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Monday, March 13, 2006

Article - Matisyahu: Spiritual and Spirited

Matisyahu: Spiritual and Spirited
By Bram Teitelman Feb 23, 2006, 10:10 GMT

Of all the artist-development stories to emerge in 2005, Matisyahu`s was perhaps the most unique. Not only was his breakout album, 'Live at Stubb`s,' hastily recorded for $8,000, its first single, 'King Without a Crown,' is a modern rock smash - a nearly unheard-of feat for a reggae track. And then there is Matisyahu himself: a Hasidic Jew whose reggae- and rock-tinged sound celebrates his faith.

Yet while the 26-year-old artist is devoutly religious, he is not letting that stand in the way of getting his music heard. 'Who doesn`t want success?' he asks. 'There`s some artists that say they don`t, and they`re not looking for it, but I`m not one of those artists.'

Clearly his music is resonating with the public. 'King Without a Crown' moves to No. 7 this week on Billboard`s Modern Rock chart and is now starting to react at top 40. 'Live at Stubb`s' has topped Billboard`s Top Reggae Albums chart for eight weeks. It has sold 340,000 copies so far and is No. 43 on The Billboard 200.

On March 7, his new studio album, 'Youth,' comes out on JDub/Or/Epic. Sources say the initial shipment for the album, produced by Bill Laswell, Jimmy Douglass and Ill Factor, will be 400,000 units.

Is Matisyahu an artist with staying power or a novelty? Believers say he has longevity.

'Is it novelty? Of course it`s not. It`s too real to be novelty,' declares Bruce Warren, assistant GM for programming at the influential noncommercial WXPN Philadelphia, which was one of the first stations to play 'King Without a Crown.'

'It was our sense that this was the kind of musical discovery our listeners listen to public radio for,' Warren says. The song is 'very spiritual, and it touches people regardless of what their race or religion is. It reminds me of Bob Marley in that Matis has a universal message and some great grooves to match.'

' `Live at Stubb`s` has sold well since release,' says Dave Alder, senior VP at Virgin Entertainment Group. 'It was a title that emerged through our developing-artist program, Virgin Recommends, and we have seen accelerated sales trends over the past few months. Much of the success of the album has been down to positive word-of-mouth. There is certainly a strong buzz on the new album.'

Matisyahu`s debut album, 'Shake Off the Dust . . . Arise,' was released with relatively little fanfare in 2004 on JDub, a nonprofit label and event production company. When Michael Caplan, co-founder and then-president of Or Music, first heard of Matisyahu, he wrote him off as a novelty. But several months later, 'I watched a clip of him performing on the Jimmy Kimmel show, and my reaction was like most people`s: The first 30 seconds, it`s novelty, and 90 seconds in, you realize it`s real,' he says.

Caplan, who is now senior VP of A&R for Sony Music, got in touch with JDub and found out Matisyahu was playing at a Jewish high school the next day. Impressed by his live show, Caplan and his partner, Larry Miller, signed him to Or Music (now Or Media Group).

Caplan thought that the studio album did not represent where Matisyahu was artistically, so one of the label`s first moves was to have him record 'Live at Stubb`s.'

There was a strategy to taping in Texas. 'Austin was perfect because it screams `goyim,` ' Caplan says with a laugh. 'It wasn`t like taping it in Crown Heights. I wanted to show it works here too.'

Indeed, Caplan says that so far, Matisyahu is playing well to the mainstream. 'This is an informal observation, but secular Jews have more of a problem with it than [non-Jews]. In the larger world, people are yearning for spirituality. Some people are going, `Is this a Christian song?` '

The clip of Matisyahu performing on 'Jimmy Kimmel Live' was also circulated on the Internet. Digital success continued when mtvu.com embraced the live video of 'King Without a Crown': The song ended 2005 as the Web site`s most downloaded video.

After 'Live at Stubb`s' sold 20,000 units, it was upstreamed from Or Music to Epic. At 35,000 units it moved from RED, Sony`s independent distribution arm, to Sony Distribution.

With Matisyahu`s jump to the majors came the difficult task of getting radio to view him as more than a gimmick. His appearance and beliefs never struck him as something that might hinder his success, however. 'I became religious, and that was a very serious thing for me, and music was always a serious thing for me, so this was just an expression of my life - the decisions I made and the music that I make,' he says. 'I was never worried about it.'

Calling every week she has worked 'King Without a Crown' a breakthrough week, Epic VP of modern rock promotion Jacqueline Saturn says the project has been an uphill climb.

'There`s been nothing easy about working this record,' she says. 'The one thing that`s been undeniable is [that] if that song gets on the air one time, the phones blow up.' To that end, the label did not have an official add date, and many times, Epic`s goal was to get just one spin and let audience reaction take over. That is exactly what happened at modern rock KNDD Seattle, where Saturn says that one spin led to 30 phone calls asking about the song.

Modern rock KROQ Los Angeles has a similar story. 'We threw it on and it got immediate phone response,' music director Lisa Worden recalls. 'Lyrically, it`s really striking a chord with people.' For several weeks, 'King Without a Crown' was KROQ`s most-played song.

Matisyahu won over Leslie Fram, PD of modern rock WNNX Atlanta, after performing live on the station`s morning show. WNNX still hesitated to add 'King Without a Crown,' but feedback and sales information, combined with the song`s uniqueness, convinced Fram and music director Jay Harren to add it. 'In a time when modern`s most-played artists are shared by other formats,' she says, 'it`s important to have one of our own.'

Caplan credits RED, and especially RED VP of artist development Danny Buch, with starting the ball rolling. 'Danny just wouldn`t let it go,' Caplan says. Although the live album was initially seen as a 'steppingstone' to the new studio album, RED`s staff persisted in showing that it could be a stand-alone project.

Epic VP of marketing Scott Carter says the label is taking a grass-roots approach to setting up 'Youth.' 'Even though radio is stepping up, and our video spins will step up, we still have an online presence,' he says. 'That`s where his fans have been so far.' Carter says that about 33 percent of the tickets Matisyahu sells are bought online; his e-mail list is more than 30,000 strong. He is already confirmed to play the Coachella and Bonnaroo music festivals. Two shows at New York`s Hammerstein Ballroom (March 6-7) are sold out.

Considering that at the end of 2004 Matisyahu was doing a regional Hanukkah tour, he has enjoyed the past year. 'I didn`t know what to expect,' he says of his success. 'I`ve always been a lover of music, and I`ve always wanted to be able to perform and make music. When it`s just an idea or a dream, you`re not aware of the details of the process, what goes into it.'

And there continues to be a fine line to tread between pushing the music and observing his beliefs. Because of his religion _ Matisyahu belongs to the Chabad-Lubavitch branch of Hasidism _ he cannot touch women or sing romantic love songs, which means his days of audience diving may be over _ unless there is advanced planning.

When he made the first low-budget video for 'King Without a Crown,' he asked his rabbi if he could jump into the crowd, Caplan recalls. 'The rabbi said, `Sure.` He tries not to jump on a woman. His wife says, `I don`t think you can do it.` The rabbi comes back and says, `What? There`s women in the crowd? No, you can`t do that.` ' So, Caplan adds, for the 'Youth' video, the audience that Matisyahu jumps into is all male: 'His religion is the most important thing to him.'

© 2006 VNU eMedia. All Rights Reserved

(taken from monstersandcritics, thanks to Chaim)


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