bill bodkin interviews the multi-talented reggae artist…
In 2006 we first heard him live at Stubbs in Austin, Texas — the hasidic reggae artists known as Matisyahu. He could’ve easily been written off as a gimmick; a novelty act, but there was something about this New York reggae artist’s flow that was just undeniably intoxicating. His ability to weave tales of spirituality in flat-out sick reggae riddims was near mind-boggling.
And in the six years since we first heard him in a sweaty Texas club, he has blossomed into one of the premier touring reggae and alternative artists in the country. This summer Matisyahu, now sporting a clean shaven face and a dyed blonde head of hair (part of a fresh start from his trademark bewhiskered image), is not only dropping Spark Seeker, his highly antipcated new album, but also making his film debut with a rather meaty role in the supernatural thriller The Possession starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Watchmen) and Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer).
Recently we caught up with Matisyahu as he prepares for a week of East Coast dates including The House of Blues in Atlantic City (July 21), the legendary Stone Pony Summerstage (Sunday July 22) and the Catalpa Music Festival (July).
Pop-Break: You’ve just dropped your album this week and are on the midst of tour with The Dirty Heads, but what some people may not know is that you are going to be in a major motion picture coming out this summer called The Possession starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan. I never knew you were into acting — how did you get involved in the movie?
Matisyahu: I was into acting as a kid and growing up. I took acting classes and I loved it and it became a passion of mine. Once I was in college, I went to the New School, and in my 20s when I became religious and moved to Crown Heights [in New York City] I kinda put it down for a little bit. Then the music stuff took off so I followed that passion. [Acting] was something I planned on returning to if possible. We were just waiting for the script, the right part to come along for me to be the first thing that I do. This [The Possession] is something I’m excited to be a part of. The script is really great and I think it’s a really good movie.
PB: So now that you’ve done your first film, is acting something you’d still like to pursue?
Matisyahu: The way it kinda worked, I’m very involved in the music right now. I just put the record out, going out on tour for a while but I have some projects in the works. I have some potential TV projects in the works and another movie project, so we’ll see how it goes.
PB: Can you talk about being on set for the first time — any nerves?
Matisyahu: I was a little nervous. I was nervous about my performance and how I was going to do … being this was my first time on a set and it being the first time I’d acted in 16 years. When I got on set everyone was great. The director Ole [Bordenal] knew it was my first [acting] in a long time and the first time being on a real set and he was so cool. Jeffrey Dean Morgan, he’s the lead in the film, he plays the father [of a young girl possessed by ancient spirit], is just an amazing person, we kinda bonded right away. So he was cool, Kyra Sedgwick, everyone was super nice and made it really easy for me.
PB: You just dropped a new record, Sparker Seeker, this week. How does this album stand out or differ from your previous efforts musically or lyrically or both?
Matisyahu: I don’t know if it stands out — every record stands out. Every time you release a new record there’s a lot of time, a lot that goes into it. This a chapter, this is the last two years of my life. Lyrically, there’s a lot of gems on the record. To me it’s about the lyrics and the melody and how they combine. Lyrics can be cool on their own, but when the right melody is put to the lyrics that’s when you have those shining moments on a record. I feel on this record there’s a lot of those. [I feel] the grooviness of the record, the swagger of the record, kinda allows me to dig in as a singer, as a rapper, as a vocalist, as a lyricist. It allows my flow to come out in a way, I don’t how to say it, but it sounds really cool to me.
PB: We’re doing this piece in conjunction with the Catalpa Festival which’ll be debuting next weekend in New York City. How does it feel to be the centerpiece of a festival taking place in your backyard?
Matisyahu: I think it’s going to be awesome. Being in a festival in New York seems a little strange to me because festivals are usually held in the middle of the woods (laughs). I’m really excited because we haven’t done a summertime New York play in some time. We do a bunch of shows in December and we usually stay away from [the area] in the summer. So it’s going to be great to be out there playing in a festival setting in New York…it doesn’t get much better than that.
PB: You’re touring with The Dirty Heads right now. Talk about why you dig these guys; dig them so much you’re going on the road with them.
Matisyahu: We’ve known each other for a few years. Over the years touring you start to make friends and build up little circles of people and one of those circles I’ve become a part of is that Southern California scene of Subllime and 311 and Dirty Heads is a part of that. We’ve seen them on a tour and I’ve been friends with them and have always loved their music. They asked me to do a song on their new record called “Dance All Night” which I guest [sing] on.
[On why they decided to tour together] When we were in their studio talking we realized we both had records dropping this summer and I’m on the their album and we’ve got kind of a similar fan base, but there’s also enough difference in the music, so it’s a cool juxtaposition.
PB: My final question for you is one about faith. You’re a man who’s known for his faith, something I find really admirable. Has your rise to musical stardom ever come into conflict with the morals and values of your faith?
Matisyahu: I don’t think it really has to be that way. I think with a music career you can decide which way you want to do things and which way you want to maneuver. No one forces you to do things you don’t want to do. At the end of the day you may have more opportunities to do things that might be ‘rockstar’ kind of things that might not jive with living a life of more seclusion…in terms of spirituality more of a life inner-seclusion, a more spiritual thing. I don’t think the two have to be at odds with each other. I think that within my career and in my life one of the things that has been an outcome of what I do is bringing the two things together…for instance bringing Hadisic Judaism and reggae music together; bringing spirituality and faith into the music world. And to me that’s what music is, not just entertainment and it’s not just a way to get crazy, it’s a way to reach the depths, and to inspire and to talk to God. That’s the core for me.