Matisyahu has been finding himself — and his voice — for the past decade. Unlike most, though, for this Jewish kid from White Plains, N.Y., who became a chasidic reggae superstar, his journey — both spiritual and musical — has been taken in the public eye. His anomalous rise, as a black-coated Chasid laying down his songs with a Jamaican sing-song patois, and his departure from the brand of Lubavitch chasidism, to his near monk-like dedication to making music, have all been copiously covered in the Jewish music press.
Next Wednesday, Matisyahu comes to the Music Center at Strathmore for a mid-Chanukah concert dubbed “Festival of Light,” where he will bring the reggae/jam band infused music that put him on that meteoric path at the age of 23. He calls the concert “intimate” — even in the 2,000-plus seat Music Center concert hall. It’s not about the number of seats, he says, but how he connects with people and how they connect with his music — and his journey.
His reggae roots and inflection are still evident, as are the hip-hop and rock influences of his teen years and he is as adept at beat-boxing as singing/songwriting. But also still a part of his artistic expression: his soul journey. For anyone who has followed Matisyahu in recent years, the outer trappings — the kippah, tallit and tzitzit (prayer shawl), black coat and untrimmed beard — are gone. These days, at 36, he’s comfortable in jeans, Sketchers, tanks and T-shirts, his brown haired flecked with bleach. He says he still returns to his early works — “King Without a Crown,” “ Jerusalem,” “Warrior,” and “One Day” — because that’s what fans want, but the songs, their lyrics and performance, have taken on new resonances for him. He doesn’t change them for the most part, but he himself is changed, he notes, so how can a song that he wrote and sang at 23 or 24 feel the same when he sings it at 36? Now a father of three, with homes in New York and Los Angeles, Matisyahu is in a very different place on his journey — physically and spiritually.
He’s lived on the road 200 days a year for the past 10 years, playing big cities and small towns, and notes that it’s harder for him to settle into a routine at home than on the tour bus. Growing up in a suburban, all-American Jewish family, Matthew Paul Miller — his given name — was even then a fish out of water.
He didn’t fit in, didn’t enjoy school and spent a lot of time in his room listening to music and getting high.
“By 21,” he wrote last year, “I had been in and out of rehab, NA, wilderness treatment programs, sober living therapeutic programs and I saw more therapists then I had fingers.”
He found his calling and his source of healing, of connection, of his own brand of therapy, through music.
For a time he donned the mantel and practice of chasidic Judaism, the strictures and stability of the practice reigned in his wildness. But he felt boxed in, he said.
Then hitched up with what he described as an “anti-establishment renegade Russian therapist/original thinker/chasidic and kabbalistic creative wiz,” Matisyahu was at the top of his game, rising on the music charts, appearing on network late night shows, headlining major festivals and venues around the world, but he was still struggling. He still felt lost. Trapped. The discipline of Chabad’s brand of rigor no longer freed him, but suffocated him.
These days, Matisyahu relishes a new freedom — to be himself and walk on his journey without apology.
This year he returned to his roots where he made his first live album, Austin’s Stubb’s BBQ, to record his fifth live album — “Live at Stubb’s III: A 10-Year Journey” — revisiting his early songs but with a new sense of maturity.
Speaking from his parents’ home in White Plains last week, Matisyahu briefly discussed growing up in a music-filled household. While he never played an instrument, aside from fooling around on a drum kit his parents had, he credits their excellent taste in classic rock — Dylan, Ricki Lee Jones, The Grateful Dead — for his taste in music.
He immersed himself in 1980s and ‘90s pop and hip hop as a teen, “and then I discovered Bob Marley,” he said. “I immediately connected with his music, connected to the words, connected to the Old Testament references. I wondered, why was he referencing things I only learned about in Hebrew school?” Reggae, he noted, with the impetus of the talent and vision of Marley, became a worldwide phenomenon in the 1970s and remains a major force on pop, rock and hip hop today. His other musical inspiration, Phish, can be heard in the meandering, long-playing tracks, where he not only sings but lays in his own beat-box percussion (the updated scat-like singing that imitates drum and bass).
The teen years are often foundational for connecting with music. Matisyahu agrees. “I don’t know why, but people, especially kids, find connections to music of all kinds every day. That’s what happened to me.
If you’re naturally drawn to music, it has no boundaries, just like the soul has no boundaries. It is actually very fluid and can adapt” to new circumstances. That’s why Matisyahu can return to his early songs, even though these days he feels most attached to Akeda, his latest studio album, especially songs like “Broken Car,” “Surrender” and “Hard Way.” He terms it his most self-reflective work to date.
With the hyper-flexibility of new technology, Matisyahu records and releases a new song monthly, keeping in touch with his fans between albums, building up his listener base, fusing his own beat-boxing with the jam-band style.
“If you want to stay relevant these days,” he says, “you need to release new songs. Fans don’t want to wait three years for an album.”
Over his decade-plus journey, Matisyahu has found that continual reinvention, self-discovery, soul searching are the lifeblood of his music. But the answers lie within. He sings in “Searchin’” that “a rebbe is the geologist of the soul./He can show you where to dig, and what to dig for, but the digging you must do yourself.”
An Intimate Evening with Matisyahu, Dec. 9 at 8 p.m., Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, $28-$48, (301) 581-5100 or strathmore.org/events-and-tickets/