Matisyahu tackles new life path
BY ELIZABETH KIESZKOWSKI / firstname.lastname@example.org
Reggae music often embraces the idea of personal and political transformation — but in that scene, performers rarely change up their sound and image. Matisyahu is the exception.
Over the past four years, the New York-born, now California-based reggae star has undergone a dramatic transformation, shedding his Hasidic identity along with his locks. He shaved his long beard and cut his curls a few months after he performed in Kakaako as part of the first-ever Republik Music Festival in 2010.
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With Rebelution, Matisyahu and
He’s also evolved his sound, incorporating electro-pop, rock and roots, as fans will hear when he returns to the fest on Sunday.
The change isn’t truly that surprising, though, because Matisyahu — born Matthew Paul Miller — came out of the gate as an artist who is fully committed to his search for meaning. Having explored the punk and hip-hop scenes before adopting Hasidic traditions, he’d already proved his willingness to take a challenging path and break with his past.
His latest album, “Akeda,” released Tuesday, announces his coming out.
His song “Watch the Walls Melt Down” incorporates electronic sounds and fits squarely in the pop-music continuum, announcing, “I took my freedom back.”
“Sick for So Long” moves from soul-deep blues to a sex-fueled epiphany, couching the tale in a slow funk by backing band Dub Trio and a soft vocal by Matisyahu. It’s an affecting stunner, with echoes of Sade and young British electro-soul sensation James Blake.
“I’ve always been attracted to lots of different types of music, and I’ve always seen myself as an artist who combines different things — like obviously, the Hasidic culture with reggae music,” Matisyahu said. “The changes and the life experience that I’ve had over the last two or three years has been very impactful, like an unraveling of sorts, and an emotional time for me, and I think that comes across in the music, which is maybe less about energy. My earlier stuff was more just about keeping it, like, high-energy with the reggae, whereas the new stuff has much more dynamics and ups and downs, and a lot more emotion to it, more like real life.”
MATISYAHU also went through a divorce since his last appearance in Hawaii, and on “Akeda” he addresses the uncertainty that comes across with major change.
In “Hard Way” he sings, “Who’s gonna quench your thirst now … who’s gonna make you happy, when you’re your own worst enemy?”
“A couple of things” were going through his mind with that song, he said: “One, in reference to leaving the Hasidic thing, and in reference to the divorce. And two, people said that to me — you know, ‘You think you’re going to go there and that’s going to make you happy.’ It’s obviously a question that I’ve asked myself.”
While the song is soul-searching, the music is steady, gentle, a counterpoint.
“‘The Hard Way’ is about having to experience things in order to learn, versus taking more of a peripheral take on life — just really being involved with life and learning things the hard way,” Matisyahu explained. “It’s a celebration of that, as opposed to being hard on myself.”
On the day he called in for the interview, a Southern California newspaper reported that he’d agreed to appear at a Reform Church with a female cantor.
“Whenever people want me to come sing, I usually do it,” he said. “I like to connect with people, especially people who are going through struggle, who I feel will relate to my music. … These are my people and my fans.”
Matisyahu has been hard at work supporting “Akeda.” Over the past week, he joined an “ask me anything” discussion on Reddit, played live at Sirius studios and announced a lengthy tour (including Hawaii shows on Oahu, Maui and Kauai) at matisyahuworld.com.
And his music is gaining notice. “Akeda” was in the iTunes Top 10 this week at No. 6, just below Lana Del Rey and The Black Keys, two more widely hyped American acts — proving that fans are embracing his evolving sound.