Matisyahu was as singular an artist as there’s ever been: a Hasidic Jew, long beard and forelocks included, unearthing the Judaic underpinnings of Rastafarian reggae and reconnecting them to his faith. But when Matisyahu the man (born Matthew Miller — he adopted the Hebrew moniker in 2001) broke away from Orthodox practice in 2011, what would become of Matisyahu the artist?
It’s a question that’s impossible to answer without exploring his motivations. Matisyahu’s shift away from Hasidism “wasn’t a result of me just smoking too much weed... It was a huge spiritual thing. Huge! Difficult. Not easy.” In reality, his journey away from regimented piety was a product of the same spiritual journey that brought him to orthodoxy in the first place. “There was a process, an organic process of therapy and self-work and self-knowledge, getting to the point where I finally felt comfortable with myself,” he says. “Something inside of me actually became alive. The thing I was looking for the whole time, I found.
“A lot of people, they didn’t pick up on that,” he laments. “They just thought, ‘He doesn’t care about being Jewish anymore.’ And that was so far from the truth.” While Matisyahu no longer sports a beard or strictly observes the Sabbath, he still very much considers himself a Jew. His speech remains peppered with the language of his faith — he offers hearty “mazel tovs” in conversation and quotes verses of the Torah in his interviews. Perhaps most crucially of all, he still prays.
Indeed, prayer — true prayer — seems more important to Matisyahu than ever. More so than reciting specific verses at specified times, prayer for him has become about getting to a place, spiritually and emotionally, where he finds himself capable of directly accessing the divine. Increasingly, that happens via musical performance. In many ways, it’s become the reason for those performances. “That’s when I feel satisfied with my performance,” he says, “when I actually pray, for real, to God, in front of everybody.”
Matisyahu’s break from the cloistered world of Hasidic Judaism has shown itself most clearly in his music. His latest studio album, 2014’s Akeda, remains as lyrically invested in his faith as ever. (The title is a reference to the biblical tale of the binding of Isaac, where God tests Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son.) Musically, though, it jettisons most of the roots-reggae elements and familiar vocal patois that hallmarked previous Matisyahu releases. In their place: everything from low-key hip-hop to ’80s-influenced indie pop. The results are some of Matisyahu’s most expansive, unconstrained, and vital songs to date.
That Akeda sounds like the product of a man with his finger on the pulse of the underground is not a coincidence. “When I was religious in the early years, I didn’t really listen to much music,” he says. “When Youth came out in 2006, that was the first time I started listening to music again since like 1999 — I didn’t listen to any music between those years.” At first, the influences crept in via his band, non-Jews who would play things like Elliot Smith and the Flaming Lips in the tour van. And now, free from the dictates of the Hasidic community, Matisyahu has become a voracious musical omnivore. When speaking about Akeda, he references artists from Twin Shadow to Kid Cudi to hip-hop production revolutionary J Dilla.
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His current tour, which brings him to Kravis Center on December 30, supports the recently released Live at Stubbs III: A Ten Year Journey. The album revisits material from his breakthrough Live at Stubbs release, bringing songs from that album and from across his career into the present day.
But Matisyahu’s focus remains on new music. “There will be some stuff on [the next album] that’s more like James Blake, emotional and softer, and then there will be real hard-core roots-reggae jams,” he promises. “There will be Popcaan-type dancehall shit, electro, and then there will be Jon Bellion-like hip-hop stuff with a lot of space.”
It’s the scattered inspiration of an artist still in the process of (re)discovering his voice — a statement that Matisyahu himself would seem inclined to agree with. “I feel to some extent that it’s just the beginning for me, in terms of the music that I’m making and the people that I’m touching,” he says. In life, though, by leaving behind the past’s confines, the inveterate seeker seems — finally — to have arrived at a place of contentment. “I’m buying a house on the Hudson River. I’ve got my boys; I’m really into being a dad and having people around me that I love. The band that I play with, the people in my life, are people that I really care about — people I take care of and that take care of me. At 36 years old, I’ve finally come to a place where I’m comfortable and confident in who I am and what I do.”
8 p.m. Wednesday, December 30, at Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach, 33401. Tickets cost $45 to $75 plus fees. Call 561-832-7469, or visit www.ticketmaster.com.