When Matisyahu, an Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn, became a reggae sensation seemingly overnight, you couldn’t help but wonder if this was just a strange gimmick. After all it’s not everyday you see a bearded, kippah-wearing father of two jamming out like he’s Bob Marley. But, three years after releasing Youth, his hit sophomore record, Matthew Paul Miller is still as popular as ever.
That fact that his new album, Light, is high on many people’s must-have lists is all the more impressive considering he hasn’t released a disc since 2006 and didn’t tour for chunks of 2008 and 2009.
“The next record I make I’ll try to not wait so long before I get started with it,” he says on the phone from his home in Brooklyn. “I didn’t want to work on the record while I was touring, but I was on the road for a while after the first record came out.”
He eventually stopped travelling to work on the disc, then took time to find the right promotion team, and just before he was originally scheduled to release the record — in 2008 — he decided to make some changes to his songs.
“It was a learning curve, but I now have the sense of how to get these things done faster,” he says.
The final product might surprise some of his die-hard fans — it’s a lot less reggae than his previous disc. We Will Walk sounds like a U2-meets-Sublime mash-up, Escape’s verses are straight-up hip-hop, and Motivate has a Linkin Park-esque rock chorus. There are still plenty of the reggae-lite sounds that made him famous, but this is easily Matisyahu’s most diverse effort of his career.
There’s also a bit of a shift lyrically. The singer doesn’t talk as explicitly about Torah or God as he did on the last disc. But that doesn’t mean the songs weren’t inspired by his religion.
“I’ll take an idea from a story or prayer, or a concept from the Hasidic philosophy and find something that really gets me going,” he explains. “I’ll think about that idea and how it resonates in me and try to write from an intuitive place.”
For Matisyahu, just the act of playing and connecting with an audience is spiritual too.
“That’s where the real love is happening,” he says. “It gives me a certain strength to continue. I feel involved in something that’s bigger than I am and I can’t stand in the way of it.”