What’s in a name? For Jewish reggae artist Matthew Paul Miller, adopting the name Matisyahu in 2001 was but one step in what he describes as a lifelong evolution.
Miller became Matisyahu, the Ashkenazic Hebrew equivalent of Matthew, when he was 19 after what he describes as a conscious search for guidance, structure and community — something he found in Brooklyn’s Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic community. In an attempt to shed his past and become something new, he adopted the long Hasidic payor and beard and traditional dress.
“I remember the first time I wore a yarmulke,” he says. “It felt good. It felt good to represent something, to represent a people, to represent something ancient; something that I felt was eternal.”
Matisyahu’s stirring debut, 2004’s “Shake Off the Dust… Arise,” was his decisive arrival on the music scene — in full Hasidic garb, he sings and spits devotional verses over high-powered dancehall reggae. The deliberate manner in which he was able to unite such seemingly disparate things as rap, reggae and Hasidism was met with widespread acclaim, as were his follow-up albums, 2006’s “Youth” and “Light” three years later.
Despite the successes, however, Matisyahu says that his faithful adherence to Hasidic guidelines caused him to lose his self and his ability to make decisions and his philosophy began to change. Before releasing last year’s “Spark Seeker,” the near-unrecognizable image of a cleanly-shaven Matisyahu was revealed via his Twitter account, to the disappointment of many.
“There were a lot of people that were hurt, that were upset and didn’t understand why I shaved my beard,” he says. “But for me, it was a very inner, organic and real process that lasted over the course of the last 12, 13 years… At one point I was just able to make that realization that I can change and that it’s my life and that I can do whatever I want and that God will love me.”
“Spark Seeker,” a more pop-driven and accessible yet still spiritual album, was written and recorded before Matisyahu revealed his new look. He says that a new album, set to drop in the spring, will deal in-depth with his drastic physical change and the backlash that followed.
For his upcoming record Matisyahu recruited his touring band Dub Trio’s bassist Stu Brooks in his first role as a producer along with Joel Hamilton (Pretty Lights, Dub Trio) and recorded it in Brooks’ home in Brooklyn as well as in his own, in Los Angeles.
The album’s sound, he says, runs the gamut in terms of genre and style while the theme and lyrics remain consistent throughout.
“It has electronic stuff, it has stuff that’s really organic. It’s definitely more stripped back, less bells and whistles and more of a clean top sound than my last record. It’s more of an indie record. It’s edgy and emotional and very personal. It feels very honest.”