Babylon calling - an interview with Matisyahu
Matisyahu is a Hasidic Jew - and America's biggest reggae star. He tells Dorian Lynskey about life on tour, LSD and coming to religion late
Listen to a free mp3 from Matisyahu's album here
Thursday May 11, 2006
'Pretty freaking spiritual' ... Matisyahu
Matisyahu knows some people take him for a novelty act. While Jewish newspaper the Forward named him one of the five most influential Jews in America, ahead of Jon Stewart and Philip Roth, the American edition of Esquire magazine gave him a more equivocal award: Most Lovable Oddball.
Oddball or not, he is currently his country's most popular reggae singer, bolstering lilting rhythms and quasi-Jamaican vocals with rock muscle. Last year's breakthrough live album, Live at Stubb's, sold half a million copies and his second studio outing, Youth, went in at number four on the Billboard charts. Two weeks ago, he played to his biggest ever audience at California's Coachella festival.
But the life of a touring musician doesn't sit easily with that of an Orthodox Jew. Matisyahu can't work or use electricity on the Sabbath, and he must pray by a certain time every morning, which means he is forced to snatch moments in hotel rooms or on planes. A bigger problem is the law prohibiting physical contact with women outside his family. "It creates some uncomfortable situations," he says in his quiet, even tones. "You can't be crazy. If someone wants to take a picture and puts her arm around me I have to pull away a little bit without being too abrupt. You can't just freak out. It's a balance."
Commercial opportunities have also fallen foul of Matisyahu's beliefs. He has turned down an offer from Burger King to endorse their decidedly non-kosher meat products. Was he surprised they asked? "It does seem weird, doesn't it?" he says. "I don't know what that was about. Most people who come to us have some sense of what would be appropriate."
Matisyahu radiates propriety. Sinking into the sofa of his hotel room, fingering the tassels of his prayer shawl, he has a serious, teacherly air. As Matthew Miller, he grew up in White Plains, New York, in a non-observant family that regarded its Jewish identity as cultural rather than religious. At school, he shunned the curriculum. "I intuitively felt that a lot of the system was rotten to its core." His education came from listening to Bob Marley. He grew dreadlocks so long that one day, in a chemistry class, he leaned too close to a Bunsen burner and set them on fire.
Rastafarians believe they are the true Israelites, and it was Marley's talk of Zion and Babylon that ignited Matisyahu's spiritual curiosity. "A lot of things that I had heard before but hadn't related to strongly were making a lot more sense in that context. Reggae music isn't Jewish but a lot of the ideas are." His own music mixes religion and politics: in Fire of Heaven/ Altar of Earth, the first track on Youth, he sings, "Fire descends from on high in the shape of a lion/ Burn the sacrifice of pride and ride on to Mount Zion." Jerusalem, a song explicitly about Israel, has the lines "3,000 years with no place to be/ And they want me to give up my milk and honey."
As a teenager he spent time in Israel exploring Judaism, and had problems adjusting to life in America on his return. He found comfort in following jam band Phish around the country - an odd kind of spiritual odyssey, surely? "I went to a Phish concert with a friend and we ate LSD and that experience, I would say, was pretty freaking spiritual." He comes close to a chuckle. "Although looking back on it, the answer wasn't there, it was a big part of it. It's about taking the chance. I gave up my family, I gave up my friends, I gave up on school. I went out with no money. It was walking on the edge. That's a Jewish idea. You could even say that was a very Jewish experience."
He ended up walking on the edge for a little too long. On his return home, Matisyahu's parents dispatched him to a "wilderness school" in Oregon. There, he took the music option and worked on his reggae and hip-hop skills. Back in New York he attended the Carlebach Shul, a progressive synagogue that took its name from singing rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and encouraged worship through music. Carlebach changed the lives of many Jewish hippies with his work in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury during the 1960s, but was plagued by allegations of sexual harassment.
Matisyahu says he has learned from Carlebach's mistakes. "He didn't hold by the rule; he would hug and shake hands with women. I wouldn't want to get caught up in rumours. Truth being told, I agree with the rule. It certainly guards you."
One day, walking in Washington Square, he met a rabbi from the Hasidic movement Chabad-Lubavitch; he went on to embrace the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, adopting the Hebrew name Matisyahu. "With my family it was difficult at first. It was very strange for them to deal with."
Reggae is a uniquely effective vehicle for religious sentiments. Whereas most secular music fans would rather listen to Crazy Frog than Christian rock, they will happily hear countless reggae singers chant down Babylon; Matisyahu didn't sell so many records by appealing only to Orthodox Jews. "I think there's a certain humility tied in with that music," he says. "When people feel a certain religion claims to have all the answers, that's what turns them off."
Although his gentle voice never wavers, he occasionally displays righteous disapproval. He frowns on America's "it's-all-good attitude, like everything is a game", and believes the country is suffering from a spiritual void. "When there's light shining on a tree, that tree takes on different meaning. If there's no light at all it just looks dead. If you look at light as godly meaning, the world comes alive in a certain way. There's people drowning in the actual thing, whether it's food or sexuality or their jobs."
Although his religious affiliation would tend to place him on the right of Israeli politics, Matisyahu says he disagrees with the withdrawal from the West Bank, and would not describe himself as a Zionist. "I don't think that's the answer." He made his recording debut on the liberal Jewish-American label, JDub. "I didn't find myself having to choose sides."
But every step Matisyahu makes into the mainstream is fraught with risk. You wonder how long he can continue to please both the Hasidic community and a gentile fanbase that doesn't take kindly to proselytising. He is quietly confident. "I try and work out certain questions in my life and I put those concepts into my music for people to take from if they so choose. But I don't claim that I know what's right." The world's first Hasidic reggae phenomenon leans forward, smiling softly. "I'm a pretty regular person".