Interview: Matisyahu, reggae's most spiritual Jew [Music]

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Much like his Hasidic beliefs, Matisyahu communicates his message through telling stories, or adapting old ones. He cites the Torah as the influencer of his words while his music dwells primarily in reggae and hip-hop, but they have more in common than you think.

This Thursday Matisyahu will perform with electronic duo Sub Swara at Headliners Music Hall, however, he is no stranger to Louisville. Among his last few stops here included a recording session downtown that later became The Louisville Light Sessions EP, a collection of select tracks from the 2009 studio album Light.

While Light embraces the wonders of electronic manipulation and multi-track recording that creates a lush texture, it seems to have left part of the funk behind. That isn’t to say that the organic feel of his live performances don’t suffice enough funk to bring the house down. A live album recorded in Austin, Texas during 2005, Live at Stubb’s, peaked #1 on the Reggae Billboard charts before the young artist even released his second studio album. The impressive beat-boxing and intricate vocal patterns can easily entice a listener to check out a live show and witness these songs in action, many of which appear on his definitive record to follow, Youth. Of course homage to Bob Marley is paid in the couple acoustic ballads that are nestled into this empowering album, and only one song title with the word Zion. The rest is a funk-infused call to action, minus the love song “Unique is my Dove" which can be referenced back to his marriage nearly seven years ago. He now tours with his family of three and band to promote his latest, Live at Stubb’s Vol. II, a second take at the same Austin venue that helped launched his career, now six years later.

I spoke with Matisyahu over the phone while in Chicago and he was very patient with the brief connection issues we had to accommodate. Immediately I was at ease knowing that I’d be speaking to someone less concerned with how much time or money they don’t have. In fact, money wasn’t even brought up despite trying to get him to talk about file-sharing.

How has touring been this year? Does the experience improve over time or does it differentiate between cities?

It has improved tremendously, actually. I’ve always loved performing, but there was definitely a time when I knew less. It’s like anything; you grow with it. All the different elements behind it: going from being able to create the right space around you, adjust to being on the road, and having the right people around you- in terms of the band and people working for you, having more knowledge of my instrument, and being able to connect with the fans. I find that when time goes on, I really find myself enjoying it more and more every tour.

Do you ever feel like the fact you’re a Jew is abused subject matter in an interview?

No, I think it’s fine. It depends on the interviewer and what their interest is. One of the best interviews I did was the other day for a daily newspaper in Pittsburgh, and the interviewer was Jewish, and I think he was pretty connected with his Judaism and therefore had a lot of in-depth questions about my Judaism. I don’t mind discussing it.

Well, I’m about to throw a few at you. What significant experiences led you from being raised a Reconstructionist to an Orthodox Jew?

There were a few that I could suggest, but all of them would require an interview for each experience. It’s something I don’t really like to over-simplify. Would you like me to pick out one of them?

Yeah, if you could.

Overall it was a very organic experience for me. It wasn’t an overnight thing; it was the type of thing that really grew over time. When I was a teenager I started listening to Bob Marley and reggae music, and I really felt all the references to Judaism in there to the Old Testament in the lyrics of those songs. And the spirituality there. A lot of it is influenced and borrowed from Judaism and the Torah. So that was one of the initial draws to me: to explore Judaism on a deeper level. That’s one thing.

Another was when I moved to the west coast to Oregon and found myself to be one of the few Jews in the town I lived in. So I felt all of a sudden, going back from New York, this sort of… I guess at that time in my life, being in my late teens, I was looking for my identity. I felt that being Jewish was a big part of that, even though this wasn’t exploring religiosity, but it made me feel a connection to Judaism. Now when I was 16 I also went to Israel to and experienced a lot of Judaism and young American Jews, too. Israel was very different from the Judaism that we’re exposed to in America. Somehow it feels much more authentic over there. And the variety of Judaism that’s available is appealing.

In college I took a class on race studies. All of us white kids, we were taking the class expecting the black kids and the black teacher to tell us what it’s like to be black in America and be in those situations where there’s racism. And on the contrary, the teacher wanted us to talk about what it was like to be white in America, what it meant to be white and to really explore our identity. It was around that time that I began to really feel a spiritual pull, and an emotional pull from a lot of different directions towards Judaism. I decided, partially because of influence from that teacher and class, that I wanted to wear a yamaka. And let the outside world know that I’m Jewish rather it be a secret and something I keep to myself.

Now, do you find yourself identifying with more than one type of Judaism or religion?

Yes, to a certain extent. Judaism isn’t just a religion, it’s a people. So in that sense I find myself relating to all Jews. Coming from a cultural perspective, as people, yes. Coming from a religious standpoint, I don’t really identify or connect with reformed Judaism or reconstructionist as much, or conservative Judaism. I believe that the Torah’s the real deal; it’s the real thing. Within Orthodox Judaism there’s different branches, so I do find myself sort gravitating towards Hasidic and Kabbalistic thought, employing from those places mainly.

There is a Jewish fusion band called the Shirim Klezmer Orchestra that take the plot-lines from Jewish folk tales and play out the stories in their music. Have you ever adapted a folk tale to write a song?

The last studio release I put out is based on a story called The Seven Beggars which was written by Rabbi Nachman who was a Hasidic rabbi. He was the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, who was the founder of the Hasidic movement and that was in the late 1700s. He basically believed that people weren’t really connecting to the Torah. The learning wasn’t real to them. Therefore it started creating an impediment between them and God. And therefore he felt that there needed to be a new revolution in Torah learning and that it had to come through stories, and so he began to tell these stories. I studied his work for about three or four years and it culminated in my records, based on one of his stories called the Seven Beggars.

What are your feelings on the digital transition to music, i.e. file-sharing? Have you been effected by the fact that people can download your music without paying or do you believe this transition has enriched the music community?

I think it does both. It allows music to get out there easier and in some ways…well, you know the story; you know how it works. I’m sure you’ve read plenty of articles about it.

Well, what solution would you offer on behalf of your music?

I don’t have a solution because I don’t really see it as a problem. Things just are what they are. It’s just the reality of: why are leaves green?

Do you go back to the holy land very often?

Yeah, I’m usually there two to three times a year.

Anywhere particular that draws you there spiritually?

If I’m there during the high holidays I usually stay in Jerusalem.

Do you have any distinct memories of your time in Louisville?

Yeah, we had a recording there called Louisville Light. This band that I was playing with at the time, we decided we wanted to record the songs from [Light] live. So we took a little break on the tour and stopped at a studio in downtown Louisville and spent I think four or five days there. Or was it three?

Also while I was there I spent some time over Shabbat by the Chabad. You know, just a normal Chabad house…nothing special.

Matisyahu will be playing with Sub Swara at Headliners Music Hall, July 21st @ 8PM. Tickets are $25 available through Headliners, ear-X-tacy and etix.com. 18+ with I.D.

FREE Matisyahu in-store performance and meet&greet at ear-X-tacy Records prior to show starts at 6PM.


 

Photo: Courtesy of MatisyahuWorld