Matisyahu ( nee Matthew Paul Miller ) definitely made an impression when the public got to know him more than a decade ago.
Not only was he an Orthodox Jew who adhered to the tradition of wearing a long beard, etc., but he blended religion-based themes with musical genres such as hip-hop and reggaebut he produced several hits, including "King Without a Crown," a Top 40 hit.
Since then, he was undergone spiritual and musical evolutions/rebirths, including shaving the famed beard. He recently talked over the phone about his newest CD, Undercurrent, as well as the changes in his life.
Windy City Times: I remember you from around 2005and you were quite different from artists I had heard and seen, although I thought you were quite talented. Being different, were you hesitant about entering the public world of music?
Matisyahu: YeahI've always been a little eccentric. I wasn't raised in a Hasidic neighborhood; I went to public school and grew up listening to regular music.
When I decided to go into music as my life's work, that was one thing. But at the same time, I went through this transformation in my life and got into the whole Hasidic thing. I found a real meeting point between those two cultures due to music, but I was also about who I was.
So when I started out, I didn't give much thought about how difficult it would be or if it would work. I had performed on many open-mic nights just as a regular-looking white college kid. People would hear me sing and rap, and they would flip out; they were surprised. ( It was around the time of Eminem, in the late '90s. ) As I started to get into Judaism, I figured this would have a huge impact on people.
WCT: Yes, and it seems like you've had one of the most public beard-shavings in history.
M: Yes, and it was also because I had a long beard before most people did, in 2003-04. For fans who had been following me and seeing the [gradual] evolution, it wasn't so surprising. But for people who knew me as one thing and then saw me [suddenly] as something else, it was a surprise.
WCT: So Windy City Times is an LGBT newspaper. I'm not sure if you knew that. [Note: WCT made arrangements with Matisyahu's team to let him know ahead of time.]
M: Hmmm.... I did not know that. It's interesting though because, in a few weeks, I'm doing a show for the LGBT community. I'm doing a show for the Orthodox Jewish LGBT community. There has been some old-school backward thinking.
WCT: And some people might think that you shouldn't recognize LGBT rights if you truly adhere to your religion.
M: Yeah, I know. At this point, I don't identify as anything Hasidic or Orthodox. I'm a huge supporter of the community and of people following their truth.
It is true that within the tenets of Orthodox Judaism, that being [LGBT] is not acceptedand that was a big problem for me. There were three or four points that I had to accept that I just couldn't.
WCT: What was it like working with [gay Orthodox Jewish rapper] Y-Love?
M: YeahI haven't worked with him in a while. I knew him a long time ago. Actually, one of the first shows I did, in Washington Square Park for a rabbi, he stumbled in and we rapped together. But we haven't seen each other very much since then.
WCT: Let's talk about Undercurrent. Tell me about the title.
M: Well, I moved from L.A. back to New York, by the Hudson River. I spent a lot of time writing this record just looking out over the river, looking at the imageryand I used the imagery in my lyrics. The theme is about the currents just below the surface that pull us in different directions.
WCT: Are you talking political, emotional or other types of undercurrents?
M: Not politicalmore emotional, more personal...
WCT: Where you do feel your spiritual evolution has brought you now?
M: I feel like I've come to a place where I have a nice balance between the principles and ethics I was raised with [as well as] the knowledge of my culture and religion, and my self-knowledge. I'm a lot more relaxed than I was years ago, more accepting of myself and those around me, and more appreciative of things.
WCT: I understand you worked with a woman for the first time last year. Is that true?
M: I worked with Judith Hill on a song called "Daddy's Girl" that was never released. It's a beautiful song. And I worked with a pair of women [Salt Cathedral] who sang backup on [the EP Release the Bound, per Observer.com].
[Working with women] was something else that was frowned upon, according to Orthodox Judaism; women are not allowed to sing publicly. Again, it's an archaic and totally ridiculous rule. I missed some great opportunities because of religionbut I have evolved.
WCT: Over the years, what's the biggest change you've seen in the music industry?
M: The music industry has changed tremendously because of the internet. I caught it at the end of the old-school business, when radio was the only way to market songs. Now, it's just as important to get on the playlists on Spotify. There are a lot more ways to expose people to your music. However, people do tend to work independently and you can't have those music-label collaborationsbut, now, people have more control over their music.