Reggae Chassidic sensation Matisyahu is scheduled to appear at the University of Maryland, College Park's Cole Field House on Thursday, November 18 at 8:00. The event is cosponsored by Maryland Hillel.
We recently interviewed him when he performed at Duke University. After a minyan with students, Matisyahu came strolling into the dressing room in very simple clothing, and we commenced an informal interview. Matisyahu (Matthew Paul Miller in 1979), an American Chassidic Jewish musician, has cited Phish and Bob Marley among his biggest musical influences. After releasing his first studio album in 2004, Matisyahu became a hit with Jews and non-Jews alike because of his unique sound and appealing lyrics. With an acute ability to create music different from the rest of the music today, Matisyahu has fused the styles of music close to him to successfully establish himself as a global musical sensation
What made you start singing?
Well, as a kid I always liked singing and performing. When I was a teenager and getting into my own music, it was just a natural thing for me to start singing. I started writing poems and lyrics. And when I was about 18, I lived in Oregon and I met a guy who played guitar, we became friends and started a band.
You have this eclectic sound of hip-hop, reggae, rap, and even jazz. How did you create that sound?
It came from listening to music. I listened to so many different types of music, like Phish or Bob Marley or hip-hop. I always liked a broad array of styles of music and I took in different things of different types of music.
Where do you get the inspiration for your songs?
Inspiration for my songs came from the music I was listening to. I took the things that I was learning in terms of the Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah, and then as I became religious the Chassidut and the Jewish philosophy and I started putting it all together to write lyrics. When I was in yeshiva, I was basically just studying Torah and whenever I would come across lines or ideas I felt were powerful or cool I would write them all down and then when I went to record my first record I took all those ideas and quotations and started using that as the basis for the inspiration for the songs. On the last record I chose one particular Chassidus Reb Nachman and I got into really studying Reb Nachman and his philosophy and his stories and used that really as the basis for the Light record. My next record I went to the grave of Baal Shemtov and spent a week there coming up with an idea and lyrics.
Have you ever been a victim of anti-Semitism?
Not that much, really. I've been all around the world and I've been lucky that, with the music that I'm doing I feel like it appeals to people in a certain way where they don't get stuck or hung-up on it. I have had one show where someone came and was protesting with a Palestinian flag outside the show, and I think it was a Jewish kid, in Boston. That was one time. I've played over a thousand concerts, so it's pretty amazing that I haven't run into it that much. And I played all kinds of places where people have told me there's tons of anti-Semitism, like France or Germany. But I think I haven't run up against it; I know it's out there.
How do you keep your Jewish pride and identity in the face of so much media attention? Have you ever faced pressures from producers or anything like that?
Well, I mean, the whole basis for what I do is rooted in Judaism. When I became religious, I really disconnected from mainstream culture. I was very anti-American culture and very much into coming in touch with my Judaism and not being afraid of it. I've found a lot of producers and record companies who have been respectful to me. Because, you know, if you're back and forth or wishy-washy about it, then people sense that, but when you know who you believe in and what you are, people respect that. And you see that with Israel today.
Have you ever considered making aliyah?
Yeah, I mean, I go to Israel a lot, and I love Israel, I would love to live there, but I travel a lot and when I'm gone, I'm away from my wife and my kids. So it's really good for us to be in New York because she's right by her friends and stuff. But, at some point, I'm sure we'll move there. I mean, we'll all move there at some point.
What kind of message are you trying to send with your music?
I don't really focus too much on what we're trying to tell people, because I feel like my music is really about self-reflection and meaning in my life and what's important and meaningful to me. So if people can benefit from that, then it's great, but I don't really have like one idea that I'm trying to transmit to everybody. I mean, you'll find lots of things in my music but it's not so much that I'm trying to really transmit a message.
So in 2008, you contributed to the documentary film, "Call + Response," which is about human trafficking and sex slavery. What caused you to take part in that, and how has that experience changed your feelings now?
Someone reached out to me and asked if I would be a part of it, so I did a little bit of homework and read a book it was based on called Not For Sale. So a lot of that become very much connected to my last record, to Light, because I was studying the story called "The Seven Beggars" by Reb Nachman about two children who are lost in a forest and that was really the basis for the record. Each night they meet another beggar, and each beggar has a deficiency, like a blind beggar. I incorporated that with this story of the Seven Beggars and made the whole record really about two children that are lost in this forest. So it had an effect on me. A lot of people don't know it, but it's very much a part of the lyrics and the ideas in that record. Like, for example, there's a song called "We Will Walk." People just think that's a love song, but it's the idea of these two children, that we will walk until my blood runs out, until my heart is burnt, you are not alone. The idea is that this one child is dying and she's telling him that she'll continue and keep him alive inside of her while she tries to cross this desert. So I kind of used that as this backdrop of inspiration.
At the moment, do you have a particular role model?
I don't really have a role model, but I have a friend who is wiser and smarter and older than I am that I go to for advice. It's important to have someone like that in your life that you can trust. It's a blessing; you can't force it. I've had that in my life with different people, people that I've felt really helped guide me. But I have somebody now. He actually co-writes the lyrics with me as well. His name is Ephraim Rosenstein.
How did you and your wife meet?
My wife went to film school at NYU and was making a film about Shomer Negiah [the prohibition of touching among observant Jews]. I was playing a show at the Knitting Factory. And she wanted to do an interview, and I was kind of interested in her. And we'd seen each other at different events before, like maybe a handful of events over the course of two years and she always kind of caught my eye. And right around that time, I was starting to play more gigs and my rabbi told me, "If you're going to do this, you've got to get married because you won't stay religious." That was really good advice and and I fell in love with her right away. She was not into Chabad. She was Orthodox but more modern. Her experience with Chabad had not been so great, so she thought I was kind of weird and I guess when she kept watching back the interview, she realized I'm a normal person. So we started dating, and then got married pretty quickly.
If you could travel back in time 15 years and meet yourself, back when you were this "Phish-head," what would you say to yourself? What kind of advice would you give?
What would I say to myself? I guess I would say, um, hmm [long pause]. Wow, that's a good question. I don't know. Would I even listen to myself? I guess I would tell myself to keep doing what you're doing, because it worked out for me. I was pretty confused and pretty out there, and I was always kind of struggling with different things. But I really soul-searched. So I don't think I would want to screw that up. I would probably just tell myself to ease up on myself a little bit. I guess what's most important is just to love yourself, you know? And not to listen to that critic inside who's always telling you "Don't do this." Let go of the critic and love yourself.
Samantha Tropper and Max Kligerman are students at Duke University.