Following the inner spark

Photograph by Mark Squires

Former Hasidic rapper Matisyahu takes a pop turn

The phrase “Hasidic rapper” would seem to be a contradiction. But for years, the description helped the media and the public to define Matisyahu (née Matthew Paul Miller) – a performer/songwriter whose musical and spiritual quests defy easy definition.

Matisyahu embraced Hasidism when he moved to the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn after growing up in the Westchesters (as in West Chester, Pa. and Westchester County’s White Plains).

But a deep-rooted Judaism wasn’t the only influence on his life. Jamaican reggae beats executed in a dance-hall style underline his 2005 single “King Without a Crown.” Blending Jewish spirituality, reggae, rock and hip-hop, the record went on to sell more than 700,000 copies and marked his introduction to the mainstream. Matisyahu’s albums, including the debut “Shake Off the Dust…Arise,” the Grammy-nominated “Youth,” and “Light,” have sold more than two million copies.

Yet in a world where so many artists either stagnate or commit pop-culture suicide by trying too hard to incorporate today’s trends, Matisyahu has evolved while staying true to his roots.  His latest album, “Spark Seeker” (Fallen Sparks Records) – which he’s promoting on a national tour that included a performance on Stamford’s Alive@Five concert series – takes him in a new, decidedly pop direction. It also goes hand in hand with his lifestyle and spiritual changes. Late last year, the musician – who lives in Los Angeles with wife, Talia, and their three boys – tweeted a controversial picture of himself with his beard shaved, formally announcing an end to the Hasidic chapter of his life.

Now, Matis, as he’s known to friends and fans, is focusing on the music while maintaining the spirituality and sense of humanity that are central to his life and beats. While the abandonment of Hasidism might’ve cost him some of his more traditional fans, it was a move that has helped Matisyahu explore his inner spark more honestly.

A journey to Israel

The introspective, thoughtful “Spark Seeker” explores the idea that life, like music, is about blending, fluidity and living not in extremes, but in the patches of gray.

“For me, it’s this common theme throughout all my music, because of what it did for me in my life,”  Matisyahu says. “I always thought it to be a channel for spiritual self-expression and also a way to kind of wake yourself up through the music.”

Matisyahu is as awake as he is aware in his high-energy grooves like the warmly received “Sunshine.”

He attributes the fresh sounds on the 13-track album to his connection with producer Kool Kojak (Allan Grigg), well-known for his work with such stars as Nicki Minaj, Travis Barker and Ke$ha.

“We met to work on a song and just hit it off and whenever I’d be in L.A. we’d get together and work together, just the two of us, and we were doing great material so most of the album was made between the two of us.”

Although Matisyahu travels frequently, he says, “I’m not sure exactly how (travel) affects the songwriting. I tend to be in one place when I’m writing,” although he works well on planes, he laughs.

After Matisyahu and Kojak wrapped in L.A., they decided to make a symbolic trek to Israel to work with other artists. The destination was not Matisyahu’s own idea.

“To be honest with you, my producer had never been and really wanted to go to Israel.”

“When we went to Israel, we really opened up and brought in a lot of musicians – 10 or 12 amazing musicians,” he says, slowly drawing out the word “amazing.” “It was our first live instrumentation, and then we blended that into the record and that gave it a world music feel.”

Some studio collaborators include Zohar Fresco, Daniel Zamir, Ravid Kahalani and rapper Shyne, who offer strong versatility in vocal styling.

But Matisyahu is aware of the double-edged sword of that eclecticism. Like such out-of-the-box artists as Prince and Lenny Kravitz, he knows he runs the risk of defying categorization, which affects radio play.

“It’s a little bit of an issue, because it doesn’t really fit into one format so I feel like it’s more of a pop record or Top 40,” he says, adding knowingly, “it is harder to get on those stations, though.”

Embracing all

While Matisyahu says, “I most certainly think that there is a Jewish influence in this record, because spiritually is so tied to my songwriting,” he prefers to avoid not only music-genre labeling but also specific religious labeling.

“I never like to be put in boxes. I would say that it’s not necessary to be any one thing….”

And so he has no single type of listener:

“I think my fan base is always growing or changing and some have been along the whole ride and there are some fans that aren’t so into it now, but…that’s their own thing. It doesn’t have to do with me.”

The support of pure music lovers reigns supreme for Matisyahu.

“It really depends on the night, but sometimes I’ll go and meet fans after the show. “

And depending on the city he’s in, he’ll reach out and invite artists to perform alongside him and his Dub Trio band mates.

Those cities have ranged from Austin, Texas, where he appeared at Stubb’s, to Las Vegas (Hard Rock Hotel) to Stamford.

Matisyahu spent time in Connecticut as a teen. His parents still live in Westchester and attended his July 12 Alive@Five concert in Stamford.

One highlight of living in Westchester was studying at Purchase College.

“I didn’t enroll,” he’s quick to clarify. “In high school, I was actually in a program for advanced acting, two times a week every week.”

He says he’s always had a flair for the dramatic, first fostered in this area. Now the busy entertainer can be seen in the movie “The Possession,” which will be released this month. Matisyahu describes the process of making the film as “very intense.”

“I play an exorcist,” he adds in an I-kid-you-not manner

For more, visit matisyahuworld.com.

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