Matisyahu on Associated Press
Hasidic artist embraces secular stardom
By SOLVEJ SCHOU, Associated Press WriterFri May 26, 3:58 PM ET
At a music festival that included the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Kanye West, Tool and even Madonna, a Hasidic Jewish reggae singer was arguably one of the most popular acts on the bill.
Matisyahu, aka Matthew Miller, has gone from underground curiosity to mainstream star in the course of a year.
The 26-year-old ultraconservative Orthodox Jew, who grew up nonreligious in White Plains, New York, saw his groove-filled "Live at Stubb's" album on indie label jdub catapult up the charts.
In March, his major label debut "Youth" became a huge crossover hit for its combo of mock Caribbean chants, hip-hop beats and soul-searching religious lyrics.
He also became a father — welcoming the birth of his son Laivy, now 8 months old.
Sitting in an air-conditioned trailer just before performing in front of more than 20,000 half-naked, sun-baked fans at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, the 6-foot-3 singer — wearing the traditional long beard, white shirt and black pants of Hasidic men, plus a pair of hip Puma sneakers — chatted with The Associated Press.
With a soft-spoken intensity opposite of his high-energy onstage persona, he discussed spirituality, parenthood and fame, and balancing being Orthodox within the mostly secular world of music.
AP: A sociologist once said that "music is the kids' religion." How do you reflect on that?
Matisyahu: In terms of the idea of music being like religion, the two are obviously bound up with each other. From a Jewish perspective, music was used in the temple. The temple was the place where the revelation of God was actually present ... In every religion and culture, music has been used for the purpose of opening people up in order to sense the spiritual, to sense something which transcends this world.
AP: When you perform at a place like Coachella, in front of thousands of people, is it spiritual?
Matisyahu: There's a spirituality whether you're on stage in front of 25,000 people, or whether you're in a living room with your friend playing guitar ... People come to a music festival like Coachella to look for some kind of break out of the mundane. That's what music is supposed to offer to people. That's my goal.
AP: What has the last year been like for you?
Matisyahu: A year ago, I think we were touring, maybe playing some college shows. Basically, 'Live at Stubb's' had come out. It was just starting to get radio play. We were going through the summer touring festivals and playing shows. The record started taking off, doing well. A lot has changed.
AP: How do you balance a child, a young son, with playing music?
Matisyahu: It's a balancing act, but everyone has a balancing act. Having a child, there's absolutely nothing like it in the entire world. Not performing a concert, not owning any car, not being successful at anything, no amount of fame or money. There's nothing like the reward of having a child. You realize how much your parents loved you.
AP: Do you play your music for your son?
Matisyahu: Yeah, I do sometimes. At first, when he was a really small baby, he would cry. And I would turn the music on pretty loud. That would get him to stop crying. I don't really play it for him that much now. Maybe in the car. I dance with him sometimes, if he's in a bad mood, or if he's kvetchy. I'll pick him up and I'll do some song and dance with him. He loves that.
AP: How do you feel about the secular music community embracing your albums?
Matisyahu: It was never a question ... I grew up listening to secular music, going to see concerts and shows. My first concert was the Grateful Dead. I was about 3 years old. I went with my parents, in Northern California ... The first concert I went to on my own was Bruce Springsteen, the "Tunnel of Love" tour, in the '80s ... I guess growing up, I knew I was a Jewish person, but I didn't relate to my experience. My experience isn't what you would call a Jewish experience. But from the time I was little, I imagined myself making music, playing music. The fact that the audience that likes the music is not necessarily Jewish does not come as a surprise.
AP: There are Orthodox tenets you're supposed to follow, like not performing with nonreligious women in public. Does that apply today, performing on the same stage as female-fronted bands such the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Sleater-Kinney?
Matisyahu: I probably wouldn't go see them. Unfortunately, there are some really wonderful female singers I wouldn't see ... The law is that a man is only supposed to hear his wife singing. The idea being that the female voice is a very holy thing ... I adhere by that pretty much.
AP: But do you fully agree with that law?
Matisyahu: No, I don't necessarily agree with it. To me, I don't consider the female voice to be that sexual. It can be, but in a lot of cases I don't think it is. For example, I was on an airplane watching TV, and Natasha Bedingfeld was on. I watched it, and I was intrigued by it, from a professional standpoint. She was performing her hit song, but with an acoustic guitar player and three back-up gospel singers. It was amazing. The thought of sexuality didn't cross my mind at all. So I don't necessarily agree with it all the time.
I guess part of the law is creating a fence. It doesn't always make that much sense in the moment, but it might protect you from falling into the wrong places. In general, that's part of the Jewish religion, or adhering to any religion, in an Orthodox way. You adapt yourself to it, and you take it into yourself as well. Mostly when people go through the world they adapt everything to themselves instead of submitting to the greater thing.