Most accessible religious musician hits the Triad

by Eric Ginsburg

Matisyahu broke onto the world stage as an anomaly — a Hasidic Jew with a full beard and appropriate attire, singing and rapping over rock and reggae music infused with world influences. Several years and albums later, including his latest release this summer, Matisyahu took a short break from tour to talk to YES! Weekly about his music and experiences. He is performing at Greene Street Club on Oct. 29 as part of a nationwide college tour, but casual fans won’t recognize him around town — at the end of 2011 he changed his image, removing the visual trappings of the Hasidim and later appearing in the video for his new single “Sunshine” with blond hair.

YES! Weekly: For those who haven’t had a chance to listen to your new album Spark Seeker, can you describe it for us?

Matisyahu: Well, how would you describe it? It’s a little bit hard to describe it. The truth is I am rarely ever trying to describe my music because it’s a little bit indescribable, for me at least. When you use big terms like “rock” or “jazz” or “reggae” it really doesn’t describe the type of music…. It just doesn’t do it justice. I’m okay at making the sounds but I am not good at describing our categorizing them like a music journalist who has more precise vocabulary.

Y!W: You have a song called “Bal Shem Tov,” named for the founder of Hasidic Judaism, on Spark Seeker. What’s being said at the beginning of the track and what is the song about?

M: The Yiddish at the beginning of that is based on the Bal Shem Tov’s vision of the messiah. He asked the messiah when he was coming and the messiah’s response was, “When your wellsprings are ready.” He says, “Matisyahu may you disseminate the wellsprings through music.” In Hasidim, God is everywhere in the world and beyond the world at the same time…. As Jews we believe in freedom of choice but Hasidim and mystics and Kabbalists believes that God controls everything. The Bal Shem Tov is basically saying the unity of everything and the connection that God has with everything.

Y!W: Is people identifying with early music and image an issue? Do you run into their expectations?

M: Initially when I made that change, yeah, there’s a lot of commentary. It’s really all about what I allow in. At shows people are yelling things from the crowd but it doesn’t really affect my shows or my process in the studio. It only affects me basically when I allow myself to read comments on the internet. I was curious what people were thinking and I read a lot of articles but it made me very bitter, mainly about my people — mostly the kind of [conservative] Jewish people and certainly more in the religious circles. I know that they certainly aren’t all that way and there is a lot of beauty in those people or those communities and I stopped reading it.

Y!W: Do people recognize you less frequently?

M: Before if I came to a show at a college and I was to walk around, people would notice me. Now I could walk around a campus and have one person notice me, or most of the time no one knows me. To me, I’m the type of person who’s an observer. I like to watch more than engage. Being famous doesn’t allow you to do that; it strips that from you. Not that I’m that famous, but I certainly had experiences where I wanted to [watch] more and wasn’t able to. Now I can quite a bit more.

Y!W: You’ve collaborated with several artists. Was anyone particularly enjoyable to work with? Is there someone you haven’t worked with yet that you hope to?

M: I don’t really have anyone that I’m dying to work with. There’s people I like or people that I appreciate but there isn’t a person, like say a bass player, that I really want to work with that I don’t feel like I can call up already.

Y!W: What was it like to perform on stage with Trey Anastasio of Phish?

M: It was an amazing experience for me. I had this experience when I was 17 or 18 [and saw Phish play] and I loved all of their music. I felt like my destiny was to play music. This is a very mystical thing; it’s like when your soul knows what your path is going to be. Something was resonating in a very, very real way that this is actually what I’m going to do. And then to be 10 years later or whatever and actually be on stage with the person who was performing when I had that revelation — it was actualized to a certain extent in that moment. As a 17-year old kid I was like, “Whoa, I am supposed to be on that stage.” So that was pretty earth shattering.