ALTERNATIVE-REGGAE-RAP STAR COMES TO ATLANTA AUG. 23
Matisyahu has been defying genre classification and giving the non-Jewish world a glimpse of Chasidism for nearly a decade. When he shaved his trademark beard in November 2011 and then showed off a new hairstyle – a short blonde cut, as opposed to his dark curls – in June 2012, he dealt with more questions regarding his identity and direction than ever.
Fans can rest easily, though; the man raised as a Reconstructionist Jew who took to Orthodoxy after participating in the Alexander Muss High School program in 1995 is still creating incredible music. With his newest album, “Spark Seeker” (released July 17), he launches a new look and nationwide tour but maintains his uncompromising and inspiring style.
The Atlanta Jewish Times got a chance to chat with the man formerly known as Matthew Paul Miller before he comes to town Aug. 23 for a show at the Masquerade.
John McCurdy: First of all, I should profess my love for your music, Matis; I was introduced to you via “Live at Stubb’s.” I know that was your first album to chart, really your big break, and I’m wondering if you still go back to that night that you recorded the album [Feb. 19, 2005]?
Matisyahu: Yeah, that night was awesome. It was a special time for me because I had just spent two years in a basement working on it [the music].
My whole career was taking off very quickly, and it felt like it was destiny happening. I got married the August before, took off on this tour and got an agent.
I remember that night we recorded – we had already been out for a month, and all of a sudden this truck pulled up to the show, and there were television monitors, a sound truck and all these people that were interested in our work and art.
The show itself was like any other show on the tour; there were definitely better shows.
But that was it. That was where it all started.
JM: A lot has been made about your change in appearance: the shaving of your beard, the cutting and coloring of your hair. I’m just curious if any changes in observance or approach have come with these changes in appearance.
M: It was a full, all out change for me.
I feel like there is a place within Judaism for creativity, and that’s how I started with Judaism: as a creative experience in terms of eating kosher or growing a beard or wearing a yarmulke or davening or any of those things. It was much more about my own thoughts and instincts, not being afraid to explore and push myself beyond the limits of where I was.
Then, at a certain point it became less about my instincts and more about following the design, following the crowd, following what was expected of me at that point.
I think this change has in some ways been a return for me to the initial stages.
JM: As you’ve become more popular, you’ve gotten a chance to work with artists like Akon and, on “Spark Seeker,” with Shyne J. Ralph. What’s that been like?
M: It’s exciting to work with people who are big stars and all that, but it’s not the most important thing, and to me, it’s not really the most exciting thing in terms of this past record.
It was more about meeting the individuals, meeting these extremely talented musicians that I was really able to work with on this record. I’m more interested in that; to me, people are just people, and just because someone’s famous doesn’t mean that necessarily they are an interesting person.
I’ve been able to work with great musicians all along, and that’s been special for me.
JM: I’ll put you on the spot: Do you have a favorite track on “Spark Seeker”?
M: I don’t really have a favorite, but the song on this album that really stands out for me playing live has been “Crossroads.” I believe in love, and that feels really big when I play it.
JM: Tell me about the upcoming movie you’re in, “The Possession.” At the very most basic level, did you enjoy acting?
M: Oh yeah. I had a great time. I’ve been interested in acting for a long time; as a kid I did it, and I studied acting in college. I just didn’t end up going down that path [as my career], but I knew that at the right time I would get involved with it again.
This role was a perfect way for me to put my foot in the water and test it out. The screenplay is cool, and the people that I worked with were awesome. It was a good time, and I really enjoyed it.
JM: One last thing: I know that you’ve been to Atlanta plenty of times before. What do you like about our city?
M: Atlanta is a good city. My sister was teaching through Teach for America in Atlanta for a couple years. My memories of Atlanta, we’ve always had great shows there.
There’s a couple of bigger theatres, The Fox and The Tabernacle, that stick out to me. [Those are] older types of theatres, and they’re fun places to play in; we do a number of those shows over the tour in different cities.
Interview by John McCurdy
Transcription by Jessie Miller