Soul singer week! Matisyahu interview, the soul searching continues

When the world first got to know rapper, singer-songwriter and spiritual seeker Matisyahu, nine years ago with the release of his first album, he was easy to spot. After all, how many stage diving rappers are Hasidic Jews sporting black complete with hat, beard and forelocks? Only one to reach the heights that he has reached.

Through the years, it was clear through his art that he was the real deal, and dedicated, very dedicated. He rapped the Torah’s message to all who would listen.

Then, one day,  late in 2011, he stopped. That is how it seemed to those who were shocked by a photo and announcement on his website.

“No more Chassidic reggae superstar," read his announcement while the picture revealed a clean-cut Matisyahu, or Matis for short. 

In truth, it wasn’t a hastily made decision and although it shocked some, in many ways he hadn’t changed. That is what his latest album, 2012’s “Spark Seeker” shows.

Still, interviews focused on the shock of Matis ditching his hat and locks. Unhappy with the blowback, he left his Brooklyn home for Los Angeles.  He also avoided the Internet and it’s naysayers.

The following interview shows a straight line from the teenager Matis was (born as Matthew Paul Miller in 1979) as he followed bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead through the years he dedicated himself to Judaism to the soul seeker he is to this day. 

Gene: What was it about Phish and the Grateful Dead that appealed to you?

Matis: What appealed to me there was the freedom. There was a certain freedom to it – young kids that were not in school and not with their parents just following this band around the country. To me, that was awesome.

Gene: That’s interesting. Is that the opposite of conservative religious rituals and dress?

Matis: To some degree they are opposites. Both groups are searching for freedom. But it’s a matter of different ways of getting there.

Gene: Could you expand on that? What is it that they are searching for?

Matis: Following a band – for me – is about the music, of getting lost in the music. It was about the oneness of creation. Feeling the oneness with this group of people in this building listening to this music and feeling that connection. I think religion, certainly Judaism, the basis of it is about feeling that oneness and losing yourself in the creation and finding someone else out there to connect with. Having a relationship with God, that is what you’re trying to do there. With music, I was trying to do the same thing. Both of those elements came together in my life with my music career and my lifestyle.

Gene: I have always seen music as a real-life miracle that everyone can participate in and it sounds like that is what you are getting from that?

Matis: That is correct, yes.

Gene: What are you searching for?

Matis: There are few things: knowledge wisdom understanding, love, connection, meaning, to reach people with music and words, to give honest expression to my feelings and thoughts, There a lot of things.

Gene: Do you think your fans are looking for the same things at your shows that you were looking for at shows you went to?

Matis: To some degree, everyone has their reasons for why they go to shows or why they are listening to music, but I think that if you boil it down, at the end of the day, we are all searching for the same thing.

Gene: Are there things that you do with your music that gear it specifically to that kind of communal, spiritual experience?

Matis: The words in the songs are geared toward communal spirituality. And the improvisation during the shows—when I am making music, I am trying to have an inner spiritual experience and I am hoping that it will translate through the music to the fans and that we will all be on the same page. That is the goal.

Gene: It seems like people’s reactions to your changes since “Spark Seeker” have been to esthetics. Your goals and your lyrics seem just as spiritual. Would you say that is true?

Matis: Yes, very much so.

Gene: Were you misunderstood?

Matis: What I have learned from the experience is to be less judgmental. Sometimes we think we have an understanding of why people do things, but there is a certain tendency we have that is quick to judge. A lot of people showed that side of themselves when I made that change. But there are people who are more trusting in the artist and the music that they believe in. If they are connecting with the music in a real way, and the words and music has affected their life in a positive way, those are going to be the people who aren’t going to be so quick to judge. There was a lot of depth in my decision to do that and I think people picked up on that, but not everyone.

Gene: Do you approach songwriting differently now than a few years ago?

Matis: I have different methods that I use when I am writing and they change all the time. It’s not really a matter of developing from one to another, but I have tried lots of styles of writing.

Gene: Has your connection to music changed over the years?

Matis: Some things have changed. At the core music still has the same effect and the same purpose in my life that it has always had. But it has grown. It’s a much more real relationship that I have with music now. It’s sort of like being in a relationship that has matured and developed. It’s still about reaching out. It’s still about asking for strength. I have lived a life that is dedicated to self growth.

Gene: You have traveled. You have followed. You have led. You have immersed yourself in religious traditions and followed your heart. What has been your greatest teacher so far?

Matis: That is a great question. I don’t know if I can say there has been one thing that has been the main teacher. I have been able to meet people in my life who have been able to help me and I have opened myself up to learning from people. I think that has been the greatest quality that I have had in terms of growth. Allowing myself to immerse fully into things, facing my fears about letting go of myself and losing myself in the process, in layman’s terms, being coachable. 

Gene: What's next for you?

Matis: I just released an acoustic EP. It’s a live EP of songs from “Spark Seeker.” I am also on an acoustic tour now. That is what I am doing right now.

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