Matisyahu calls his official website Matisyahuworld(.com) because when you enter his musical realm, it's a little like exploring an exotic, new world. He's gone, and continues to go, where few have ventured before.
While reggae has traditionally been a highly spiritual music, it's usually couched in Rastafarian religious themes. However, when Matisyahu (born Matthew Paul Miller) converted to a Hasidic Jewish lifestyle, he naturally began incorporating those unique religious themes into his music. He neither sounds like a traditional Jewish artist nor like a typical reggae performer.
Matisyahu's talent continues to take him to unusual artistic places. For instance, in 2012 he was cast as a Jewish exorcist in the highly successful horror film, The Possession. He also released the album Spark Seeker in 2012, which was preceded by a single – and one of his most upbeat songs to date – "Sunshine." Not only did he tour with his friends in the Dirty Heads in 2012, but he also collaborated on "Dance All Night" from that band's album, Cabin by the Sea.
What follows is a conversation with singer, songwriter, actor and religious thinker Matisyahu.
Matisyahu: Well, I think we were approached by the director of the film. He was interested in having me play the role, and I auditioned for it and got the part.
Songfacts: How did you like acting?
Matisyahu: I enjoyed it a lot. I acted a lot as a kid and through high school and then college and in my early 20s. So it's something that I've always wanted to do on that scale, but I had never done anything on film. So it was exciting. It was fun.
Songfacts: Is it something you want to do more of?
Matisyahu: I do, yeah. Sure. It's a lot of fun. It's great to be creative, and I enjoy it. Always have.
Songfacts: One of the songs from the new album, "Sunshine," is one of the happiest things you've done. And I wonder, does it reflect where you are now? Does it reflect a really good place for you?
Matisyahu: Well, I think I must have been when I wrote that song, that I was in a pretty good place. Mostly, it was a combination of connecting with Kojak (producer/songwriter Kool Kojak) – and our musical tastes and our vibrations and being in California. I was thinking about my son when I was writing the chorus. So a combination of things came together on that song.
And then the lyrics are a little bit more up-for-grabs in terms of how you want to interpret them. But the song is really about connecting with your past, reconnecting with your youth through memory, through meditation, through music – ways of going back. And I think in some ways, that was part of the process I went through similarly, appearance wise, in December. That was also going backwards in a way. A return, to some extent.
Songfacts: Now, I know that you've been inspired by a lot of what you read and what you study when it comes to writing the lyrics to your songs. Would you say that this last album had similar inspirations, or were there some different inspirations for the lyrics to your songs on this album?
So that's the way I like to write. "King Without a Crown" was written that way. A lot of my earlier songs were written in that style.
Songfacts: Well, you mentioned "King Without a Crown," which is one of your most popular songs. Can you take me back to when you wrote that, and what was going through your mind when you put that one together?
Matisyahu: Yeah. I would love to. The initial creation of that song happened in Philadelphia at a home studio with a producer and engineer whose name I don't remember now. I had met him because I had friends – I went to The New School in Manhattan. So when I was in my early 20s, I had met a bunch of friends; I was living in an apartment with four people, and one of the girls was dating a guitar player, and me and him became good friends.
Part of this whole scene was New York jazz, up-and-coming jazz players in New York. And I became friends with a lot of those guys. That's eventually how I ended up starting my band was with some of these players. So anyway, I did a guest spot on this guy's record who was from Philadelphia. We went and recorded it there.
And in the meantime, flash forward about, I don't know, six months, a year, and I'd become very religious - moved to Brooklyn to an ultra-orthodox neighborhood, no longer listening to music, watching TV, not really seeing any of my friends. I'm just spending pretty much all day with a group of men in a Yeshiva in Brooklyn. Completely changed my life 180 degrees.
But I had, still, this burning desire to do music. So on Fridays we used to get permission to leave the Yeshiva to basically prosthelytize to other Jews in the city. You know, give them candles. I got permission to go to Philadelphia for Shabbat and be back on Sunday to record the song that I wanted to do.
So I went to this producer's house, and I sang him this melody. (Sings melody.) And that was like the initial hook of the initial "King Without a Crown," which didn't really even make it to the recording that most people know. So I sang in that, I did a little beat box thing for him, picked out some chords and put it down, and we put a little beat together. And that was really the first song that I'd recorded in quite some time.
