MATISYAHU COMES CLEAN

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - BY PAUL LESTER

IN 2011, Amer­i­can Cha­sidic reg­gae-rap­per Matisyahu (aka Matthew Paul Miller) shaved off his beard and an­nounced that he was “re­claim­ing” him­self. “At a cer­tain point I felt the need to sub­mit to a higher level of re­li­gios­ity… to move away from my in­tu­ition and to ac­cept an ul­ti­mate truth,” he told fans via his web­site. “I felt that in or­der to be­come a good per­son I needed rules — lots of them — or else would some­how fall apart.” But now he was com­ing clean (faced). “Sorry, folks,” he wrote. “All you get is me… no alias.” The new al­bum, Akeda — a ref­er­ence to the bind­ing of Isaac for sac­ri­fice by Abra­ham — is his first as a changed man.

The in­terim pe­riod has been test­ing to say the least. Hav­ing shed the iden­tity with which he had be­come glob­ally fa­mous,an­dit­sat­ten­dantre­li­gious­rules, he then got di­vorced. There fol­lowed a dark night of the soul dur­ing which he re­con­nected with worldly pur­suits, in­clud­ing drugs. Akeda ex­plores these dark times and the light that awaited him at the end of a very long tun­nel. It is si­mul­ta­ne­ously bleak and buoy­ant.

“It is a bit darker than my last al­bum,” he agrees, com­par­ing it to 2012’s Spark Seeker. “It’s deal­ing with more real-life is­sues and less ide­ol­ogy.” Al­though the im­age change had come be­fore the re­lease of Spark Seeker, “it was recorded while I was still re­li­gious”.

There were other is­sues to deal with. “I had a lit­tle prob­lem with my voice,” he re­calls. “I had to go on vo­cal si­lence for about three months. And I wasn’t tour­ing for the first time in years. I had to sit still and couldn’t speak.

“I also had some prob­lems with my stomach and had to change my eat­ing habits to an east­ern method, mac­ro­bi­otics. You have to eat very slowly and chew many times and it taught me about med­i­ta­tion. I got rid of all the ex­cess in my life and that sent me to a spir­i­tual place. I was deal­ing with di­vorce and got in touch with a lot of emo­tions and went on this jour­ney. This record is the re­sult of that process.”

The back­lash to Matisyahu shav­ing off his fa­mous beard and locks had been “painful — I’m not that thick-skinned. I was af­fected by all the things people were say­ing about me — by my own fans and cer­tainly by my own people and the re­li­gious com­mu­nity that had seem­ingly sup­ported me for such a long time.

“The core re­la­tion­ships of my life were fall­ing apart. At the same time there was a tremen­dous feel­ing of re­demp­tion and free­dom, so it was a com­bi­na­tion of those two dif­fer­ent el­e­ments. That’s where most of this mu­sic [on Akeda] came from.”

When last in­ter­viewed by the JC, the con­ver­sa­tion took place in a ho­tel near Gold­ers Green and he was lay­ing tefillin as he spoke. Is he still ob­serv­ing such rit­u­als?

“I do things based on what’s im­por­tant and has mean­ing to me,” he replies. “If I’m putting on tefillin, I don’t do it be­cause I have to, other­wise I’m sin­ning. I do it be­cause I love it. I do cer­tain things and other things I don’t

‘IF I PUT ON TEFILLIN, I DO IT BE­CAUSE I LOVE IT, NOT BE­CAUSE I HAVE TO’

do. So it’s not so black-and-white as to whether I’m ob­ser­vant.”

Were these changes the re­sult of a mo­ment of per­sonal cri­sis, or a loss of faith? “No, not a loss of faith, God for­bid. And it wasn’t the re­sult of one mo­ment. It was the re­sult of an or­ganic process of 10 years liv­ing and prac­tis­ing this life­style and evolv­ing through it. It wasn’t an overnight de­ci­sion al­though there was a mo­ment when I needed to let go. Ev­ery­thing built on that. I didn’t just wake up one day and go, ‘Oh, this is all bull****’.”

On the Akeda track, Hard Way, he won­ders aloud: “Who’s gonna quench your thirst now?” Is that re­fer­ring to re­li­gion, to his ex-wife, or to drugs? “All three,” he says. “This is ac­tu­ally some­thing my ex said to me, and that one of my clos­est re­li­gious men­tors said to me when I men­tioned that I had this fan­tasy sev­eral years ago of shav­ing my beard, get­ting out of my mar­riage, which I wasn’t happy in, or get­ting out of this re­li­gious world which I didn’t feel com­fort­able in any­more.”

