August 14, 2014 at 1:00 am

Surprise hit 'Let Her Go' puts Passenger in the driver's seat

Passenger's 'Let Her Go' built in Europe before hitting it big in the United States after being featured in a Budweiser commercial. (Shervin Lainez)

A few years ago when singer-songwriter Michael Rosenberg was busking on street corners in England, he couldn’t imagine the success he’d soon find.

Then his single “Let Her Go” “started going nuts,” he says, and everything changed for the 30-year-old performer, better known by his stage name Passenger.

“For a song to get that enormous is something that you can’t get your head around very quickly or very easily,” he says, on the phone late last month from his hometown of Brighton and Hove, England. “It’s so far beyond any sort of wild dream or expectation that it’s only now that I can start to comprehend it, really.”

“Let Her Go” is a gentle acoustic love song that was released in 2012 as the second single from “All the Little Lights,” Passenger’s fourth album. It first caught fire in Holland after a radio programmer started spinning it on a whim, and it soon hit No. 1 there. It then ping-ponged around Europe, topping charts across the continent, and eventually the globe.

In America, “Let Her Go” hit big when it appeared in a Budweiser commercial that ran during this year’s Super Bowl. The song racked up more than 4 million sales, according to Nielsen SoundScan, propelling “All the Little Lights” to sales of more than 334,000 copies. On Spotify, “Let Her Go” has been streamed more than 218 million times.

While “Let Her Go” was making its way across the world, Rosenberg was working on new material, and he released his fifth album, “Whispers,” in June. The set debuted just outside the Billboard’s Top 10, landing at No. 12 its first week. The tour behind the album comes through the Fillmore Detroit on Sunday.

The single’s massive global impact has been like winning the lottery, Rosenberg says — especially for a folk artist.

“I make music that is meaningful, that is lyrical. It’s not pop music — with all due respect, it’s not Pitbull,” says Rosenberg, who started Passenger as a band in 2003 and transitioned into a solo act in 2009. “There are certain songs and certain artists that go out of their way to write songs for the radio, and that’s completely understandable. It’s a great way to make a living. I never did that; I don’t work that way. So (landing a hit) is just the most bizarre experience ever. It’s given me the best year and a half of my life.”

Rosenberg is excited to be on a big tour of America, and he explores his surroundings by lacing up a pair of sneakers and going on daily runs in every city he visits. When he gets overwhelmed by his tour commitments or his current existence, he flashes back to his earlier days as a performer.

“It’s important to remember what life was like three or four years ago when I was broke and playing to no one, and all I wanted was to play big gigs and to have people singing my songs,” he says. “You have to cast your mind back and remember how lucky you are. If you’re tired, you’re tired, but you’re still going to really enjoy the gig and enjoy what you’re doing.”

“Let Her Go” hits on a simple universal truth — you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, more or less — and it’s those relatable moments that Rosenberg aims to touch in his music.

“All you’re trying to do as a songwriter is to say something that everybody is feeling but can’t necessarily put into words themselves,” he says. “It can be as simple as that sometimes, just say something that everybody feels. It’s tapping into that and making people say, ‘That guy’s talking about how I’m feeling.’ That’s the magic of it.”


with the Once and Stu Larsen

7 p.m. Sunday

Fillmore Detroit

2115 Woodward, Detroit

Tickets $25-$35

(313) 961-5451