Seeing the Light: An Interview with Matisyahu
On Tour with a Teacher, taking advice from fans on sound checks, and having one of his songs be a theme for the 2010 Olympics, Matisyahu is ready to follow his muse more than ever ...
As you enter the realm of Jewish rapper/reggae artist Matisyahu you quickly discover that his music is designed to simultaneously evoke the heavens and touch the inner most parts of your heart and mind. Since his first album Shake Off the Dust…Arise (2004), his eclectic array of influences -- Hasidic faith, love for both reggae and hip-hop culture -- has gradually put him on the mainstream radar.
His Live at Stubbs recording in 2005 and Youth in 2006 began generating buzz with both albums eventually going Gold and charting on the Billboard Top 40. But it’s the experience of the rapture of his live show -- best captured on Stubbs -- that demanded the attention of more listeners. That recording “put him on the preverbal map” while appearances at Lollapalooza and other major festival appearances showed audiences that his live show goes well beyond mere escapism.
Born Matthew Miller, in 1979, Matisyahu grew up in White Plains, New York where he was raised by Reformist Jewish parents. As he continued to practice his Jewish faith, he began to gravitate towards hip-hop and culture while attending Phish concerts in high school and college. Over the last several years, he’s continued to cultivate his uncommon blend of beats, rhymes, and a free-flowing jam-bands aesthetic into a sonic pallet that comes alive during his dynamic live shows. Part mystic, part shaman, he can command an awesome silence via his mighty talent for beat boxing. His goal, however, is not to have all eyes focused on him. He’s aiming to celebrate the occasion of the communal gathering championed by the great Jamaican dancehall toasters and Bob Marley.
It’s been nearly three years since his last album and after several pushed-backed release dates, Light finally dropped this past Fall. However, all delays considered, you could say that the timing was just right because Light’s lead single “One Day” was chosen to be the main anthem to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, with the track also getting a remix featuring platinum R&B artist Akon. But has the wait changed what fans have come to know, love, and expect from Matisyahu?
Fans will be disappointed if they’re expecting to hear the same Matisyahu on Light that they’ve heard on previous albums. He’s never one to keep things the same. And what’s different this time around is that he’s captured more of the live energy you feel on Stubbs. However, track to track, Light doesn’t have the same surreal lifting power of Youth’s or its hit track “King Without a Crown.” But that’s because the story he’s telling is of a different kind. The essence of Matisyahu remains, but what you hear is a new arrangement of pop, indie-rock, and electronic-based rhythms.
While on the road during his recent tour, he explained the reasons for Light’s delay and why this was the longest time he has ever spent making a record. For starters, he didn’t want to make the same record over again. He wanted to keep things fresh and spend the right amount of time to exploring a new songwriting style and vocal styles, switch up his approach to dub, Jewish worship, rock, pop, and hip-hop. It was also time to grow and dive deeper into his Jewish roots to discover the essence of why he makes music and loves to perform it live.
And as our interview unfolded, he told me what happened as he traveled down the road to find the right combination of influences and inspirations to convey a universal message of life, love and peace ...
With each new album it seems like you aim for a new sound and build on the previous ones. What did you do differently when making Light?
The process was different in terms of both music and the lyrics. What I’ve done up until this point lyrically is use stream of conscious mostly. Before I would work with a beat rhythm or melody and then I’d write the lyrics as we’re writing the song or when I’m listening back to it. And that process would be based more on stream of consciousness -- kind of how a rapper would write lyrics. Some of my songs tend to be more of a visual trip. Then some songs are more based on a quotation from the Old Testament or The Psalms or Hebrew text. When I’m doing that type of songwriting I take inspiration from what I read versus what I create in my mind.
For each song on Light I was following more of process to develop specific ideas. I spent specific time working with my Teacher who been guiding me in my daily studies of the Torah and other Jewish texts. We started by doing a comparison between different Hasidic takes on godliness and existentialism. That process then led me to create songs based on The Seven Beggars, so each song has its own story that makes up the album’s bigger story. I used that framework as the underlying theme to develop the overall story of the entire record.
There’s not a specific song based on The Seven Beggars, but I started with an idea of from a story I read about two children that get lost in the forest. Then I tried to draw a parallel to a real-life story I heard about two child soldiers who escaped out of the camps and then voyaged across the desert. I took some liberties of that story and started to add my own ideas and mix in my own personal experiences with free association on how I felt.
