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The Catalyst interview: Matisyahu

Bill DeYoung

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Matisyahu will perform Friday, Feb. 2 at Jannus Live in St. Petersburg. Publicity photo.

Since he emerged in 2005 with the albums Shake Off the Dust … and Rise and Live at Stubb’s, the singer, rapper and songwriter known as Matisyahu has been both potent and paradoxical. He is a changeling.

2005

The former Matthew Miller, from White Plains, New York first appeared onstage, and on record sleeves, in rabbinical garb –  long untrimmed beard, wide-brimmed black fedora and black overcoat. His lyrics quoted the Torah and other scripture in a way that suggested he was a man who took Judaism very seriously.

Matisyahu, however, was no gimmick. As his career progressed, and his global fan base increased, he began to evolve, blending musical styles with his melodic base (Jamaican reggae) and his lyrical platform (rap and beatboxing). He experimented. He collaborated. His physical appearance, too, changed from one year to the next.

2022

Creativity, he wrote on his website, is like a fire in a fireplace: You have to tend it or it will go out.

All the while, his spirituality was on the front burner.

Matisyahu, who performs Friday (Feb. 2) at Jannus Live, is about to drop a new EP, Hold the Fire. Its five songs are bright and compelling, and prove once again that the road Matisyahu is on – wherever it takes him – is limitless.

Find tickets here.

  

St. Pete Catalyst: You said not so long ago that you don’t consider yourself religious. I think the people who know you, and know your origins, might find that an interesting statement. What did you mean?

Matisyahu: That’s not really a statement I would make, because it’s not that important to me. But I’ve been asked before – ‘are you religious?’ – and I try, typically, not to answer that question. Because it’s a little bit not the point, you know? I just think it’s bigger than that.

I probably did answer, and I’m sure you’re right, that’s probably what I did say. It’s just that religion is kind of like an organic thing, an ongoing thing. And being Jewish and all of that is bigger than where you are at any one particular time in your life. For me it is, at least. I go through a lot of fluidity and different spaces with it.

I think what I was saying is that, in itself, doesn’t kind of makes me not religious if you’re going by the definition of what certain people would say religion is. Following a set of disciplined rules, you know what I mean?

At some point, it became less important to me, the religious aspect of it all.

 

You were a jam band guy back in the day. Where did rap, reggae – and Matisyahu – come into the picture?

I guess I was never really just one thing. I did drop out of high school and go on a Phish tour. I do love Phish’s music, and the Grateful Dead, but I never really considered them jam bands. I feel like they’re each their own entity. I haven’t really been so carried away with lots of jam bands. I really used to love going to see Phish play.

In terms of reggae music, my initial connection was my cousins, who came from Barbados. They would bring the music I loved. I fell in love with Bob Marley when I was 13, 14 years old.

And hip hop, that was the music that was being played around me by most of my friends and stuff. If you go to take a snapshot of me when I’m 14 years old, you could say I kinda look like a hippie, dreadlocks, sandals and patchworks pants, but hanging out with my friends I’m listening to hip hop music. And on my own time, I’m mainly listening to reggae music. And going to shows like Phish concerts. I’ve always been influenced by a lot of different styles of music. I never found myself just really in one place or liking just one thing.

 

Would you say that the message of most reggae – universal positivity – had a direct impact on where you were going as a writer and performer?

Yeah, definitely Old Testament references. That was really the thing that piqued my interest. Because you never heard those kind of references – to the Lion of Judah, or David, or Solomon, Exodus, all these terms, in Biblical English stories and ideas. You listen to Bob Marley’s music and it’s just saturated with Old Testament references. As a Jewish kid, that was very interesting to me because I obviously felt this deep connection to the music. And I felt a deep connection to the spirit of Bob, and the reggae music.

But I also felt there was a kind of an overlapping connection in terms of where Judaism connects with Rastafarianism, or reggae music. And that was very intriguing for me.

 

Because of your initial ’look’ and your lyrics, when you first appeared did the hip hop audience think you were a novelty? Like, ‘Who’s this guy?’ Did it take a while?

I don’t know that I ever really broke into the hip hop world. There are definitely a lot of hip hop artists who listen to me, and respect me. The hip hop world can mean a lot of different things, you know.

There were a lot of reggae artists I toured with that were really supportive; and then there was one or two that weren’t so supportive.

But in the hip hop world, I don’t remember much interaction, to be honest with you.

 

Conversely, I wondered if maybe segments of the Jewish population found rap music somewhat sacrilegious? ‘What is he doing?’

I was called into a rabbi’s office – I was on tour in Cleveland, and I had heard that the head rabbi wanted to speak with me. And it was a time when I was looking for guidance – I realized I was kind of like the face of this Hasidic sect, and I figured some of those older rabbis would to have some connection, and help me to traverse through those waters. So I was open to that kind of thing.

I remember going to his house, and him opening a newspaper and reading it. And it was an article saying that I like, imitated reggae music. He was telling me this was illegal in Jewish religion, to pretend to be not Jewish or to be something else. All kinds of different laws and stuff that you could be breaking.

That was one of the things that pushed me away a little bit. At some point I was like, I’m just going to do my own thing; I believe in my journey, and myself. I had a couple of people around me that were pretty close, that were supportive.

In the end, I stopped caring and stopped thinking about what other people felt was OK or not OK, you know?

 

Your music has become more layered – more pop, in a way. Was that intentional, or just a natural evolution for you?

I don’t know if I agree with that statement a hundred percent. For example, I have an album called Undercurrent, from 2017 – probably the shortest song on there is maybe nine minutes long. The longest one is somewhere around 20 minutes. You would not describe it as pop, I don’t think.

 

I’m talking specifically about Hold the Fire. The songs “Fool’s Gold,” I can’t get it out of my head. It’s layered and beautiful, the way it’s put together.

Yeah, there are certain elements that are going to sound different. If you’re listening to Shake off the Dust, that’s a roots reggae album, and Live at Stubb’s is a live album with a three-piece band. No keyboards.

So a lot of people are going to say “OK, the Matisyahu sound is the Live at Stubb’s sound.” Once I put my first release out with Bill Laswell, Youth, people were saying “It’s kind of pop.” People will say that with every album – it’s pop, or it’s different, or it’s not this and it’s not that, but I think it’s just ‘cause every album is different.

And there is a thread that runs through it all. That is, me, right? But I’m constantly listening to new music, being re-inspired by new things. And always trying to incorporate that into my music.

I guess with the new album I could see why you’d say it was pop. It’s pretty catchy, and the vocals are layered. It’s short songs, two or three minutes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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