Another turn in Matisyahu’s evolution

July 19, 2012 By Mark Kennedy Associated Press
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A chapter in one of the most unusual spiritual journeys ended in, of all places, a Supercuts.

It was in one of the chain’s salons on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that Matisyahu‘s life as the world’s first Hasidic reggae superstar came to a swift end in a pile of hair.

He walked in with a decade’s worth of uncut dark beard, the result of his devotion to Orthodox Judaism, and walked out clean-shaven. What he is now isn’t always clear — and that’s fine with Matisyahu.

“I think that things grow and people move in different directions,” he says. “I’m just continuing and trying just to make the decisions that feel right and go after, intuitively, the things that I know to be right.”

The 33-year-old Matisyahu is far from the one who lived for years in a modest apartment in Crown Heights, the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn that is home base to the international Chabad-Lubavitch movement. He’s moved his wife and three sons to Los Angeles, favors pastels over dark suits, ditched the yarmulke, changed his management team, and is self-releasing his music.

“The last decade of my life has been immersed in Judaism and Jewish culture and Jewish religion and Jewish spirituality and I really took that trip as far as I could take it. And then I started to find other things resonating,” he says.

This week, he released his fourth studio CD, “Spark Seeker,” a fresh sound produced by Kool Kojak with reggae, hip-hop and electronica layered over Middle Eastern instruments and rhythms. It is as hard to pigeonhole as the artist who made it.

The album, recorded in Los Angeles and Israel, veers from the pure pop of “Sunshine” — a song Katy Perry would happily release — to the acid hip-hop of “Tel Aviv’n” and dancehall in “Searchin.” The rapper Shyne — whose conversion to Judaism has been widely noted — appears on two songs.

“It got more groovy,” says Matisyahu, with a smile.

As always, there is depth to Matisyahu’s lyrics, a man who, naturally, writes of constantly seeking answers. One line — “They say I’d inspire but I’m still looking for my fire” — stands out.

“When you write a record and you go back and think of what are the real key moments? That’s one of them,” he says. “That’s the idea that you’re never giving up on that as an artist or someone who’s trying to be creative and create music that’s inspirational for people.”

Kojak likened working with the singer to playing street ball in New York — both were guided by instinct and played to each other’s strengths. He says he admired how his friend handled the challenges that came with balancing faith and his own life.

“I think regardless of the depth of one’s spirituality, life demands change at times, and adaptation is obligatory,” he says. “In my opinion, he is the true definition of an artist, and I think this album fully expresses that notion. His evolutions — spiritual, personal, artistic — are all well documented in this work.”

Matisyahu was initially seen as a musical oddity when he emerged 10 years ago — a Lubavitch sect member in a flat-brim black hat and bushy beard who loved hip-hop beats and sang dancehall reggae in a Jamaican accent. He was a former Deadhead who, before his conversion, had followed Phish on tour, dabbled in drugs and grew up nonreligious as Matthew Miller in White Plains, N.Y.

His 2004 debut “Shake Off The Dust … Arise,” and the subsequent CDs “Live at Stubb’s” and “Youth” — all featuring versions of his biggest single “King Without a Crown” — became a crossover hit.

His 13-song CD “Light” in 2009 borrowed from dance and electronica and he provided the voice for “Drown in the Now,” a hit for the electronic duo The Crystal Method. He went back to Stubb’s in 2010 for “Live At Stubbs Vol. 2.”

But while the music was evolving, life in Brooklyn was getting harder. Matisyahu had rebelled at becoming the poster boy for orthodox Jewish cool and an uneasy stand-off had developed between the artist and a community that both embraced and feared his unpredictability.

“I went through a lot,” he says. “At a certain point, things just aren’t working, they’re not meshing together. There was moment where I definitely just felt, ‘I think I can do whatever I want with my life. People will understand or they won’t understand.'”

Once he’d made the decision in mid-December to shave off his beard, Matisyahu faced the next question: How should he handle it?

“The thought crossed my mind, ‘Well, how am I going to do it? Am I just going to show up on stage? People are going to wonder who this is,” he says.

“I really didn’t plan to say anything to anyone. I don’t even know if I called my wife or told anybody. I just walked into a Supercuts on the Upper West Side after a couple of days of agonizing over the decision. Then I realized that I had to do it. I realized I was making it into too big of a deal.”

Why a Supercuts? Matisyahu explains: “I didn’t own a razor.”

Within a few minutes, a decade’s worth of beard was gone. The next day, Matisyahu was scrolling through his Twitter feed when a fan, unaware of the change, quoted one of his lyrics, “At the break of day I look for you at sunrise/When the tide comes in I lose my disguise.”

“When I wrote that lyric, I don’t know if I knew exactly what it meant. But in that moment, that’s what it meant,” he says. “I realized that was prophetic to my life, to a certain extent.”

Matisyahu stood in front of a mirror, snapped a photo of his new look with his smartphone, and sent it via Twitter, basically telling the world. He hopes his followers will understand.

“I think when you’re a fan of music — at least the way I’ve been a fan to artists that have really touched me — you’re with them for the long haul. They might do things that you don’t understand or agree with, but I think I’ve always tried to hold my judgment and give them the space to do what they need to do,” he says.

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