Help Find The Man Who Inspired Passenger's 'Riding To New York'

Aug 12, 2014
Originally published on August 12, 2014 8:45 pm

Last year during a tour stop in Minneapolis, Passenger's Mike Rosenberg had made a late-night gas-station trip to buy cigarettes when he walked past an older man.

"I walked past him and he said, 'This is the best cigarette I've ever had in my life,' " Rosenberg tells NPR's Melissa Block. "It was such a bizarre thing for him to say. It was almost surreal."

Upon striking up a conversation, Rosenberg learned that the man had been diagnosed with lung cancer and was midway through a cross-country road trip to see his family in New York, where he'd planned to spend the rest of his days.

Rosenberg never got the man's name, but he says the experience affected him deeply, inspiring him to quit smoking and write the song "Riding to New York." We'd love to reach this man or his family, so if you think you might know who he is, please email

Hear the full conversation — about romanticizing busking and adapting to a larger audience — at the audio link. You can also hear three acoustic in-studio performances on this page. In addition, Rosenberg sent us a hand-picked list of his musical inspirations, which you can stream on Spotify.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. The other day the singer who goes by the name Passenger came by our studios. He was wearing jean shorts and flip-flops which he quickly kicked off.

I appreciate the bare feet.

PASSENGER: Millions wouldn't. Thank you.

BLOCK: He picked up his Gibson Hummingbird guitar and started in on the song that became a number one hit in 18 countries.


PASSENGER: (Singing) You only need the light when it's burning low, only miss the sun when it starts to snow, only know you love her when you let her go.

BLOCK: The YouTube video for "Let Her Go" has been seen more than 360 million times. The song became the soundtrack for a Super Bowl beer ad. And the strength of this song vaulted Passenger, whose real name is Mike Rosenberg, from years of busking barefoot on street corners to playing at huge festivals.


PASSENGER: (Singing) Staring at the bottom of your glass hoping one day you make a dream last. Dreams come slow and go so fast.

BLOCK: Actually Mike Rosenberg told me he still does busk when he can out on the street. But it's different now - big crowds, a crew, a professional PA system.

PASSENGER: We've had to adapt but I think it's really important for me to carry on doing it, you know?


PASSENGER: You know, as a kid that's why you get into it. That's why you learn the guitar and you start writing songs is because you want to connect with people. You want to express what you're feeling. Once you start doing it for a living it can become a lot more convoluted and confusing. And for me, busking just takes it right back to the fundamentals of why I started.


PASSENGER: (Singing) Well, I don't know how and I don't know why. But when something's living, well, you can't say die. You feel like laughing but you start to cry. I don't know how and I don't know why.

BLOCK: You know, I have to say I'm so struck talking to you here, Mike, between the difference between how you sound speaking and your singing voice.

PASSENGER: Yeah. I take helium before I go on stage.

BLOCK: (Laughter).

PASSENGER: It's just how it comes out, you know. I've never had singing lessons or really learned how to use my voice. It's just a very natural expression, so.

BLOCK: And it is always been that way? Your singing voice has been the same?

PASSENGER: It has, yeah. And I think it's one of those voices that people either really, really like or they really don't, you know. I think it's kind of quite a unique voice.

BLOCK: Yeah. Let's take a listen to one of the songs on the new album that's called "27."


PASSENGER: (Singing) 27 years, 27-years-old. Only thing I know, the only thing I gets told. I got to sell out if I want to get sold. Don't want the devil to be taking my soul.

BLOCK: So Mike, this song is all about sort of wrestling with your place with music and with singing and the industry, right? You're talking about - got to sellout if I want to get sold. You wrote this three years ago, I guess you're 30 now?


BLOCK: It's all about being 27. And this was before "Let Her Go" became this massive, massive hit. So what was going on that you were thinking about in this song?

PASSENGER: I remember writing the song. I was in a horrible hotel in Glasgow in Scotland. And was in a bad place, I think. And struggling with my next move, you know. I had a lot of people around me kind of pushing me in certain directions, suggesting that I maybe take a more commercial route or even try out for some sort of reality TV.

BLOCK: Oh, really?