On Watch The Walls Melt Down, he sings: “Smoked more trees than a for­est fire.” Did he in­dulge a lot to help him through hard times?

“Well, it’s al­ways been an is­sue for me,” he con­fesses. “But so­bri­ety has been a ma­jor theme, even though I’ve never talked about it much in the press. Since I was a kid I’ve had is­sues with drugs and I’ve gone through many, many dif­fer­ent cy­cles of us­ing and be­ing sober. Hav­ing a clear head and so­bri­ety have played a big part in all of this change and I don’t

think I would have had

the con­fi­dence to go through with it all had I not been sober and clear-headed.”

Is it not dif­fi­cult to be some­one who ev­ery­one as­sumes is so good and pi­ous? He laughs.

“There was a time in my life when I was ex­tremely pi­ous and moral­is­tic. I wouldn’t wear glasses on the street so I couldn’t see bill­boards of women. I didn’t talk or touch a woman for four or five years till I was mar­ried. I didn’t touch drugs.

“I was liv­ing this life in en­vi­ron­ments where all those things were read­ily avail­able and be­ing pushed on me and I was just re­ally fo­cused on what I thought was im­por­tant.

“But even­tu­ally I did be­come af­fected by the things around me. It’s a slip­pery slope. You let down that wall and say, ‘I don’t want to not be able to go out to din­ner with my friends and fam­ily; I don’t want to have to go straight home af­ter the show or be read­ing my To­rah on the way to the show.’ I want to take part in the world.” So when he first made the de­ci­sion to change, did he go wild?

“I let in cer­tain things at a time,” he ad­mits. “I started smok­ing cig­a­rettes first, then maybe started smok­ing weed and other drugs started com­ing in. Then I would strug­gle with it and I would go back and forth. I would get clean and straighten up and that would last sev­eral months, then I would fall back down again.”

Has he emerged sad­der but wiser? “I think I’m much wiser. I’ve gained a lot of wis­dom. And I wouldn’t trade it in. It’s like my song Bro­ken Car, for ex­am­ple, which is about com­ing to terms with be­ing a bro­ken hu­man, not be­ing per­fect. Not be­ing a tzadik, a purely right­eous man.”

These days, he trav­els be­tween homes in Los Angeles, where he lives “about 100 days a year”, and New York, shar­ing cus­tody of his three young chil­dren. Were they shocked by the change in their dad?

“You know what? No. They were much less shocked than any­one else. They were just, like, ‘What­ever — it’s my dad.’ It shows you the pu­rity of chil­dren, how they can see straight through all the im­age.”

Akeda mix­e­sup­manystyles,in­clud­in­grockandR&B, reg­gae and rap. There is an emo­tional blend, too, of­fer­ing a sort of up­beat sorrow. “That’s what it is,” he agrees. “Sweet sad­ness, or tri­umphant bro­ken­ness. A blend of dif­fer­ent things, just as life is. And that’s how I am, bring­ing things to­gether from day one: Cha­sidic Ju­daism and roots mu­sic. That’s re­ally what I do. There are bet­ter singers and rap­pers and front­men out there, but that’s one of the things I’m best at.”

And are people more ac­cept­ing now of the change? He sighs deeply. “Some are. I go out and do shows and it doesn’t seem to be the thing that’s af­fect­ing most people. We did a show the other night to 10,000 people and I didn’t think about my im­age once.” Do they also want to see if he will be­have badly? “I think so. There’s a cer­tain pres­sure from people wait­ing to see me fail, to mess it up. There are def­i­nitely people out there who ex­pect me to be a cer­tain thing. They think this change was the re­sult of me fail­ing as a hu­man or morally fail­ing or suc­cumb­ing to the pres­sures of be­ing a rock’n’roll star as op­posed to what it is — an evo­lu­tion that came out of a strong place, out of a place of faith, of deep con­nec­tion. I re­ally have used this record as a way of deal­ing with all of those out­side pres­sures and things that came up and con­tinue to come up.

“Ev­ery day, there’s al­ways one com­ment on Twit­ter or Face­book from some­one that says, ‘Where’s the beard?’ or ‘Grow back the beard.’ I don’t know if that will ever stop. But I can put up with that.”

‘EV­ERY DAY THERE IS A FACE­BOOK COM­MENT ON GROW­ING BACK THE BEARD’

Akeda is avail­able on Elm City Mu­sic

PHOTO: JARED POLIN

That was a close shave: Matisyahu as he is now and ( be­low) as he looked up to 2011

PHOTO: JARED POLIN

Look­ing to the fu­ture: Matisyahu

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