Matisyahu Evolution

Matisyahu’s brilliant new album, “Akeda,” marks a significant evolution for the American musician who found fame as a beatbox rapping Hasidic Jewish singer, inspiring fans with spiritual and uplifting songs wrapped in reggae rhythms.

While he’s been classified as a reggae musician, he’s really more an exceptionally talented artist who draws from a wide palette, which includes elements of pop, rock, hip-hop and Jamaica’s most famous export.

Having shed his traditional Hasidic beard, garments and religion that fueled him a couple of years ago, Matisyahu has attained new creative peaks with “Akeda.” A crowning achievement that may be viewed as his “Sgt. Pepper,” the album maps his transformation with a series of songs that range in tone from hauntingly beautiful to triumphantly exuberant.

“I’ve been developing over the years, but this record is a jump for me,” says Matisyahu. “I put a lot of heart and soul into this record, and the feedback has been tremendous. I went through some big changes over the last few years while I was writing this record. I went through a divorce, I went through a lot leaving the religion, and shaving and changing my appearance. That was intense. I had issues with addiction, and I’m sober right now. It’s been an intense few years, a lot has gone on, and I poured all of it out into this record.”

The title of the album refers to the Hebrew word for binding, particularly the biblical tale of Abraham binding his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice to God. Angelic intervention saved Isaac, and Matisyahu chose “Akeda” to reflect some of the sacrifices he’s made in his life.

“A lot of sacrificing has gone on,” he notes. “I sacrificed myself when I came into the religion. That was a huge act of self-nullification. I sacrificed myself in some ways to have a music career and not be around my family. I sacrificed myself when I decided to become a part of this world and leave the ghetto and the yeshiva (where traditional religious texts are studied) and go out on a tour bus, and everything that came along with that, all the pitfalls, going out there thinking I was going to be invincible, and being affected by it all.

“And then finding my true self over the years and putting that religious guide to the side and getting rid of the beard, how everyone knew me, that being my trademark, knowing that people would not understand, they wouldn’t get it. They would go to the lowest common denominator and think this is just the story of a guy who was religious, who became secular because he fell into the pitfalls of society, and that’s not what happened at all – there was an evolution. So there have been some sacrifices.”

As a sign of his musical and spiritual evolution, “Akeda” opens with a powerful, rocking prayer, “Reservoir,” filled with biblical references that are relayed without a trace of reggae.

“There’s a story, and the order of the songs is really important,” he explains. “It was an issue because you want to start big and lock people in, but I made a distinct choice not to do that, and to put the song, ‘Reservoir,’ first because I felt it’s the beginning of the story, this is where I left off, this is how I dealt with the backlash from fans and the media about what I went through. It relates all back to the Bible, which is the lens through which I still see the world in a big way. It’s about a reservoir. It’s about a moment in my life and something I keep coming back to. It’s a prayer, and every time you reach a new occasion you say this shehecheyanu prayer – ‘Thank you for giving me life for allowing me to reach this occasion.’ So what better way to start a record: thank you to God for letting me put out another record.”

Blessed with a gift for composing rousing anthems, Matisyahu creates a pumping, horn-propelled track, “Watch the Walls Melt Down,” which bursts with joyous energy on “Akeda.” “It’s explosive,” he says. “The record has a lot more dynamics. There are sensitive moments and explosive moments and everything in between.”

One of the most powerful songs on the album, the beautiful ballad, “Hard Way,” references some of the pain he endured during his recent transformation.

“It’s the first song we worked on,” he explains. “I was really going through the issue of my divorce at that point, trying to figure out what to do. I always felt happiness has to come from the inside, and it’s not necessarily about your circumstances or situation, and that’s the theme: who’s going to quench your thirst; who’s going to satiate; who’s going make you happy. And it’s me saying, ‘No; I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do, and I make mistakes and I’m going to learn the hard way.’ It’s the only way I seem to be able to learn my lessons in life. I wrote it and sang it in about 45 minutes, and that’s the actual take.”

Helping him craft the rich, dynamic, musical tapestry of the album is the incredible Dub Trio, the brilliant Police of reggae.

“There’s nobody that can do what they do,” he emphasizes. “The truth is I had fallen away from reggae music, and I wasn’t inspired by it anymore. It wasn’t until I linked up with the Dub Trio about four years ago that I started to be reinspired by reggae music because of the way they played it. There’s no one who plays live reggae or hip-hop that I’ve ever seen – not any band from Jamaica or anywhere else – that can do what they can do.”

Ranging so far out of the box on “Akeda,” is he concerned at all about the reaction of hardcore reggae fans?

“I’m beyond that,” he says. “They’ve been saying, ‘More reggae,’ since the first record I put out. The first record was a roots-reggae record, and starting with ‘Live at Stubbs,’ I was introducing rock guitar solos and beat-boxing. I’ve always been a multigenre artist who likes different things. I’ve developed; my palette has grown. It’s still a color I love to paint with, but it’s not the only one. When we released a few new songs (from “Akeda”), I was excited about the song, ‘Confidence.’ It’s really reggae, no question about it; Collie Buddz from Bermuda is on it, and everything about it is reggae. I’m finally thinking these reggae people will be able to shut up and say, ‘Thanks for making a reggae track.’ The first comment I read was, ‘Where’s the reggae?’ I do get frustrated, but I try and just see the humor in it.”

Born Matthew Miller, Matisyahu’s musical quest began around age 17, when he left home to follow jam bands like Phish. During his college days, he became entranced with the music of dancehall reggae artists such as Tony Rebel, Sizzla and Buju Banton. “I have cousins from Barbados, and that’s how I started with reggae, listening to early dancehall,” he recalls. “And then I got into Bob Marley, and I immersed myself in him.”

Raised a secular Jew, he adopted at age 19 the strict Hasidic tradition and became famous as the long-bearded, black fedora-wearing Jewish reggae rapper.

“As a teenager, I was searching for my identity and I was connecting with the music deeply,” he reports. “I tried to connect with the identity as a Rasta, but that’s not who I was. As I matured, I realized that all this reggae music had been informed by the Old Testament, and the Jewish people had brought it to the world. That made me interested to explore the Old Testament from a Jewish perspective, and I spent 10 years doing that. It wasn’t like I had to introduce this music to a canon of philosophy, because it was already there.

“It was different because I’m not a Rasta, I’m a Jew doing it. And I was psyched because Bob Marley had the Bible to use as his weapon with this music. And who else better to use it than a Jew? So it didn’t feel unauthentic or out of place. The music felt real to me also, though I’m not Jamaican. When I listened to it, it would touch my soul. Music goes above and beyond place and time and race and religion. So I was able to make the connection and bring it all together.”

Part of his mission has been to inspire, empower and move people, and to touch their souls.

“I’ve always made music from an inside place,” he says. “It’s been the way in which I cope with myself and the world, how I express myself, but mainly it’s been therapeutic for me. It’s been the thing that has gotten me through those moments when you feel that life is unraveling, and you put on a song and it helps you make sense of the world and it helps everything fit together and it pulls you through. That’s the kind of music I’ve wanted to make. I want that kid who is feeling like he’s losing it all, and no one in the world understands him and he’s totally alone; he puts on the headphones and listens to a song like ‘Broken Cars’ or ‘Surrender’ (on “Akeda”), and they speak to him and make him feel he’s not alone and he’s part of this world. That’s what I want to do with my music.”