All too frequently, a musician's image becomes more integral in the public psyche than his or her music. Can you imagine the Cure's Robert Smith performing without his shambolic hairdo or smudged lipstick. How about Public Enemy's Flavor Flav throwing down rhymes on stage sans his customary large neck clock? Just think about how detrimental witnessing KISS perform without any makeup on. (We never want to witness such footage, thanks.)
This is the plight that reggae luminary, Matisyahu faces. A few months ago, the illustrious Jewish reggae superstar made the decision to ditch the devout Hasid rabbi look that had become his trademark since 2005 for an appearance that's all together more poppy. He cut off his sideburns, dreadlocks, set aside his trench coats, and put away his yarmulkes for a look that is many moons more secular. He is a clean-shaven platinum blonde now, a dramatic change from the Matisyahu of old.
New Times had the good fortune of catching up with the soft-spoken, introspective, faith-based musician who waxed poetic about his new album, his transformation, and spirituality.
New Times: Just had the chance to check out your new album, Spark Seeker. Seems like you went for a more tribal sound on this effort?
Matisyahu: Well, what you are referring to is the Middle Eastern instrumentation. I recorded part of this album in Israel, so a great deal of live Middle Eastern instrumentation made on the record is from there.
You also work with various digitally programmed beats like never before, how has the reaction been amongst fans?
Depends who you ask, [the record] has been good for some.
Would you say there is still a touch of reggae in the album, despite the direction?
The problem with genres and labeling things like reggae is it can mean many things to a wide variety of people. If you listen to Jimmy Cliff and then lend an ear to Sean Paul, you would come to the realization that both reggae musicians are nothing alike. So what is reggae, really? What makes it reggae is the fact that the singer is usually singing in a Jamaican accent, or he/she can maintain a certain type of rhythm. Today reggae can mean so many things. On this record, it may not sound like roots reggae at first, but I sing with more of an accent than ever before. It's all subjective when it comes to music.
How did you come about selecting the Bob Marley song "Buffalo Soldier" on the album?
That's not a Bob Marley song, really. Bob Marley had a song called "Buffalo Soldier," but it is a term for African Americans that were cowboys in the early days in America. In my song, it had to do more about the rapper Shine who came in and did a guest spot. He said that line and I turned that it into the whole chorus of the song, which in turn became the name of the song.
Do you still maintain messages about faith in the album?
Yes, but it's not the only message in the record. The prevalent theme is that there is the freedom of choice in our lives. God gives us the ability to make choices and allows things to happen for us. There is a sense of faith, but also a responsibility for your life this way. You can pray for things to happen, and that's great. This life and this world was given to us to make this place a godly place.
You recorded a great deal of this record in Israel, did it have an impact on the final product?
Every place that you do a recording has an impact. Being in Israel definitely gave the album more o f a Jewish tilt, and added to the Middle Eastern nature of the album. It didn't impact on my spiritually, however.
OK, we are a little behind the gossip, do you mind explaining the drastic change of direction in your look? Are you still a practicing Hassidic Jew?
I don't think there is such a thing as a practicing Hassidic. Like everything else, every idea, whether it be communism, democracy, or Hassidim starts with pure ideas and as it trickles through humanity and generations, it becomes something very different than it started out.
So am I practicing Hassidic now?
Well, I certainly don't look like a Hassidic now, in many ways. But, I feel that I am as much a true Hassidic than when I was when I was wearing a black beard, yarmulke, and a black hat .
Are there times when you miss the beard?
Of course. Plenty.
What can South Florida expect at your show?
A lot of newer songs and a combination of older songs.
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