PASSENGER: You know, and it was just the last thing I ever wanted to do. And that song for me was just reminding myself what I was doing and why I was there.


PASSENGER: (Singing) Said I don't know where I'm running and nowhere to run. Because running's the thing I've always done.

BLOCK: When you sing in this song about the pressures to sell out, the pressures you were feeling. Wouldn't some people look at the Budweiser ad that uses "Let Her Go," the puppy and the Clydesdale - and there's your song behind it and say, that is selling out?

PASSENGER: Whenever puppies are involved I don't think it's possible to sell out.

BLOCK: (Laughter) That's your blanket? That's your shield?

PASSENGER: And he's becoming friends with the horse. So I think anybody whose got a problem with that advert is heartless. (Laughing). I'm joking.

BLOCK: I know you are. This is an ad that ran in the Super Bowl - huge exposure. Did you struggle with that? Did you think maybe that's not where I want to be?

PASSENGER: I didn't because I wrote "Let Her Go" three or four years ago, backstage at a tiny gig in Australia. It wasn't set up to be a global smash, so it's not like I sold out. I made a song that I loved and I believed in - whether it was Budweiser or not it was really cool.

BLOCK: When you think back to your days playing in pubs and busking on street corners and really scraping to get by and comparing it with where you are now, where you're playing big festivals, bigger and bigger venues, lots of people know who you are - is something lost? I mean, do you miss anything about that? What's the experience now when you're on stage?

PASSENGER: You know, when "Let Her Go" got so big I was kind of worried that it would turn into one of those shows where people just come for one song. And then for the rest of gig they just go to the bar and chat to their mates. And it just hasn't happened like that, you know. People come down to a Passenger gig and they come for the stories, they come for the songs, they come to listen. And, you know, there was a romance to how I did it before. And some of those gigs were magical, you know - 60 people in a basement of a pub and there'd be something beautiful about it. But equally, you know, you can have these incredible moments with 10,000 people at a festival or whatever so I think it just changes and I think you need to adapt with it and you need to go with it and not look back, really.

BLOCK: Talk a bit about the story behind the song "Riding to New York" because you indicated in the album notes that this is based on an actual encounter you had in the middle of the night, you're in the United States.

PASSENGER: It was a really bizarre situation. I'd been smoking since I was sort of in my teens and over the last couple of years I've been trying to give up. Last year when I was in the states on tour, I was in Minneapolis, and I was lying in my bed at three in the morning just craving a cigarette. And I got up and I walked the nearest gas station and there was this one guy on a motorbike, quite an old guy, smoking cigarettes. I walked past him and he said, this is the best cigarette I've ever had in my life.


PASSENGER: (Singing) I met him in Minnesota. He was dark and overcast. With long gray hair and eyes, he stared through me like I was glass.

And it was such a bizarre thing for him to say. It was almost surreal, that the only guy I saw in my entire walk to this gas station was smoking and said such a weird thing. So I ended up having a 10 minute chat with him and he'd been diagnosed with lung cancer. He was dying and he'd been smoking since he was kid. And he didn't know how long he had left to live so he decided to buy this motorbike and ride it from Los Angeles to New York, so through the whole country. And live out the rest of his days in New York with his kids and his grandkids.


PASSENGER: (Singing) Because I want to see my granddaughter one last time. When I hold her close I feel her tiny heartbeat next to mine. When I see my son and the man he's become, tell him I'm sorry for the things I've done. And I'd do it if I had to walk. I'm taking this bike and riding to New York.

And it just kind of put the whole thing into perspective. I didn't buy cigarettes and I went back to my hotel and over the next few days I wrote this song and selfishly it was a massive part of helping me give up.

BLOCK: Give up smoking?

PASSENGER: Give up smoking, yeah. And I don't think I even got his name. And I certainly didn't get a number for him because I had no idea that I was going to write this song but I would've loved to - for him to of heard it you know?


PASSENGER: (Singing) I'd do it if I have to walk. I'm taking this bike and riding to New York.

BLOCK: The song "Riding To New York" from the new album "Whispers" from Passenger. Mike Rosenberg played several songs for us in the studio. You can hear those solo versions at This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.