Working on Light took a longer time because lyrically, I spent extra time in development crafting. So when we started recording I did a lot of revision to the stories [that] I wrote. That was different for me because in the past I just rapped off the top of my head as we worked in the studio.
I also didn’t have just one band that was pushing me in one direction. I was working with a group of different artists leaving much of the musical direction up to me. Whatever was inspiring me at the moment was where the album went. And for the most part it wasn’t reggae this time. It was more staple indie-rock, hip-hop, and electronic. Back in 2007, when I started working on the music, I called up many of my friends and started inviting people over to collaborate and start to make the record. I had a friend help program electronic beats. Then I had my friend and singer-songwriter Trevor Hall come in and help me with the songwriting and singing. From there I brought in a group called Fire Department who practiced downstairs from me. And those guys led me to Soul Live who helped me write “Struggla.” I then started turning my initial sketches into real and complete songs, [leaving] my producer David Kahne to put everything together.
Was it harder to work on songs in that way or was the change in approach a welcomed freshness to recording and producing?
It was cool to work that way. It was different, too. Every record I do is a learning process for how I want to do the next one. I loved working with different people on this one. When I listen to music there’s usually some aspect of that music that I like and that’s what I take and try to bring into my own music. Bringing in other musicians to collaborate with is a good way for me to test out new ways or make music that I might have not discovered on my own. I’m not an expert in instruments, beat programming, or electronics. For some people it’s all about doing it themselves. But for me it’s all about find the people that can help make my vision come true.
I loved working with David because he focuses on the vocal and the emotional range and all the things that can happen with the voice. And then he brings in the music as a support to the vocal performance. And that’s rare in most production because many producers work the other way around where they see the voice as just an afterthought or a secondary element to the music. As a vocalist, I really appreciated working with David. And then on tracks like “So Hi So Lo” or “We Will Walk,“ he knew that bringing in Fishbone was the right fit for that groove and beat.
I’ve seen you grow as a performer and build on the intensity from your first performances like Live at Stubbs or during festivals like Lollapalooza back in 2006. How does your spiritual life as a Hasidic Jew influence your live show and development as a performer? Is there something you actively or consciously do on offstage to make your live performance such a deeply spiritual experience?
There are so many things going on. It’s a holistic process for me during a show. I’m always focusing on the technical aspects of my voice. I try to make my voice do what I want. One big thing I do to improve on each show is to listen back to performances on CD while on tour. That’s something I do as often as possible while on tour. When I listen to the show the night before, most of the time, what I come away with is that I need to be quiet more. That’s such a huge challenge for me. I always need to be quiet more. For some reason, I have this feeling when I get on stage that I’m the centerpiece and that everyone is depending on to take them somewhere.
So each show the goal for me is to create this equal playing field where I’m able to slip out of that mode a bit and be there in the music with everyone else as a listener, creator and participant. I want to create one cohesive vibe. But when I’m on stage I’m constantly pulled out of that mindset, so there’s a big challenge to be quiet and not steer the ship, but let the ship steer itself. And a lot of that idea and mindset does come from my spiritual and regular meditative process offstage.
What do you do to prepare for that type of performance mindset? I imagine getting into that mental state is a very difficult to do night after night.
It’s a combination of practicing it offstage and then onstage during each show. But some nights it doesn’t go the way I want it to, so I try to analyze what happened. I practice daily by actively allowing myself to let go and feel comfortable onstage so I can just listen to and absorb the music. When I listen to the show recording of the previous night, there’s always a point where I’ll ask myself “Why did I feel I needed to fill up that space there and not comfortable with just being quiet? Why couldn’t I just let that musical moment happen why did I feel I needed to control that situation?”
Then there’s the offstage [mindset] that lets me reflect on what I do onstage. And, like I mentioned, the ideas based in the Torah and Jewish teachings give me balance when I take the time to practice them in my life. I take walks and do meditations and get in touch with the quite place within. During those moments of meditation I try to become part of the environment around me.
Do you use any type of guide for your meditations while on tour?
