Sitting down with Matisyahu

Walking into the green room of the Bearsville Theater after the evening’s performance, I couldn’t tell who was more in a haze, myself or the room I was about to enter. A small group formed, celebrating the night’s incredible performance when I met up with Matthew (Matisyahu) and we headed toward the couch at the back of the party to chat. A very chill presence, it was probably the most calm and existential conversation I remember having. Matisyahu’s stage persona is reflective of the man he is behind the scene as well. We discussed his upcoming album, collaboration in the jam scene and how his evolving faith influences him and his music.

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Jim Gilbert: The New Year’s coming up, and what I wanted to talk about was your evolution ya know, everybody talks about how they’re going to change in the new year… what they’re going to do in the new year. Over your career you’ve done quite a bit of evolving, and I wanted to kinda get a feel for why you made the changes you did, how they’ve affected you, how they’ve affected your music. How have you evolved over your career?

Matisyahu: I would say that like when I started out, there was more just my understanding of music and what it is, my voice, and my sound, and what it is I do, it was just new. It was like when you first start learning something or first getting to know something or someone and it’s fresh and it’s a certain kinda excitement, energy, passion love… Also sort of like unfamiliarity, or a little bit of an uncomfortability with it. And over the years, being able to be on the road, make music, play music, write music, just become much more solidified in terms of my understanding of what music is and what it is that I do. So I think there’s a lot more dimensions to what I do now, in terms of my evolution. When I first started out, it was more like there was one kind of dynamic to what I did. And now there’s a lot of different dynamics and colors that I use in order to create music.

JG: When you started out, who would you say your influences were? It’s a unique blend, so who did you look at and go I want to be like them? Or did you just want to do your own thing?

M: No, I was influenced and continued to be influenced over the years.

JG: So, the change in your appearance over the course of the last couple of years, you’ve changed look and feel. Was there a reason for that?

M: Well, my look has always been a direct reflection of what’s going on in terms of my expression of my inner world, so absolutely. My look is kind of defining what’s going on.

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JG: And that’s coming out in the music as well?

M: Exactly. The music is like the main place for me to express it intellectually, emotionally, and even intuitively and style, fashion and like the way that I look I guess, is sort of the outgrowth of where my existential self is.

JG: I see you evolving into more and more integration into the jam world. And tonight you guys went on it was beautiful, you let some of those things just go and evolve on stage. What kind of direction are you seeing yourself in that world, the jam world?  You’ve been on stage with Umphrey’s McGee quite a few years ago and you’ve got a tie with Twiddle too, right?

M: Yeah, I think in terms of the jam thing, basically, I really wanted to go with them in terms of the music that they make. Like, me, I’ve been doing this for over 10 years and playing a lot of shows a year in order to to support myself and my people and my family. It’s mandatory to be keeping the music interesting, and I find that there’s sort of like, a person’s brain is sort of split in terms of life and the times that we feel the most like free are when we do something new. For example, like a person that has a habit, and when they break that happen and do something differently, even in the smallest little thing, it’s a big deal. It creates a wave inside them and inside the world, of basically moving towards freedom. And in music, there’s the same thing. So like when you rely on your songs, which are great, you know it’s great to have songs, it’s great to write songs, record songs, it’s even great to play songs. But when you rely on what you already know, your muscle memory in your body automatically goes on autopilot. However, when you improvise and you’re making music, unique music in the moment, your other side of your brain, your creative part of your brain automatically turns on. That’s really what I’m interested in, in terms of the music that we’re making. Is those unique moments and creating basically a certain vibe to bring everyone including the band and the people watching the music so that there’s no more real line. Like, you’re not coming to watch the show or watch the performer, but everyone is kinda together in the room, going through the same feelings, the same emotions, going in the same zone. And uh that kinda ties into what you’re saying about jam. That’s for sure the type of music that I’m interested in and making in that sense.

JG: What do you have in store for us for 2017?

M: Well we’ve made a record along those same lines, where, as a band, we were on tour for a while kind of figuring out what our sound was and how to bring together a lot of these different elements of genres that we like to dip into. Basically, we went into the studio, wrote, recorded, and have a new record coming out with 8-10 min. songs on it. It’s not the typical 3.5-4 minute radio songs, but it’s a band record. And that’ll be out Spring 2017 and we’ll continue to be out on the road playing our music and hopefully people will be listening.

JG: Do you do a little bit of everything you’ve done over your career?

M: It’s pretty progressive. It’s hard to say what the core of this record is. It’s very soulful, it has sort of a classic almost like a throwback sound to some extent because it’s all done live, it’s not done digitally. It’s not beats that are made on the computer, but uh, it’s all the band live playing in the studio.

JG: Band you had on stage?

M: Yes. Pretty much, it’s the band on stage.

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JG: How does religion fit in with where you’re going?

M: I think that, you know, I think that with certain songs that I’ve written that are out that really mean a lot to a lot of people. Those songs will be there forever and will continue to have meaning for people.  In terms of the religious and the Jewish fanbase, there are certain songs that I think… I really believe that my existential search and process in being sort of a young teenager on a quest for understanding of my world and where being Jewish and God and spirituality and music, all those things fit in. And becoming religious, and exploring Judaism, and a lot of different facets of Judaism in particularly within the Hasidic world and writing songs based on a lot of what I explored there. And my process of going through it and in my process coming out of it I think has a lot of meaning for a lot of people on a lot of levels at different times in their lives. So for young Jewish people who may or may not be religious, I think that different albums and lyrics and songs will connect with them at different points of their lives for the person becoming religious to the person sort of moving beyond it, to the person tapping into their own identity as a Jew.

JG: All different themes in the new album?

M: No, this is all one theme, all the lyrics and songs and the records are connected. This is definitely the continuation of my process of in terms of my understanding of myself, and the religion, and God, and Judaism.

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