I went and had him play the song on a loop, and I wrote all those lyrics right then and there and the chorus in maybe 20 or 30 minutes. I put them down and then went back to the Yeshiva and I burned a CD of that song. That was before iPods – I had my Discman.
In the summer the Yeshiva went up to the Catskills, and so we drove up to the Catskills, and we spent three months up there just in the middle of nowhere. And the only music that I had with me was that song. And I would say maybe once a week or so I would sort of walk down into the woods, leave everybody and go listen to that song. And that song is what kept my dream alive to do music. Listen to it, I realized there was no other music like it. It was what I wanted to hear, and I wasn't hearing anything like it. I'd never heard anything mixing those genres, mixing those styles together in that way.
I realized that I had created something special because it really spoke to my soul, and that's what kept my wheels turning when I was in that environment.
Songfacts: How wonderful that your signature song is also such a special song. You're really fortunate.
Matisyahu: Yeah. It's great. I mean, look, it's changed. It's not the same as it was for me in those days. It's like a particular relationship; there's initial love that you have, and then you start living together. And that's what being a working musician is kind of like. It's a delicate balance; it's very intense because it's your love, but it's also now your life and your job and all those other things. So it becomes tricky.
Songfacts: I want to talk a little bit about your touring mates, the Dirty Heads. You collaborate on a song from their new album called "Dance All Night." Can you tell me a little bit about how that collaboration came together?
Then we kind of both realized that we both had records coming out and singles coming out, and we've done shows together, and we enjoy each other's company and all of that. So we decided to go for it, to do a total tour together. It's cool when it works out that way, when it actually begins with the artist as opposed with the agents and the managers. It's very rare, you'd be surprised. I mean, at least in my experience. You end up going with whoever is available, who they think is going to be the right pairing to give you the right look and all that. So that's cool when it happens organic.
Songfacts: Are you concerned, since you shaved your beard, that people might focus more on image than substance?
Matisyahu: Not really. For me, that's always been a big part of what I do because of the nature of who I am. And being a Hasidic reggae, Hasidic man, to make mainstream reggae music is very much tied to an image. And even when I was a kid, even before I was religious, I had moments where I played shows in front of all-black, inner-city audiences. Being a white boy and then singing reggae music, people would kind of freak out. It was before Eminem had really exploded.
White people have always done traditionally black music, but there's something about it when someone from one culture connects with music from another culture and is able to create something. To me, what it shows is that music is something that's connected, tied up with soul, with emotions and souls, spirits. And when you're talking about that, it transcends – transcends race, transcends religion. It transcends all of the different categories. It's higher than that. It all unites within the scope of music, or within, you could say, the scope of God, whatever it is.
I think that at the end of the day, the image, you can't escape the image. But ironically, the message of what I'm trying to say with my music is that it's beyond image. That's what it says. The ability for a Hasidic man to sing reggae music, that authentically means that you can get beyond the image. You know what I mean? There's something bigger than that, and that's the music. So it's ironic for me that, in some ways, I'm trapped up in the image. Does he have a beard? Does he not have a beard? This, that and the other thing. And at the same time, that's kind of what the whole purpose of what I'm doing is all about, getting past that.
Songfacts: At least in your case the image is not a fashion statement. So that's why I think it's so significant when you change your look, it sends ripples across the community, which I think is a good thing. Because it makes people think, What's the significance of how people look? So even in that sense, I think you're making a statement.
Matisyahu: Yeah. That's true. It's a good point.
Songfacts: With everything that's happening in the world today, with all the protests that are happening in the Middle East and the Arab Spring, has that inspired any new ideas for songs?
Matisyahu: No. It hasn't.
Songfacts: Are you excited about going on tour?
Matisyahu: Yeah. I was just sitting in the front of the bus with some of the guys, and we were just talking about how we've been on the road now since July, August, September, three months, and we're going to be on the road for two more months, almost straight. And we were just talking about how it's such an interesting way of life. I mean, five months straight without really any breaks, that's a long time to be going out and doing shows every night, living on a bus with the same 12 guys and touring the country. It's an interesting life. Which, you know, you start to see people's personalities unravel and you see people's cycles. Because in a five or six month period of time when you're with someone all the time, you see how people change, how people move in cycles. It's very interesting.
November 16, 2012. Get more at matisyahuworld.com.
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