Armed with A New Album and a New Look, The Former Hasidic Jewish Reggae Star Keeps Making the World Say 'WTF'
At first, interviewing Matisyahu seemed a slippery slope. In the course of his career, the (perhaps unwitting) cult of personality has grown to represent more than the sum of his human parts, and offending him seemed imminent. Here is a man who, in 2005, stormed the top of the Billboard charts by beatboxing and singing lilting, sunny reggae tracks like “King Without A Crown” wearing Hasidic Jewish garb and a full-on beard. He perplexed some, elated others, angered the rest, and sold a boatload of his albums Live at Stubb’s, Youth, and Light. The cultural implications were huge, and the media pounced in the name of race, Judaism, reggae history, and God himself.
Then suddenly after a few years of quiet, this past December, Matisyahu dropped a bomb on his website when he appeared with a clean-shaven face and an average Joe wardrobe, along with the message: “No more Chassidic reggae superstar. Sorry folks, all you get is me.” Some, including members of the orthodox community, felt betrayed, demanding he answer for his actions in a renewed media whirlwind. Others were supportive, others indifferent, others deemed it a publicity stunt, but overall, the myth of Matisyahu only got murkier.
Now, about to release his new album Spark Seeker –with the preview video for the exquisitely catchy, upbeat reggae pop track “Sunshine” featuring his brand new self — he’s welcoming the press into his life once again. The album, a debut on Matisyahu’s own label out tomorrow, opens with a Jewish prayer and drops into inventive, eastern-inflected pop and (sometimes dark) hip-hop. The lyrics are spiritual, bilingual, loaded with hope, and, per Matisyahu’s tricks, oozing with likable melody. A little unusual is that the reggae and dancehall influences are there, but a little awash under hefty pop production. Where is this guy in his saga right now? I wondered.
When he entered our studios, he seemed exhausted from the flights and press runs — you know, like a normal person. He was casually dressed, tall, good-looking. He introduced himself as Matis. I wondered if I was allowed to shake his hand, or if it was against his beliefs to touch ladies at all. I decided against it for the time being, and dove headlong into his scandalous (well, depending on who you ask) past.
Fame and The Phish Phase
Matisyahu is not only in a different place than when he first conquered the music scene in 2005, he wasn’t born or raised Orthodox either…and everyone knows his younger years were far from pristine. Born Matthew Paul Miller and raised in Westchester County, New York, he was a kid with Reconstructionist Jewish parents and a bad streak. He has endearing childhood memories of dressing up like Michael Jackson and performing in his house, which later evolved into attending Oregon open mics high on mushroom tea, then following Phish around with his LSD-addled cousin in a Volkswagen van.
Ironically, this phase in his life, coupled with a trip to Israel, fueled his religious future the most.
“I was listening to a lot of reggae music so I was seeing all the biblical referencing there, like in the Bob Marley songs, there was Exodus and all the Old Testament references,” he says in his pensive, zenned-out (tired?) manner. “So I started thinking like, oh wow, maybe Judaism is going to provide some type of a spirituality in my life, and there’s going to be some creative aspect involved there. I didn’t know what it would be, and then it wasn’t until after Phish, and after college when I was in my early twenties that I started to really become religious, become Orthodox. And that happened in New York, when I moved to Brooklyn, to Crown Heights. I got totally immersed in that culture.”
He turned up the volume on the rules, dressed like a Hasid, went by Matisyahu (the Hebrew version of Matthew), married his wife Talia, had two sons, and proceeded to find his religious self. But music and Judaism, he says, were never mutually exclusive to him, and moreover, the industry never asked him to compromise. A lifetime of performing, songwriting and guest spots eventually earned him a Sony deal and A-list collaborations, and he damn well was going to take it.
“It was like this wild, out-of-left field thing, and I didn’t feel like any of the rules applied to me, because I felt like I’m this religious kid, I’m in Yeshiva. I’m praying for God to give me a music career, and I’m getting it,” he says. “I mean, how the hell, how is this happening, you know? Why am I sitting with Donnie Ienner at Sony Records with a beard and just this morning I was like, in the basement of the Yeshiva eating cereal?”
