When his single “King Without a Crown” cracked the Top 40 back in 2005, few reckoned that Matisyahu would be anything more than a novelty act. Something about a Hasidic Jew spitting meditative verses over reggae-rock beats seemed more SNL than MTV. But critics had to double-take when Matisyahu struck again with a stunner of a concert album, Live at Stubb’s; that dancehall’s kosher king had rocked a Texas barbecue joint famous for its pulled pork was certainly amusing, but there was now irrefutable evidence for Matisyahu’s ability to bring a house down. Since then, Matisyahu has continued to build on his reputation as a thoughtful artist and a must-see live act. Bright title aside, Matisyahu describes his upcoming third studio album, Light, as his darkest release to date—and also his most musically daring. After just a few minutes talking to the man, it’s clear that nothing he does is meant as a gimmick. From his spiritual commitments to his choice of beats, Matisyahu does nothing without careful consideration. On the phone, he speaks slowly and softly, nonetheless conveying passion for his influences and excitement for his new work.
You’ve spent the last two years working on Light. Now that the album’s done, how are you feeling?
I’m feeling pretty good about it. The album has actually been finished for a while now, we’ve just been waiting to release it. So it’s been out of my consciousness for a bit. The past few months have really been focused on touring, the live show.
Has adding the material from Light changed up the live show at all?
I’ve been touring with a new band since I finished the album. They’re called the Dub Trio. That’s been the biggest change. And we’ve been working some of the numbers from Light into the show already, mixing them in with some of the older songs. The new songs, though, really expand the range of the live show. On Light, I was trying to write songs that had more of a rock influence if they were supposed to be rock songs, or more of a hip-hop sound if that’s what I was going for. There’s a lot of styles of music represented in the album, and also now in our live performances.
In addition to being a musically adventurous album, this is also supposed to be the most personal record you’ve done.
In terms of the lyrics and themes, I’ve always approached my music as an exploration of my faith. My personal struggles and my spiritual questions always show up there, and music has been an important part of my search. On Light, the major theme is the continuation of that search. When I first started performing, my faith was very new to me, and it was a powerful source of inspiration. But I think that as I’ve lived my faith longer I’ve learned that there are still hard questions to ask, dark things to confront. A lot of the personal themes that went into the album came from exactly that: asking those hard questions that my personal struggles have generated.
So much of what’s marketed as “spiritual music” seems more concerned with providing easy answers than asking questions.
I completely agree. Music is already such a great source of comfort for so many people, and people will always want to accept that comfort and accept those familiar answers. And while I think that comfort that comes from music is powerful, it’s still important to keep pushing oneself and to keep pushing forward, and not to accept an easy resolution to those difficult questions.
Do you find it difficult to make music with spiritual themes at a time when popular anxieties are so materially and economically driven?
I think there is always going to be an audience, a big audience, for music that doesn’t challenge and is just easy to enjoy. Again, that’s a testament to how powerful music is—that sometimes a great song can take us out of our problems, however serious they are, and allow us to forget them for just three or four minutes. I respect that people sometimes want that, and sometimes I do write songs with just that goal of giving people a way out. But I also think that music can add to our spiritual awareness. It can be part of a search for spiritual truth and wholeness. And this is not something that is really encouraged in popular culture, which is really based on entertainment and on shallow, disposable things. With my music, I am always challenged because I’m making something that is part of that culture but also, hopefully, enriches and challenges it.
Why did you decide to release “One Day” as the first single from the new album?
To be honest, “One Day” was one of two songs that were written specifically to be released as singles. After the album was done, the record label said that they wanted something that would be an easier sell to radio stations. And I was okay with that. I tried to take a positive view and to approach it as an opportunity to write a song in a style that I would not have otherwise tried. So “One Day” is very different from what most of Light sounds like. It is less distinct and much more accessible. But I had fun making the song, and I do think it is a good Matisyahu song.
The song also has a very optimistic message. Did that come as a way of making the song more accessible?
I do think that it is easier to hook people in with a catchy, upbeat song than with something more serious. But also, that sense of optimism that “One Day” expresses is an important part of who I am. I feel that at the core of my being I have always been an optimistic person, with a positive mind. Even though I have made an album that is inspired in a lot of ways by struggle and by being challenged, I always feel that facing those challenges is easier if it is done with a sense of positivity and a belief that one can overcome those struggles. “One Day” takes that mindset and connects it to some of the issues of our times. It is an attempt to spread some of that optimism.
Sonically, the song has a pronounced hip-hop flavor to it.
Yes, when I began writing “One Day,” with the knowledge that it was going to be a single, I decided to write it less as a reggae song and more as a hip-hop song. So it’s probably the most hip-hop of anything I’ve recorded. Something I had wanted to do for a long time was to write a hip-hop song but with my own stylistic take on it. I especially wanted to write a song around a huge beat. And since the label wanted something that would work for radio, I thought it would be a good time to try it. I have been listening to a lot more hip-hop recently, and those massive, bouncing rythyms just seemed like something that would be a lot of fun to build a song around.
Should we be expecting a lot of big, hip-hop beats on Light?
On some tracks. The album is all over the place, musically. Some tracks do go for the big beats, while others are closer to the reggae sound that I began with. On a few of the tracks, I tried experimenting with some glitchy beats, but I also brought in some synthesizers to create some cool electronic sounds. A lot of the tracks use programmed beats of some kind, but others use live drumming, especially the more rock-oriented songs, and then a few have both live and programmed drums. There are some acoustic tracks too. I really wanted to try a lot of things this time around. I think the diversity of the album is one of its strengths.
As you were working through all of these sounds, which contemporary artists did you look to as influences?
I was fortunate in making this album because the two biggest influences, as far as contemporary musicians—my approach was just to bring them into the studio and have them work with me. That was Ooah from the Glitch Mob, who put together a lot of the electronic beats on the album, and Aaron Dugan, who plays all of the acoustic guitar on the album. But they’re both great musicians in their own right, and I would recommend their work to anybody. Aside from those two, it’s hard for me to point to a single artist in particular. I think, in part, the way that I listen to music has changed. I used to really focus on the whole of a song, whereas now it is easier for me to break a song down and think about it that way. So I might hear a song on the radio, say a Coldplay song or an M.I.A. song, and think that I really like the way it uses guitar in one part, or that I really like the way the beat is sampled, and I’ll make a note to try something like that next time I’m in the studio. So rather than being heavily influenced by particular songs or artists, I find that I am just always listening for new ideas, new things to try. And in doing that I end up borrowing from all kinds of musicians.
When you first broke through in the United States, dancehall and reggae were in vogue, especially with a lot of pop and hip-hop artists. How did that affect you as an artist with more of a long-term commitment to the style of music?
Well, I agree that reggae had been influencing hip-hop in a way that was maybe kind of new—that fusion of dancehall into American club music. But I really think that, in the broader view of pop music, reggae has always been an important influence. Maybe it comes and goes, but if you look back to the ’80s with the Police and even the Clash, to the ’90s with Sublime and No Doubt, there is always some big, popular act that works within that style. Some of those old, classical reggae performers, Bob Marley most of all, just wrote incredibly powerful music that so many people connect with and can influence so many generations of artists. When I first began listening to music it was Marley that I liked most of all. And from there I was constantly listening to reggae. There was just something I connected to in that music, the beats, the singing, that I didn’t find in other music. Since I’ve grown up some, and especially since I’ve begun writing my own music, I have broadened my musical tastes quite a lot. Reggae is not so dominant in my tastes; I also listen to a lot more rock, hip-hop, and electronic music. But I do think that reggae will always have something important to bring to pop music. And reggae will always be important to me.