though we sound nothing alike. But I think people just kinda see an acoustic guitar and a dude on stage and they’re automatically like “oh, it’s that”. 

‘Songs For The Drunk And Broken Hearted’ is out now!