Chasidic reggae star Matisyahu hits Pittsburgh
Matisyahu speaks quietly, but in every other way, he’s a loud man.
His music bounds from the speakers; his singing has the power of a niggun-chanting rabbi. But above all, his faith comes through loud and clear.
Born to a not-so observant Jewish family, Matthew Paul Miller’s story is now a familiar one in the canon of Jewish musicians: man grows up, goes on tour with Phish and eventually realizes that Judaism gets him, and he gets Judaism. He becomes a Chasidic Jew and begins, as Matisyahu, to write music that blends reggae, hip-hop, rock and Jewish chants.
In 2005, when “King Without a Crown,” the single from his breakthrough live album “Live at Stubb’s,” was climbing the charts and garnering Matisyahu a nationwide following, he may have been the world’s most unlikely pop star.
But slowly, the world got used to Matisyahu, allowing for his catchy, inspirational music to take the foreground instead of his long beard and on-stage tzit-tzit.
That doesn’t mean he’s slowed down, though — in the past year, Matisyahu released his third studio album, “Light;” he kept busy on the road with steady touring; on Aug. 18, he recorded another live album at Stubb’s; and his song “One Day” was adopted by NBC as the official Olympic theme song.
All that, and he’s still got time to plan out the High Holidays.
The Jewish Chronicle spoke with Matisyahu before his Aug. 23 show in Pittsburgh.
Jewish Chronicle: In just a few days, you’re going to be making “Live at Stubbs” 2. Why is now the right time to make volume 2?
Matisyahu: Well, I guess really, why not? I’m playing now with a band that’s great. My sound is continuously developing, and my live show is different in what I accomplish than on a studio record. It’s a relatively easy process to make; we play every night. We create something every night. It’s a natural thing to want to record that and put it out.
JC: When you first broke, the most visible line about you, of course, was that you were this Chasidic Jew singing reggae. Did you ever feel that people were paying attention to who you were more than the music you made?
M: I never thought about it. It wasn’t until later on. At the time, it was just who I am. I always knew there was some element of surprise to what I did, even before I was a religious. Before I was religious, I was going to open mics. It’s just what I do.
JC: “One Day” became NBC’s official Winter Olympics song this year. How do you feel it spoke to people?
M: It’s a pretty basic song. Well, what do you think?
JC: It’s a song about unity; that’s totally appropriate for the Olympics.
M: I agree. There you go. Basically, the song is about belief. The Olympics are about countries coming together to compete.
JC: You mix a lot of different genres in your music. With that, you draw fans from a lot of different scenes. As you see it, what is the make up of your audience?
M: My audience is made up of lots of different people. Even once you cross over racial or age or all different categories, usually at shows there’s still a certain demographic of music listener – people who listen to rock music, hip hop, whatever. But at my shows people listen to all types of music. Mostly my fans are people with spiritual inclination. They want content in their music.
JC: The High Holidays are just around the corner. What are your plans this year?
M: Usually I go to Israel. This year, I’ll be doing some shows right around the High Holidays. I’ll be home for Rosh Hashana, and I might be in northern California for Yom Kippur. For the first and last days of Sukkot, I will be in Israel. But after Sukkot, I’m going to the Ukraine to the grave of the Baal Shem Tov. I’m going to spend a week there, just writing for the next record.
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)