By Jackson Howard, Daily Arts Writer
Published November 8, 2012
Just as KISS is known for its makeup, Flavor Flav for his watch and Michael Jackson for his glove, Matisyahu was known for his beard. In December, the singer shocked the world by shaving his facial hair and renouncing his Orthodox Jewish identity. It was a big change for an artist who is recognized for his religion and appearance almost as much as his music, but, contrary to what people may think, the transformation didn’t happen overnight.
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“I would just say it was more of a slower process than I just woke up and decided that,” he said in a phone interview with the Michigan Daily.
Matis, as he’s commonly called, grew up in New York in a Reconstructionist Jewish family. As a teenager, he challenged his religious beliefs, and went on the road following Phish around the country. In 1995, however, he attended a program in Israel where he explored his heritage and ultimately found his Jewish identity. His time in Israel led him to the more observant Orthodox Judaism, which he practiced until his decision to step away in December.
Matisyahu’s first three albums, 2004’s Shake Off the Dust…Arise, 2005’s Live at Stubb’s and 2006’s Youth, not surprisingly, all have heavy religious themes. While all three records were well reviewed, Youth (which, along with Live at Stubb’s, went Gold) really brought Matisyahu into the mainstream. In 2009, he released Light, his third studio album, and in July of this year, he put out his latest release Spark Seeker, which debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard Reggae Chart.
Though he has changed since his first record, Matisyahu said his religion will always be intertwined with his music.
“It’s something that’s going to continue to evolve and change and depending on how important religion is in my life at that time and what I’m going through,” Matisyahu explained.
“Now, my first record, that’s all it was about — me exploring my Jewish identity through Hassidism and through Judaism,” he added. “As my relationship with Judaism changes, my relationship with myself and God … all of these things are prevalent in the music.”
Spark Seeker was a change for Matis, as he chose to only work with one producer on the album, Kool Kojak. Although Kojak is mostly known for his work with pop stars like Ke$ha and Nicki Minaj, Matisyahu said the pair had great chemistry together.
“Initially I didn’t have that plan (to work only with one producer), but we started working together and we would write songs whenever I was in LA, and then we had about half the record finished” Matisyahu said. “So, we decided we’d go to Israel to work on it some more, and at that point we realized we would have a whole record together.”
While Matisyahu’s music is known throughout the world — you probably know his song “One Day” through NBC’s promotion of the 2012 Summer Olympics — he tends to be pigeonholed publically as the Hassidic reggae singer. In Matis’s mind, however, this was never the case.
“(Being typecast) never really crossed my mind” he said. “Everything I’ve done, you know, the decisions I’ve made in my life about my religion, my ideology, my philosophy … the things that I think, the way I represent myself to the world — all of that comes from within. All of that comes from what I believe to be true.”
“We don’t need to become famous or become successful,” Matisyahu added. “People know who you are, you don’t stop living life from the inside … it always comes from the inside out.”
Matis revealed plans for an acoustic album of songs “that maybe are a bit more personal,” and a new, reggae-feel record with his band. He also kicked off a two-month college tour in October, to “play some of the smaller towns, play for the kids and what not,” and will stop to play a show Thursday at the Blind Pig.
He added: “I’ll bring my winter coat.”