If one were keeping track of the most talked about facial hair of the last year, I’m sure the honor would go to reggae star Matisyahu. In fact, I’m not sure there was ever another a time, aside from this one, in which a reputable news outlet like CNN or a gossip site like TMZ felt the need to report and to analyze one man’s decision to pick up a beard trimmer. And never mind the feverish discourse which happened all across the Jewish blogosphere (including on our very own site) which speculated on the shave like it could impact the Israeli/ Iran relations.
It turns out though that the while all the other media outlets focused on follicles, there was a lot more going on inside the mind of Matthew Paul Miller. Yes, the man behind the unkempt whiskers is going through some changes, stylistically, aesthetically, philosophically, artistically, and religiously. And while it saddens me to see any charismatic and talented young Jewish role model struggle with his identity especially when his unprecedented example has meant and can mean so much to many in our small and insular community, ultimately, Matisyahu’s struggle is very real and very much worth discussing.
With the release of the very commercial and radio-friendly album Spark Seeker, Matisyahu spoke to me about this little maelstrom in his soul, and the journey of one man privately seeking inner-peace in a very public environment. And as I found out very quickly–just a few minutes into our chat–we’ve all been guilty of asking the wrong questions. Frankly, this is all about much more than just a clean shave.
So…what would you like to talk about first: the music, or the beard? [Note: This was my attempt at opening the interview in a lighthearted manner. I wasn’t trying to be insensitive if it comes across that way]
Are you there?
Yeah, I’m here.
Got it. Okay. So the new album Spark Seeker is an independent release. Tell me about the decision to go it alone.
I met some labels before releasing the album…and the labels weren’t running the way I wanted them to. The reaction from the labels was that they loved the music, but they didn’t step up to it when it came down to the bottom line.
Is everything okay? I’m sensing a little tension.
No, it’s all good.
Can I do anything to make it more comfortable?
I’m comfortable. I just can’t talk very loudly because of my voice. I try to not strain it before I perform.
Who was writing all that shitty stuff about me on the website?
Ahhh. [Pause] That was not me. We have a staff of people who contribute to the site. I have yet to write about you since Heeb was in print.
Apologies if you were hurt by that…but on a lighter note, the new sound–how did you think your hardcore fans would react to the record? I mean, they want to hear reggae, not a song produced by a guy who worked with Ke$ha?
[Silence for a few seconds] Sorry I was spacing out for a second. When I write music, it’s not what and how people will think. It’s not how they will react. It’s what I do because it’s what I want to do. The last thing I want is for it to be an external thing. It’s an internal thing. Yes, it’s a more pop record…but basically, I’ve never been a purist in any form. I’ve always been about a blending of genres. I appreciate all types of music. I grew up in a world of blending and music. I’ve always been listening to different things—like I’ve been listening to Wu Tang in the parking lot of a Phish show.
Over the course of the career, an artist will go in many different directions. I could do an acoustic record. And I could easily do a top 40 record with [current producer] Kojak. I could also do a rock record. Bringing different things together. It wasn’t programmed or thought out. I met the producer and we worked together organically. And he brought out the cleaner side to me…a side that was all about the hooks and the melodies.
You just mentioned Phish and Wu Tang, but do you have an appreciation for Top 40 music? I can’t imagine you listening to Bieber.
Top 40 doesn’t necessarily mean shitty. Remember, Michael Jackson was top forty. And there’s an art form in writing a pop song. It’s about hooks. Why can’t a hook be something that’s not shallow? It doesn’t have to appeal to the lower aspects of humanity? I just wanted to make music that was accessible…again, I didn’t mean to make it accessible. It was just a groove that I got into with Kojak.
What has been the fan reaction thus far? Are you aware of it? Have you been reading reviews?
It’s hard to tell what’s reality and what’s just some bad, mean comment on Facebook. It could be some dude who has his opinion…and whatever. You create something, someone’s always going to have a reaction. But I don’t see how there could be a bad reaction to this record though. To me, it’s the funnest thing for me to listen to. I couldn’t listen to [live record] Stubbs right now but I can listen to the new one over and over.
Why can’t you listen to the older stuff? Is it like looking at awkward high school photos?
It’s just the way it is. Do I respect [the older material]? As a photo of where I was at the time? It was special and unique in the way that no one had done that.
I can’t help but think that you’re also distancing yourself from the bearded guy. That in some way, when you shaved, you shaved away that phase of your life and not liking it is a form of suppression.
