Keeping the Faith

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:15

    Matisyahu was hardly expected to make it this far. In 2005, when he blew up after performing at Bonnaroo music festival, critics expected the novelty of a Hasidic reggae rapper to burn out after a year or so. But, like the spot of holy oil that flared on for eight days and nights to create the miracle of Hanukkah, Matisyahu surprised them all by hanging around year after year. His Festival of Light concert series, which opened this Sunday at Webster Hall, is now in its third revolution.

    When I first speak with Matisyahu, he tells me he’s standing in pajamas in an RV in which he’s traveling across country with his touring band, his wife and his two small children. At the moment, they’re on a high, cold plain in Nevada, as he talks into his cell phone and regards the vast flats around him. He asks his driver to pull over because Matisyahu’s babysitter, a Crown Heights neighbor of his, is apparently flirting with the driver.

    I brought up the novelty-act issue. It was obviously a thorny one for Matisyahu, and he spends many thoughtful words on it.

    “When I started out, it didn’t really cross my mind too much.” he says. “Maybe I was naive. But my religion is important to me, and my music is important to me, and those two things are just naturally going to come together in my life.”

    This is, after all, the guy who—at 17, tripping on acid at a Phish concert—made eye contact with Trey Anastasio and felt certain that the frontman had given him “the blessing.” “Then later, I started reading articles and reviews that I wished I never did ... Everyone was coming up with some name that was more kitschy than the last—the Hasidic hot-stepper, or whatever.”

    Early in his career, his managers told Matisyahu (“Matis” to his friends) that they would promote him as “the Hasidic reggae superstar.” When he changed management in 2006— a controversial decision to leave a religious management team in favor of a more mainstream one—his new promoters told him that while the Hasid image might have kick-started his career, it would ultimately threaten his longevity.

    Lately, he’s toned down both the religious and the reggae aspects of his persona. He still wears a beard, a yarmukle and the white Tzitzits that hang from the garments of Orthodox men, but he says he otherwise “do[es]n’t dress too traditionally anymore.” And on his forthcoming record, he’s branching out from the dub/reggae tradition and incorporating a host of other musical styles. “Even in the sense,” he says, “of trying to find my voice and not necessarily having to have the reggae accent.”

    In other words, he doesn’t want to be known as a Hasidic reggae musician, a cultural mix-and-match or a sideshow, but as a musician, period. After all, it was his recognizable talent that made him such a curiosity in the first place. The novelty of his act was, as he puts it, purely accidental.

    Well before he became a recording artist, Matisyahu was tracing parallel and distant cultural paths. He wore Birkenstocks and dreadlocks, followed Phish around the country and took psychedelic drugs. Meanwhile, he discovered Jewish Orthodoxy during a trip to Israel. For a long time, he curtailed neither ambition for the other. As he developed as a singer, he inundated himself with the music of reggae artists Sizzla Kalonji and Bob Marley, whose frequent references to Zion didn’t fall on deaf ears.

    Soon after the release of his first full-length, Shake Off the Dust … Rise, Matisyahu’s popularity shot up. That was when he had to start checking his rock-star lifestyle against his strict religious principles—stage dives, for example, had to stop, since there was a good chance he’d land on an adoring lady fan.

    Now he’s asking fans taken in by his duality of dress and delivery to bear with him as he tries to evolve. He no longer listens to Bob Marley. These days he’s into indie-rock standards like Arcade Fire, Sigur Ros and MGMT.

    “When I hear someone doing something,” Matisyahu says. “It kind of incorporates naturally into my style and I’ll notice at my show that I’m singing in a different way.”

    He describes the studio musicians on his latest album, Light, as “experimental” or “indie-rock,” as opposed to the more strictly reggae-inspired artists he worked with on previous releases. Granted, he did record parts of the album in Jamaica, with renowned dub-style production team Sly and Robbie.

    But, “I’m experimenting with [the reggae form],” Matisyahu said. “I still use it in every song to some extent, but in some places I just leave it behind.”

    The overt religiosity of his lyrics, says Matisyahu, is also reconsidered on Light. This coincides not just with his development as an artist but with his decision to leave the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic community. That group’s emphasis on a sort of Jewish evangelism, Matisyahu said, was in part what drove him away.

    “I felt like, ‘Where does this come from? This is not who I am.’”

    He maintains that his music is still spiritual, though not so explicit in message. And despite his relaxation of holy protocols, Matisyahu’s faith hasn’t lagged. He still feels that his life’s events are set in a kind of divine architecture. He remembers vividly the day when, years after he felt that groovy benediction in the glance of Trey Anastasio, he was invited on stage at Bonnaroo to perform together with Phish.

    -- Matisyahu Dec. 25-30, Music Hall of Williamsburg, 66 N. 6th St. (betw. Kent & Wythe Aves.), Brooklyn, 212-260-4700; times vary, $35.