Public focus on his religious beliefs — loud as they were — would prove a blessing and an irritation in his career. Either way, he would never escape it. As his albums went Gold and he topped reggae sales charts throughout the years, on the plus side, he relished those moments when he surprised people with actual talent. On the other hand, Matis knew full well that, for example, Jimmy Kimmel only gave him a guest spot in 2006 because a Hasidic reggae singer is an irresistible novelty. Ever the showman, he obliged, but with internal eyes rolling.
Then of course, there was the pushback; from music writers to the Orthodox community, folks were furious about everything from his race to his outfits. He describes the first time his career came in conflict with his beliefs.
“It was during the first video for ‘Youth’ and [the producers] wanted me to wear a tracksuit in one of the scenes. And I was kinda cool with it, I didn’t really see a problem with it, I didn’t really care. I’d been wearing the Hasidic suit all the time, like in the middle of the summer. My wife was there and she was not having it. That was the first time there was tension. And I remember calling a Rabbi and asking his advice on it, and him saying the stupidest thing that just really irked me, something along the lines of, ‘well why do you want to dress like them?’ And, that never sat well with me, as if there’s always a tension for me between the religion and the world.”
Indeed, his biggest fans are predominantly Midwest kids with no serious sentiment about Judaism or anything like it, he says. But, unlike some critics, he doesn’t see that as a negative.
“They’re reacting and relating to the music and it has nothing to do with them,” Matisyahu says. “For them, it’s not about any ideology or anything like that, or me representing them in any way. It’s very pure, so I always felt a pureness in the music and with my fans.”
Loosening the Halachah (Rules)
Nevertheless, the pressure certainly played a role in Matisyahu’s eventual transition to a less restrictive observance. Intense, public scrutiny and the burden of representing something certainly attracted him to a more private version of faith.
“When I started wearing a yarmulke, I wanted to stand out, or take the form of whatever was inspiring me,” he says. “But now I think there’s something to not working it, to keeping it on the inside, and it just being kind of like a secret.”
Spiritually, too, he felt his own rules loosening, saying he had a series of dreams and ideas in which holy figures appeared in many forms — a holy Rabbi in feminine form, or some kind of spirit in the form of a Bedouin child (now on his album cover), things like that. After ruminating, he decided it was enough to take a razor to his face.
“It’s a different mindset than the typical American thinking, here there are extreme rights and wrongs and dos and don’ts…it’s not so fluid and so grey,” he says. “Right now I’m pretty much not following the things that don’t feel right to me.”
These days, he’s still a practicing Jew living in Los Angeles. The term Spark Seeker in fact hails from the Kaballah, and much of the album recording took place in Israel. Just no more payots or hyperrules.
“I guess this record was made in a way that was almost a return to how when I was a teenager and I was getting into music,” he says. “It was a lot of fun to make, we didn’t have to put that much planning into it, it kinda happened very organically.”
Nothing could fend off the internet shock, disappointment, attacks, and skepticism toward his transition. But I found the truth to be a lot more, well, boring. Strip away the political, the institutional, the captain obvious — and on a strictly personal level, Matisyahu seems no more than a regular guy with a deep faith and a love of music — and he wants both. It just raised more questions than he ever bargained for — an inevitable price of fame.
And to those who are pissed, Matis himself says:
“They feel like it’s away from some truth or something that I couldn’t live up to. Or, I couldn’t fulfill,” he says. ” I think [the album] is going to resonate. Things happen and we can’t control them, and the fears that people hold on to — it will eventually melt into the music. There’s enough good out there to warm the hearts of the people who are upset. And I feel that my music does that. So hopefully people will be able to let down their guard.”
Then, on his way out, he gave me a gracious hug goodbye. The guy’s nothing if not full of surprises.