EXCLUSIVE: Matisyahu Provides Most Extensive Analysis Yet of His Religious, Musical Evolution (INTERVIEW)
Matisyahu got candid in an exclusive interview with The Algemeiner on Monday about his religious and musical journey – after shedding his Chassidic skin, yarmulke, long beard and all – from the start of his career in 2005 when he became a reggae superstar with hits King Without a Crown and Jerusalem.
The singer-songwriter embarks on his Festival of Light tour this month, an annual Hanukkah event that stops in Montreal, New York, and other cities before ending in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Jan 31. He has recently been touring North America to promote his latest album Akeda. The artist said he usually does a fall and summer tour, takes a break and then goes back on the road for the Festival of Light. Performing during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah holds a special significance for the musician.
“When I started out performing the first shows I ever did were on Purim and Hanukkah. And I started doing these Hanukkah shows in New York and people started coming before anyone really knew who I was. So Hanukkah was a stepping stone for me performance-wise,” he said. “And also my name Matisyahu is connected with the story of Hanukkah cuz he was the father of Judah the Maccabee and the Maccabees, so I’ve always felt a spiritual connection to the story and this time of year.”
“I love doing this run of shows and we have our ‘disco ball dreidel.’ That’s probably my favorite thing about Hanukkah,” he added.
Matisyahu remembers going from his yeshiva in Crown Heights, Brooklyn to perform at clubs and then returning back to the school right after. Elaborating on his connection to Hanukkah he said the idea of hope and light in the time of darkness is something he can relate to.
With no yarmulke, his beard shaved, and his hair cropped, Matisyahu’s change in appearance drew criticism from fans. He admits it was painful to hear and made him pessimistic about people and what he called “their opinionated judgmental selves.”
“It was really hard for me because it turns out these people were not really fans of my music,” he said. “Those people that made the comments, they were just I guess followers or fans of me representing them or making Judaism cool or whatever it was. So it was kind of an eye opener and it kind of make me realize, as an artist, you can kind of create your fan base to some extend and choose who are the people.”
“There’s a lot of pressure when you go to perform, for me at least, to play different things; to do different things. People are fans of different things. Some people are just a fan of a guy with a beard. Some people will just go to the show because their girlfriend took them and some people are just going because they want to hear Jerusalem and King Without a Crown,” he added. “But I keep performing, I keep playing, I keep following my creative toll, whatever that is, and that kind of weeds out the so-called fans.”
Born Matthew Miller, Matisyahu grew up outside of New York City in White Plains, Westchester County. He moved to Brooklyn when he was 19 and attended yeshiva in Crown Heights. Now based in Los Angeles, Matisyahu is not shy about his religious evolution from the start of his career until now. He said nothing in particular sparked the change in his beliefs but that it was a “natural progression” taking place in his life.
“I find myself at times surrendering to things and totally giving myself over to different things,” he explained. “Certainly when I was 20 I gave myself over to religion and to orthodox Judaism and specifically Chasidism. And over time I felt it just run its course. I felt myself sort of start to feel really creativity cut off. So I was sort of gradually making changes in my life; in my world.”
The major turning point for Matisyahu was shaving off his beard. He said the facial hair represented an “adherence to the law” and when he cut it off, it was as if he was taking back control of his life and listening to his own voice in terms of what he thinks is right and wrong. Defining his current relationship with Judaism, the artist said it fluctuates: sometimes it consumes all the different aspects of his life and sometimes “it’s kind of somewhere inside or in the background.” He added, “sometimes I get lost from it.” He then said the following about the role of Chassidim in his life:
“The Chasidism and everything that I learned and the time that I spent that far into the culture, and lifestyle, and ideology, and philosophy and all that, is a really strong part of it. And it never goes away. It’s the kind of thing that you can kind of tap back into in terms of the practice of Judaism. The spiritual practice of it.”
Matisyahu’s religious journey is reflected in Akeda, which was produced by bassist Stu Brooks and released on June 3. The album highlights different styles and its tracks include the upbeat reggae hybrid Champion and the soft piano ballad Reservoir. The latter features a backdrop of Judaism with biblical references and a Hebrew prayer to close off the song.
“Can’t give up and won’t give in/I am the blood of Jacob/and I’ll keep struggling like Joseph,” he sings in Reservoir. “My brothers wanna sell me out.”
Akeda maintains Jewish references and ideas like those in Matisyahu’s past albums but the content and songwriting is different this time around, according to the artist. In comparison to his past albums, Matisyahu said Akeda is more personal and less ideologically influenced.
“It’s more about my own changes and struggles and things that I went through and real relationships. It feels more human,” he explained. “More of like a real glimpse of a person’s life. Not just shiny upbeat music to make people feel better or feel stronger.”
“I think its takes people on a little bit of a journey into my world as I was going through this massive change in my life. I would say that it just feels like a real shot, a glimpse of that period of my life.”
The album’s name Akeda was inspired by the biblical story of the binding of Isaac. Matisyahu said he felt a connection to the tale and that there are multiple layers of meaning for him in the story, which is reflected throughout his album. He added that, as a parent himself to three sons and a daughter, he associated with Isaac and even Abraham. He said the biblical tale was a good story to represent where he’s at in life.
“The whole thing: the journey, standing at the bottom of the mountain, Isaac wondering the whole time what he’s doing there and then figuring it out and what that must have been like. I feel a real personal connection to the stories and I spent a lot of time studying them in yeshiva, and on this record I really tried to make them come alive and humanize them, the characters and the stories.”
Matisyhau calls music “an artistic extension of what’s happening in my life.” He said his personal evolution started the day he started listening to and creating music. His religious journey has affected his music and the way he expresses himself. He described his past style of music as “really reggae, kind of fast with a lot of words [and a] high-paced kind of melodic rapping with a reggae accent.” Now he likes to emote and take his time with his lyrics. He is more patient and to get his point across he uses less words but ones that are more impactful or personal to him, he said.
When asked if his family is supportive of the path he chose in life, he began by saying, “Well I’m divorced now so that answers part of your question.” He added that his parents, Reconstructionist Jews, have had their “moments of support.” Matisyahu believes they had a hard time understanding the decisions he made, just as he would if his child did the same. However, he noted that he has a closer relationship with them now than he did when he was Chassidic.
The release of King Without a Crown and Jerusalem catapulted Matisyahu’s career giving him celebrity status as somewhat of a Chassidic star. He became famous not just for his music but also for his religious ties. He said he didn’t mind it because he never really separated the two and always felt his music was one with his identity and spirituality.
“When I got into Judaism that was such a part of who I was and even my own creative expression so I didn’t expect to come out and be like, oh, here’s a reggae singer and he just happens to be Chasidic. That was a totally originally thing. That never happened before.”
“What bothered me more was when I shed the identity,” he concluded. “People weren’t able to see, some people weren’t able to see, past that. But there’s nothing you can do about that. That’s just close mindedness.”