An Interview with Matisyahu – HuffPost 8.10.09

One of the surprise modern rock hits of 2006 was “King Without A Crown” by New York’s Matisyahu, a devout Hasidic Jew who employs reggae, hip-hop and alternative styles to communicate his very unique brand of music. His sound has tied him to influences such as the late Bob Marley; but it was guitarist Trey Anastasio of Phish, another of Matisyahu’s would-be musical mentors, that invited him to perform during their Bonnaroo 2005 set which resulted in the young artist instantly acquiring a certain amount of celebrity, and credibility with thousands of fans. After having traveled a few years in those shoes, Matisyahu presents his latest album, Light, that showcases this young, old soul further exploring musical territories of both the secular and sacred.

Mike Ragogna: “On your new album, you’re shining some intense ‘light’ on various subjects, subtly making the simplest things seem more profound. Are you now using your recordings mainly as a vehicle to promote positive ideas?”

Matisyahu: “Yeah, in a sense. The kind of music I’m trying to make is conscious, to make people think and feel and get inspired.”

MR: “Actually, many of these songs seem to be the result of self-exploration, so it’s not like you’re preaching but sharing.”

Matisyahu: “That’s the idea, it’s got to be authentic. It’s about humility and continuing that search for truth, then just expressing it in the music.”

MR: “And you do it in a way that can let the listener in on whatever level they want to experience. For instance, ‘I Will Be Light’ is pretty cosmic, and it seems to have multiple interpretations–as in ‘goodness,’ ‘being happier,’ and even ‘merging with the Light.'”

Matisyahu: “The idea actually came from Hasidic text. My teacher explained to me that when you look up at the sky (at night), it’s dark but there are these stars. They’re bright and eventually, they burn out. That’s like the life of the soul in a person. It’s like a star in a dark sky, burning for a very short time. It’s lit up and then it’s out. That’s a cool, as you say, cosmic kind of way to think about our lives.”

MR: “Your musical styles on Light still cover reggae, hip-hop and a little alternative rock, but you’ve really stepped-up your game this time out, almost like you’ve hit the reset button. Was that intentional?”

Matisyahu: “I worked on this record for a long time. The first one was live–it was recorded in one night, it was a show. The second was done when the record company wanted an album out, you know, striking while the iron is hot. Some of it was written during sound checks, and I’d have to write the lyrics in a day. For this record, I spent about two years working on the content with my teacher and my friend, and then I spent another year working on the music. Then came David Kahne who produced it. He’s a perfectionist, and we’d go through the songs over and over and over. Listening to them again and again, he’d ask, ‘Does this chorus work, does that section work, does the emotion in the voice work in that part…’ So in a lot of ways, I feel like this is my first record.”

MR: “You’ve done so much to get to where you are now, with stories of your life and career being so nuanced. Plus you’ve got religious traditions in the mix. What has influenced your creativity the most over the last few years and how does that tie-in to Light?”

Matisyahu: “When I first started, everything happened at once. I became religious, my musical career took off, I got married, I had kids, and all that happened within the course of a year. I had an excitement about this newly found faith, and so I was writing about that in a very evident kind of way. But the process over the last four or five years for me has been about re-evaluation because of these major changes in my life. It’s all about constantly re-evaluating who you are, what you are, where you’re going, and why you’ve made the decisions you’ve made. It’s an affirmation of the search, not having the answers, but constantly finding the right questions. That’s the main theme of the record.”

MR: “During your search, was there any particular event, any moment of clarity, like a big ‘ah-ha’?”

Matisyahu: “No, it was more of a process, an organic, several year process. Part of it was from being on tour and not being as insular. Because I was around so many people from different faiths and different backgrounds, it got me questioning stuff. That was a part of the learning process. There were some moments of ‘oh, wow’ when I reconnected with myself. I had feelings of clarity on things that I had lost touch with, and now I try to have those moments as often as I possibly can. But I think one way I have them is just by taking long walks, you know? That’s how I get myself into that space.”

MR: “And that ties into the theme of ‘So Hi So Lo’ with the line ‘I must find a road that leads where nobody goes.’ You still see yourself as a seeker.”

Matisyahu: “Completely, big time.”

MR: “When you perform in front of audiences, do you feel that connection between you and them?”

Matisyahu: “The other night, I went to see this band called Tortoise. While I was watching, I had this experience of myself watching them play. Some people were moving, some people weren’t, the music was cool, whatever. And there was one of the players–there was something about him that kind of resonated in me. There was this kind of presence he had, he was just ‘there,’ you could see that there was something going on inside of him, that he felt he was there in the room with the people. It kind of woke me up a little bit. Through that experience, I was able to come into their music where before that, I kind of felt distant from it. Then I went to see my friend Aaron play where there were literally 25 or 30 people in a small, small room. He’s part of a trio and they were really rocking out, totally in their own world. I didn’t need them to be present with me since they were so present with each other.

“For me, it’s always this constant battle and search when I’m out on stage as to where and when do I really open myself up to the people that are there. How do I let myself feel present in the space, and how do I allow myself to get into the music and interact with the band members. When you’re doing one, it’s hard to do everything. But eventually, every night, there comes this point where it all comes together–the presence, the music, the band members, the audience–and all those walls get ripped down and it’s all just one. It’s unity. It’s almost like there’s no more performer and listener, it’s like everyone is sharing that experience. That’s the ideal, to get to that place, and that’s what I aim for. I think it’s possible to get to that place where the whole show, every night, is that moment.”

MR: “In the documentary icons among us: jazz in the present tense, filmmaker/producer John Comerford focused on capturing that moment within jazz music, and you can absolutely feel the ‘lift’ when everything falls into synchrony.”

Matisyahu: “There are those musicians out there where that’s the focus, then there are those who aren’t even thinking about that. But I guess people in their own ways are looking to break down the barriers, and there are all kinds of methods of doing it, from stage diving to telling your audience to put their hands up in the air, to trying to have a more ‘inner’ experience with everybody.”

MR: “So what’s your favorite moment on the new album?”

Matisyahu: “One of my favorite things on the record is the bridge of ‘I Will Be Light.’ I feel like the words and the voice reflect each other, and I actually picture singing it to my children with that kind of innocence. I feel like I was ‘tapped-in’ at that moment to that quiet place in a person.”

MR: “Was David Kahne cued-in to those kinds of moments when you guys recorded together?”

Matisyahu: “Totally. My biggest joy in working with David was exactly that. He tapped into the emotion in the voice, and it’s all about that for him. Everything has to work around that versus other producers that I worked with to this point who were more concerned about the style of the song, about different parts, about the music. David’s about all that too, but for him, it’s about how those things add and take away from the vocal. And being a vocalist, it was really cool working with him. Live, it’s a different thing, it’s all about the music, but with David, it’s all about the song and the voice.”

MR: “Do you play live from the perspective of ‘entertainment’ or from sharing your music with others?”

Matisyahu: Definitely the latter, I would hate to think of myself as an ‘entertainer,’ though maybe that’s what I am! [laughs] When I went to see certain shows when I was a kid, they changed my life. They made me tap into that place inside myself that I was unable to get to, so music is that tool, that bridge, and that’s the kind of music I’m interested in making.”

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