Matisyahu ditches the beard, the hat and the suit, but his sound still remains
SOLANA BEACH — Ten years ago, a quite unorthodox (figuratively speaking) sight appeared on stages around the country.
That was when Matisyahu, a man in Hasidic Jewish orthodox garb: beard, broad brimmed hat and black suit, made his debut, beat boxing and rapping over smooth Reggae beats.
Now, Matisyahu (whose real name is Matthew Miller), is garnering more attention, not so much for his music, which has garnered several accolades, but once again for his look. This time, the 35-year-old singer, is clean-shaven and no longer wears the traditional garb people once identified him with.
And the attention on his new “image” isn’t necessarily sitting well with him, neither is the judgment that he’s been receiving from some of the fans.
A person in the limelight, he said, you never really get used to it when you’re a sensitive person, adding that the whole thing about his look is a little ironic because growing the beard, wearing the suit, the Hasidic thing was about getting away from being too concerned with your image.
“And then my whole thing became about the image,” Matisyahu said. “I became known as the Hasidic Reggae guy…but my career for the last 10 years was not built around me being Hasidic. It was built around the songs that I’ve written and sing and tour and the fans that connect with that music. And I just assumed that the music was the thing that the majority of people were connecting with.
“But it’s not,” he said. “There were a lot more people that were just interested in the anomaly of this Hasidic Reggae guy. That was also a hard pill to swallow.”
Starting in his 20s, Matisyahu had already been into Reggae music, but it was at the same time that he began to explore his Jewish roots. His parents instilled a traditional Jewish upbringing, something he initially rebelled against when younger.
But then he noticed a strong connection between the Old Testament and Reggae music, he said.
As he began exploring further the stories of the Kabala, the mystical elements of the stories and the existential ideas behind Judaism, Matisyahu started living the Hasidic lifestyle, taking on the look and following all the rules, he explained.
And it was from there that he decided he would make a Roots, Reggae record as a Hasidic Jew.
“And I’m going to use everything that I’m learning about. My canon is going to be Judaism. That’s what I’m going to use as my inspiration,” he said.
That result was his first record, “Shake off the Dust,” which he recorded on Friday afternoons, having received permission from the Rabbis to work on it while he was in Yeshiva.
His latest album, “Akeda,” released earlier this year is also signaling a shift in inspiration for the singer.
This album, he explained, is more personal. While Judaism is still a part of his life, “Akeda” is the result of personal turmoil. He and his wife divorced after nine years of marriage.
The songs on the record stem from his wanting to write about his life and less about the over-arching ideas he once wrote about, such as his anthem-like song, “One Day.”
The first song he wrote for the album was “Hard Way,” a song he wrote, he said, after literally coming from a therapy session.
His producer and bass player Stu Brooks played him the track, and the lyrics just started to come.
“I try not to think too much when I’m writing. I just try and get out of the way, and let the song write me. And that’s what I came up with.”
The song is based around a phrase his now ex-wife said to him: “You think someone else is going to make you happy. No one’s going to make you happy because you’re not a happy person. You’re looking for happiness outside and you’re not going to find it.’ And that was definitely the theme of that song,” he said.
Being particularly sensitive to the criticisms from fans and the dissolution of his marriage, it was a period that was hard to deal with, he explained.
“It just feels like I can never make everyone happy, and I have a tendency to focus on the negative unfortunately, and that was driving me a little bit. That was a little hard for me to deal with,” he said.
But he still had his music to lean on and help him through.
“I do it just because I do it,” he said. “I would never stop doing it. Even if there were no fans coming to shows, I would still make music because it’s just who I am.”
Though his fans are still there, and he often hears from them these intense stories of how they’ve been able to cope with their own tragedies with the help of his music.
“That’s when I realize that this music is much bigger than me, and that it’s my purpose here. It’s a way that I can contribute in this life,” Matisyahu said.
“I think that there is a certain hope in the music,” he said. “But I think it’s just good music. I think people connect with quality music. And I think the words, the lyrics, the music — the whole package – I think it just works for people. It’s hard to put a reason, an intellectual reason to it. I think music just kind of punches people or doesn’t. There’s no real reason as to why it does,” he said.
Matisyahu performs to a sold out show at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach Oct. 26.