Actually, during the Light tour this will be the first time I’ll be doing specifically planned meditation while on the road. My friend and Teacher who helped co-write on Light will be with me for the next ten days. We’re starting to get in the specific work of Rabbi Nachman. We’re focusing on his book of stories called the Likutey Moharan. We’re going to study the text than turn the text into specific meditations. We’re thinking of taping our conversations and putting them up on the website so people can listen in if they want to.
Your live shows are very communal and deeply spiritual where the crowd seems to all move as one. Are there certain performers or bands that you’ve admired or draw inspiration from to create that type of environment?
Yes, I have a few influences that have all inspired me on different levels or at different points in my career.
First, early on, it was the classic reggae performers. Seeing videos of Bob Marley for the first time was big influence on me. I loved seeing the way he approached the stage and music. He would get so immersed in the music and the moment. I always think of his performance as being very royal. You felt like he was a prince or some kind of a king. It was almost mythic for me watching him. It’s hard to describe or put how I feel into words, but I would say it was like watching and listening to royalty.
Phish was also a big influence. During their show I paid attention to how the lighting wasn’t focused on the band. It made them look very small. Granted they were always playing in arenas, but the band always looked tiny. But somehow the audience looked massive. It was all about the crowd. And the focus wasn’t so much on them as a band as much as it was on the communal experience that was happening, you could feel this energy being the audience no matter where you were. All those things are things I try to bring in to my show in one way or another.
The next influence was Sizzla and other dancehall artists. I loved the way they would hype up the crowd. Those were some of the things I was interesting in the early days. But today I’m not so much interested in creating hype of direct intensity during shows. The final influence I’d have to say is my bass player Stu Brooks who’s also a member of Dub Trio. I saw him play at a hip-hop show playing live rhythms once and I loved watching him move and get into the music. It made me want to scoop him up as my own bass player. I learned a lot about movement from him, too. And I don’t even know if you knows that but I always learn things buy just watching him during shows. And right now Dub Trio is my backing band on tour plus two other players I’ve added to the mix.
In some way or another, I filter all those influences naturally but I don’t premeditate how I’m going to do a show. I just step on to the stage and take it from there. I don’t feel like any one show is the same. I try to go with what I’m getting from the crowd. It’s a balance between the internal and the external. I try to block the audience out at first, then once I’m in my zone, I start to interact with the audience gradually.
You’ve embraced social media platforms like Twitter to engage directly with fans during shows and while traveling on tour. Every artist uses the social platforms and interactive technologies in different ways. You’ve been using it for some time in creative ways to interact with fans. How has social media enhanced the relationship or deepen the connection you have with your audience?
It allows for a controlled interaction. Sometimes when you meet fans at show it’s overwhelming for them and for me. When I have the time I can just pull out my phone and start to read and answer people’s messages. It’s not the deepest interaction you can have. But that’s fine because you’re not going to have that deep connection when you first meet someone anyways. In that type of interactive environment there’s all kinds of cool stuff you can do. It lets you gradually getting to know someone.
For example, we recently got this new technology that allows us to do live streams where I can send out a Twitter message with a link. During a sound-check I’ll start to record and I can read fans’ messages at the same time. Sometimes fans have responded by saying ‘wow, that beat box is really [sick],’ or ‘Matis this is really boring, why are you doing this’ [laughs]. In those situations I can also say back to fans ‘…which way should I hold the camera so it’s better for you to see?’, or ‘what song should I play right now…?’
You mention that you have songs that inspired by children going on metaphorical journeys and being comforted when lost or wandering in the desert. What role does your family play when you’re making music or touring?
Early on my family would tour with me but not right now. For me the music and my family are two separate things. But one of the coolest moments I’ve had recently was with one of my kids. I was having a bit of a rough day while I was recording Light and I was putting my kid to sleep. He surprised me by asking me to sing one of my songs called “So Hi, So Lo” to him. So as I sang the song he started singing along to the lyrics. Then I started to realize that it was a good song because before he said that him, I was like “Okay, you spend so much time writing a song and then you get it out there and you don’t want to deal with it anymore.” Hearing him was sort of an awakening for me as I listened to him sing the lyrics. It was almost soothing for me to hear him. I thought “Wow, this song is really meaningful.” It was a deep moment for me. I realized the song wasn’t just for other people to enjoy. It was a very beautiful moment to have with the two of us.