Matisyahu: He's lost his locks and wife but found a new voice

By Paul Lester, July 10, 2014
That was a close shave: Matisayahu as he is now

That was a close shave: Matisayahu as he is now

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 I 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, and its attendant religious rules, 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."

As he looked up to 2011

As he looked up to 2011

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 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 mixes up many styles, including rock and R&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."

Akeda is available on 100% Records

Last updated: 2:12pm, July 11 2014