Sound salvation

Matisyahu’s evolving musical exploration

Matisyahu “explores the whole range of human emotions” in his music.

Matisyahu “explores the whole range of human emotions” in his music.

Photo by Nechama Leitner

Jmax Productions presents Matisyahu Saturday, Nov. 18, 8:30 p.m. Orphan opens.
Tickets: $22.50 (available at Diamond W, Blaze N J’s,
Senator Theatre517 Main St.

When Matisyahu entered the mainstream in 2004, he quickly gained attention with a seeming juxtaposition: a man mixing reggae with strong elements of his Hasidic Jewish faith. It wasn’t novelty, but it did become his niche. Yet for Matisyahu (born Matthew Miller), it was just what came naturally.

“When I was a young teenager and started smoking weed and seeing all the Old Testament references in reggae music, I started to become interested in Judaism more,” Matisyahu said during a recent phone interview. “It gave me a new perspective on what Judaism could be to me. It just felt natural to blend the two things.”

That’s exactly what he did. With a full beard and Hasidic garb, he sang and beatboxed about his faith at a fluttering pace over buoyant reggae pulses, as on his breakthrough single “King Without a Crown,” which found its way onto multiple Billboard charts, including No. 18 on the Hot 100 and No. 1 on Reggae.

Over the next few years, there were a couple of gold albums and another big single (2009’s “One Day”), and then, in 2011, Matisyahu made a change. Via a Twitter post, he revealed a picture of his clean-shaven face and explained he’d be taking his project in a new direction, a departure from his Jewish faith. The shift was met with mixed emotions; some saw it as an abandonment of Judaism, but for Matisyahu it was more of a natural transition.

“There’s always gonna be random people at shows because their girlfriend dragged them out and they heard about this Hasidic guy or ‘King Without a Crown,’ but those aren’t my fans,” Matisyahu said. “The fans that make up the core that allow me to do what I do for real, they know, they’re fans not of the ‘once-Hasidic Matisyahu’ or the ‘new Matisyahu,’ but the whole concept of a person that evolves in their lives, makes decisions, because that’s what most of them are going through in their lives.”

After more than a decade on the road, averaging 200 shows a year, Matisyahu has recently found himself, once again, ready for something new.

“I started to notice a trend in my music, that we started making all the songs faster and I started singing all my songs in a certain higher range, and it was all about trying to have this kind of energy on stage and lock people in,” Matisyahu said. “I’d find myself up on stage and I’m supposed to be happy and inspiring people, and I’m depressed because I’m not really being authentic to myself and the music. So I just made a decision that I’m going to change the songs.”

His live shows became more spontaneous, sometimes with some songs being cut short and others growing into 25-minute pieces with lyrics riffed into transitions between new and old songs. Those improvisations are the foundation of his newest album, Undercurrent, an exploration of deep sonic pockets, with emphasis on curiosity and mood over pop clarity. With some songs stretching as long as 10 or even 14 minutes, there’s a sense of melancholy threading through the new album. But no matter the sentiment, for Matisyahu, it’s a genuine expression—something he’s never shied away from.

“People might like it or they might not. I might have to play smaller rooms, but at the end of the day that’s what’s gonna make me happy,” Matisyahu said. “Undercurrent is the celebration. To me, it’s more like real art; it explores the whole range of human emotions. If there’s gonna be a release or a moment that’s happy, there has to be some kind of tension leading up to that. That’s what life is.”