If you are a reggae enthusiast you have already heard about Matisyahu, an artist certainly under the influence of the Jamaican musical style but also famous for his brilliant rap ability, keen rock instincts, and the basic fact that the man started his career going on stage in full old-school Hassidic Jewish regalia, including a beard that would have made the dwarven warrior Gimli from The Lord of the Rings jealous.
This one-of-a-kind look wasn’t a gimmick, Matthew Paul Miller, aka Matisyahu (which means “Gift of God”) truly was a Hassidic Jew and devout member of the Lubavitch movement, regularly attending a synagogue located within the Upper West Side of New York City, studying the torah by day and perfecting his reggae style by night. Audiences across America could identify with the spiritual overtones that adroitly threaded the fabric of Matisyahu’s music, and within a few albums he was a commercial success, largely because of 2007’s Youth and the hit single “King Without a Crown.”
Since then many august media entities such as Esquire and Billboard magazine have extolled his virtues, and in 2007 a documentary he appeared in called Unsettled won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature at the Slamdance Film Festival. Years later, Matisyahu has shed his traditional garments and shaved his beard, neither his religious beliefs nor his musical ability suffered for it. Fans of his music liked him with or without the tzitzit, and years later he’s on tour for Akeda, his seventh album, which ended up on the iTunes Top 10 only a week after it hit the internet.
Akeda is an album that will thrill the newcomer and tantalize the long-term fan of Matisyahu. Tracks like “Surrender” contain an almost minimalist synthesizer beat that underscores a paean about winning and living life with appropriate humility, cunningly rapped and mindfully articulated. “Confidence,” featuring the uniquely talented Collie Buddz, is a bold declaration made bolder still by a steady, haunting backbeat that blares and warps, accompanied by chords that skank and an attitude that is sound as it is sure, with just enough dub to make it authentic.
If his previous accomplishments are any sort of indicator, Matisyahu is still in the midst of a very successful musical career. Culture magazine was fortunate enough to speak with the artist about his present successes and future endeavors.
Thank you very much for speaking with me. I’m sure you are probably worn out by all the touring. How are you doing today? Is this a good time to be Matisyahu?
Today I’m doing good. I just flew in, so I’m talking to you from outside the airport. We’re currently on the third day of the “Built to Survive” tour. We are moving on to North Carolina after this. My kids are visiting me tonight, so I’m looking forward to seeing them since I haven’t seen them for a while.
That’s cool that you get to catch up with your family while you are on the road. I’ve spoken to a lot of celebrities who really miss their families when they are on the road. It’s been a while since you, for lack of a better description, changed your image by shaving the beard and dressing differently. Looking back now, were you ever worried that the change in appearance would alienate fans that were just on the fringe?
I guess it depends on what you consider a fan to be. The people that are real fans of the music are more interested in what the music does to them and the emotions I’m trying to express when I’m performing. But there are people who are more fans of the look, instead of the message. They might feel alienated about the change in appearance, but I’m a musician, not just an image.
The people that are the real fans that I’ve had for several years are the people who became true fans because of my music and who I am. They aren’t along for just one song or album or a beard. The image I used to have was cool, but at the end of the day you just have to do what you do and make music in order to express yourself. If it resonates with people you get afforded the opportunity to continue making music, regardless of your music.
Let’s be honest, you had a big, bold beard before anyone thought it was trendy or cool to have one. What do you think of the latest facial hair craze amongst the young hipsters of America? Do you think that your former image might have been an influence on the trend?
I think it’s cool. I like beards. They are a lot of fun. But I do wonder, though. Because so much of the hipster craze came out of the Broadway scene out in New York City. I sometimes think the scenes there come from different cultures being so close to each other that they all kind of influence each other. I really do think the beard came from the Hassidic Jews in that area, maybe from the north side. They were hanging out with their friends, and because they were growing beards maybe it made other people grow them, too, because they thought it looked cool.
That’s a very good point. I never thought of that, but it makes sense. I could imagine some of the Jewish kids growing beards and influencing their friends, so it became popular. Now, Akeda is your latest album. What does it have that fans can look forward to?
It’s the best music I’ve made. The lyrics are deep, the songs are meaningful, hopeful, but dealing with the real human culture around us and the world we live in. The people who have a feel for the album will really enjoy how the songs can strengthen and empower them. I’m very happy with it.
Where did you get the idea for the name?
The album’s name came from the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. Towards the end of his life Abraham brought his son Isaac to the top of a mountain to be sacrificed to God. There’s a lot of correlation and connections to my own life. Abraham hears the voice of God. He tries to do whatever he thinks he needs to do for God, as hard as it can be. The album is about the sacrifices that are made to succeed in life, the pain and faith you have to have to make it, no matter who you are…that’s the gist of it. But the album also talks about how there can always be reconciliation between fathers and sons, parents and children. There can always be hope.
Are there other musical genres you’d like to explore?
I think I just keep listening to music similar to what I do now. I like the classics including reggae, rock and roll and rap. When I prepare to write a record, the music I listen to determines what kind of record I write. I can’t think of any other genre I want to explore right now, aside from what I’m doing at the moment. I still have a lot to say with the genre I’m in right now.
Where do you want to be, ten years from now? What do you want your career to be like by then?
I’d like to continue to do what I do. I’d like to continue to make records freely and have creative control over what I do. I love the people I work with…my agent, and my fans. I’m really happy with what we’ve been blessed with and what we’ve created over the years. We’re very close because we live in tight quarters and living in strange places around the Earth together. We’re making money and dreams all over. Over the years I’ve been able to sift through a lot of different people and end up with friends I trust. We’re like a family. This record was produced by my best friend, Stu, the bass player for my band, and I’ve known him for years.
You are also an accomplished film actor. How did you get into that? I saw the horror film The Possession, and you really are a complete natural. Your acting and look was perfect for your role in the movie.
Well, there was a movie that was made called The Possession where this man finds a demon in a box that has its roots in Hassidic culture. They wanted an exorcist Rabbi type to show up at the end of the film. Somebody thought I should do it, so they brought me in. I was always interested in acting, so it was a lot of fun.
Are you working on any other future films? Will your fans be able to see you on the big screen in 2014 or beyond?
I would like to do more acting, but right now I’m on the road for a few months. I’ve been travelling a lot for this tour, so I haven’t had the time to do any film acting. Hopefully I’ll be able to do more films in the future, once my schedule allows for it.
Speaking as an experienced artist, how is film acting similar to performing and making music?
The gist of it is in any art…I felt this way with the acting as well…is that you have to lose yourself in the moment, submerge yourself in the creative vision, the expression of emotion you want to share. That’s the same thing you do with film acting, but you just have the lines to work with.
I like how you compare the dialogue in a film to the lyrics in a song. I can imagine that both would access the same emotional energy. They both take the same artistic attitude. You’ve made music on both the east coast and the west coast, in NYC and LA. Do you notice a difference between the two places?
My experience in New York and LA was very different because of where I was in my life when I was making music in New York. I mostly know musicians in New York and do producing. But in LA I know more people who are in the film industry, or who are producers, as opposed to being just musicians.
What do you think about cannabis? Is it a good thing, a bad thing, or just a lot of hype over nothing?
I think it’s like anything else…it has positive qualities and negative qualities. It can help and hurt. I think that it’s certainly harmless, and in terms of it being legal it shouldn’t be. I’ve come across marijuana a lot, especially because I make reggae music and from being in New York City, so it doesn’t bother me.