Matisyahu’s voice crackles through the phone. “I was going over the Brooklyn Bridge, sorry. Any bridge going from Manhattan to Brooklyn breaks up reception,” he says. He is surprisingly soft spoken for such a powerful reggae-rock musician and someone who has a singing voice that soars.
His most recent album, Light, was released in August this year. Since then he has mainly been touring and will be on his way to Australia early next year. Every Thursday though, he has an appointment with Ustream, an online video forum. Specifically, he says, it’ a forum where people can ask him questions, and he will answer them.
One question that springs to his mind is when someone asked him what his favourite cartoon was growing up. “I think it’s good to relate to people on a personal level. Like with artists and musicians you sometimes get this feeling of being, like, separate or being sort of idolized. So, I think it’s really good to, like, show people that everyone – musicians, artists or actors, whoever it is, you know – people are just people and so we can relate to people in real ways with real questions,” he says.
What I wanted to ask him about was his teenage years, when he discovered his strong connection to Judaism and his passion for the rock band Phish, all within a few months. As a 16-year-old student, he travelled to Israel and spent a semester exploring his Jewish heritage. “For the first time, I really connected with my history as a Jew in a relative way, and I felt very spiritual experiences while I was there,” he says.
Shortly after the trip, he went to a Phish concert. “I felt music that really spoke to me,” he says. He promptly dropped out of high school and hitchhiked around the country, following Phish on their tour for a while. Fittingly, it was Phish that provided Matisyahu his big break.
At Bonnaroo music festival in 2005, Phish’s Trey Anastasio invited Matisyahu on stage for a guest spot with the band. Launching his career, this event preceded his second and most successful album, Youth, which peaked at number four on the Billboard charts and reached gold sales in the US.
His current album, Light, is set to render similar success. The single One Day, a late inclusion to the album that was written and recorded at the last minute, has already been picked up by NBC in America as the theme song for their coverage of the Winter Olympic Games. Matisyahu is also working on a remix of the song with hip-hop heavyweight Akon. “Akon’s cool,” he confirms.
Although Light sees Matisyahu take a slightly different musical tack than in the past, emphasizing his versatility rather than the stronger reggae sound that he’s known for, he is confident that his fans will still respect what he’s doing. He’s one of very few prominent Jewish musicians and his music is loaded with spiritual content to boot. “I find a lot of inspiration in the context of religion,” he says, “in the history and the heritage and the spirituality.”
In fact, a lot of material for Light is based on a Jewish text called The Seven Beggars. “It was written by a rabbi in Ukraine in the 1800s and it’s dealing with the ideas of darkness and light and insanity of god,” he says. Although this text was a main source of inspiration, Matisyahu says that his music is an expression of his reactions to life and the world around him.
“Inspiration for me comes from a lot of different places – everywhere from walking down the street and burned out buildings to driving in a taxi cab to children and to studying texts,” he says. “My experiences that I had were spiritual experiences, and that’s always been what I try to create, you know. And the people that come to my shows are not necessarily looking for that, you know, all the time. I have a lot of fans from all over the board.”
As a father of two, Matsisyahu knows how important it is for young people to have role models. Although most of his fans are secular, he believes that he is a role model for young Jewish kids around the world. “I think that there’s a lot of young kids that are Jewish that struggle with their identity as Jews and their identity within the world,” he says.
However, in the music industry, there are many temptations to stray from a religious course, not that Matisyahu does. “Responsibility? I try to stay away from that word,” he laughs. “But, I do feel certain responsibility to be on the authentic spiritual path and therefore to relate to the music.”
Three years in the making, Light is a product of a year of religious discussions alone. Matisyahu and his friend, a religious teacher of sorts, began studying the works of a 19th century rabbi, author of The Seven Beggars. Their e-mails to each other and questions about the works became writings, which were then pared down to form pages of succinct ideas.
“When I went to write my record I had this packet of ideas with maybe about 20 ideas, each about like anywhere from 10 to 30 lines or so, and I kind of kept it with me wherever I was writing. When I would go to write music, whoever I was writing music with we would work on a track, let’s say, and then basically when the track was not complete but on its way, I would sit and listen to it, and then I would kind of read through these ideas and feel like which one felt like the right idea for that music, and then I would start to write lyrics based on those sort of paragraphs,” he says.
His music is certainly spiritual. Rock tinged reggae about religion and life experiences is full of lyrical meaning. But, “the message is secondary to the music,” he says. “The message is the music.”
This interview was first published in Beat Magazine, February 2010.