Shedding the trappings

The always evolving Matisyahu talks about new music,Judaism in Israel and why his image shouldn’t matter.

matisyahu new look rocker 370 (photo credit: Dave Smith)
matisyahu new look rocker 370
(photo credit: Dave Smith)
Matisyahu, the artist regarded as an influential Jewish icon in the international music world, is playing on his own terms with his new album, Akeda.
The first single released is called “Surrender,” which showcases a familiar Israeli body of water in its music video and carries themes about losing yourself to a higher power in the face of adversity.
The music of Akeda is a change of pace from his previous albums, Spark Seeker and Youth, which featured the Israeli top-charting song and global smash hit “One Day.”
The artist whose real name is Matthew Miller, is no stranger to Israel, having spent a lot of time within its borders throughout his career. After becoming famous from his reggae meets hip hop sound and maintaining a traditional hassidic image, he shed his Jewish appearance in 2011 for a more realistic portrayal of himself but experienced backlash from many prominent Jewish communities in Israel. However, the musician has confirmed many times that his Jewish roots remain intact. The Jerusalem Post caught up with Matisyahu to talk about the ideas behind his new music, the state of Judaism today and life in general.
When you are dancing on the beach in the video, it looks like a beach in Tel Aviv, with everyone playing paddle ball around you. Was that what you had in mind? It is based on a day I had in Tel Aviv. I was in a hotel room and I was staring out at the beach. The theme of it is sort of like being trapped behind glass and looking out from behind and gazing out at the world.
I was having a hard time leaving the hotel. Eventually I saw the Mediterranean and the white flag [that is seen in the video]. They brought me this feeling of joy. It gave me this inspiration.
You said you have strayed from the hassidic reggae superstar image in the past. But you are still wearing a tallis in the video. Is there a reason for that? The tallis has a lot of meaning to me as do a lot of things in Judaism. It’s not like all of a sudden I’ve rejected all of it. The fact that I don’t have a beard or wear a yarmulke doesn’t mean anything.
Things are not that simple.
The stance that you’ve taken currently where you’ve shed this hassidic image is reminiscent of what is going on today in Israel.
In my life, Judaism is a very real thing to me and very important to me. But I don’t view it like Judaism is good for Jews or Judaism is bad for Jews, it just is. It is what it is.
To me, this record and this period of my life is about making it real.
That’s not say that I wasn’t real when I was Orthodox. It’s about shedding anything that you’re supposed to do because you’re supposed to do it. I’m not wearing a tallis because I’m supposed to wear a tallis or because that’s what you do because you’re Jewish.
I’m wearing a tallis because the tallis represents something real to me.
‘Akeda’ is a little different from your music in the past.
Where were you coming from when you wrote the songs from this album? Describe your thoughts behind the writing and recording process.
I’ve been through a lot of s**t.
I went through a divorce. I got a lot of heat from the Jewish community and people who were also just attached to my image. I’ve been through drug addiction. I went through a period where I had some problems with my vocal chords and health issues. I had to change my habits a lot. I had to go on a vocal silence for several months, where I couldn’t talk to anybody, including my family. I had to change my diet where basically I ate brown rice for several months. I basically sat in a chair in my house and got into a deep meditative space. I really decided to get rid of anything that was excessive in my life. During that process, I started to get in touch with a lot of emotion that I hadn’t been in touch with for many years. All of that started to come out. That’s where this record came from.
How were you able to put out your ideas for the record if you couldn’t speak while on vocal rest? It’s not just the creative process.
It’s everything that leads up to that.
You have to experience life before you can create something. The process of creating music is listening.
It’s not just about listening to yourself, it’s about listening to the world around you.
Are Judaism and spirituality still a part of your head space when you are writing new songs? There’s no separating it. The whole record is filled with Jewish inspiration and symbology probably more than any other record I’ve put out.
So many Jews are becoming more and more secular and fighting against certain traditions within Orthodox Judaism.
How do you feel about that?
Judaism has gotten so far from what it could be and from what I feel God wants it to be. It became so much about rules and laws and what you’re supposed to do. I really don’t think that’s what Judaism is about at all. I think it’s about the beauty of a tallis. It’s about the beauty of the stories of Akeda and how people relate to them and how they feed our creativity. Hopefully, that’s what I do here in this world is show the meaning behind Judaism. That’s why I’m here, I guess.
You’ve had a long and thriving career in the music industry, which is an incredible feat for any. Looking back at your journey, what is a favorite moment or memory that remains with you today?
This is an important moment to me now because I’m really proud of this record. These are the songs where I didn’t give a damn about what I look like or what my image was or who I’m representing. This is for the misfits, the people that don’t fit in. I think I’ve found my place with this record.