Music was never about that. The only time I could see that awkwardness is with the more preachy elements…when I felt the impetus to speak in between songs…these ideas and concepts that are more related to the religious aspects. The music itself was pure to me. So no, that’s not awkward.
I’ve got to ask about your wife’s reaction to all of this. I know you have children and you’ve raised them in a fairly strict Orthodox environment…and for a husband and a father to change his aesthetic suddenly…and perhaps his observance…that must be pretty jarring. I think I even read that you didn’t discuss the beard shaving with your wife before getting it done.
Yeah…I love my wife very much. But it had nothing to do with her. I chose to become religious. I chose all that. I never said this is permanent and this is who I will be for the rest of my life. People who are close to me who chose to be close to me, and they have to accept that. In general, the whole beard thing was very personal. I am in the public eye so I knew it was going to be discussed…but I was trying to not think of other people at the time. I wanted it to be pure.
Your beard was your identity. Like Batman has a mask. Or Paul Wall has grills. And the Jewish community respected you for your uncompromising observance, even if, to many, it started and ended with aesthetics.
Yes, but I think that I should never see myself being dependent on the Jewish community. I saw my crowd grow from being 80% Jewish to there being maybe three or four beards at a show. Maybe five or ten yarmulkes out of a crowd of thousands. If Marley shaved off his dreadlocks, he maybe would have not been as cool but his music would have still touched the souls that it did.
When music touches you, it’s so intimate. You feel indebted to that artist. You feel closer to that artist more so than to anyone else in your life. I must have known to a degree that my fan base would have been there for me with a beard or without. But it wasn’t about other people. It came to a point that I just needed to do it.
How do you approach spirituality now? Like, let’s get specific in terms of observance.
I’ve got a chef who cooks vegan and it’s kosher. That’s not an issue though. The concept to me is much deeper than mixing meat and milk. You shouldn’t get caught up in all the stuff. It has to be about healthy, about mind, body and soul. You can keep kosher and be completely out of shape.
If I didn’t have Shabbos to turn off the phone, the computer, and to not tour–that’s a deep experience. Keeping Shabbos back in the day could sometimes be like a bad acid trip. I’m stuck in a dark place for twenty-five hours, sometimes on tour being in a hotel with no TV, being alone…that was really lonely. So I’ve come a long way as far as my relationship with Shabbos, in understanding it. In making it personal. And my thinking is, why not do that on Saturday…?
I’m a blend right now with what goes with my intuition and what goes with the rules. But why do I keep the Shabbos though? Is it guilt? Is it meaningful to me? I still have to sift through it.
How does one “sift” with a family and a spotlight?
I’m very open with the kids. I’m very comfortable with what I’m doing. My oldest son…we have conversations. We talk about it. I could say, we could never do this before…or mom doesn’t want us to do this…but dad is okay with it. It can get confusing but it’s important for me to show them that there is a broader perspective. This world that they’ve been raised in—basically the Lubavitch headquarters and then on a tour but–this is a beautiful opportunity for them to have these experiences. This is real. Change happens and you can’t always be sure of your decisions and beliefs. I think that they have to make their own decisions in life. They can’t have anyone telling them what to do. Not even me.
Do you want them being brought up in a Yeshiva upbringing?
I wouldn’t put them in Yeshiva, if it were up to me. There are some beautiful aspects to it. There are some holy and beautiful things to it…being outside of the mainstream culture which focuses on being cool, girls, and all that….the main thing for my kids is that they should be taught to think and question. That didn’t happen for me until college because I was in public school. I was exposed to my lifestyle, but no one else’s. The main thing [for my kids] is a place that can let them grow and learn and question. Next year, they’re going to a home school-type program where they learn differently. I think it’s important to get past the idea of who and what you are. It’s good to have identity and know what you are. I tried on different things…I wore a yarmulke on the subway, I grew a beard…that was me exploring. I don’t like the concept that we’re taught in Yeshiva of being the chosen people and that’s so rampant. I’ve seen that a lot. And my kids have said that coming home from school…and I’ve gone in to speak to teachers about that.
Are you still wearing a yarmulke?
I think basically when I took on the look of a chassid, there was a whole look. A whole vibe. It was style. I decided to be a chassid. But I was also twenty-one years old. I remember when I started wearing a yarmulke and started growing the beard and got the tzitzis all at once. It looked cool to me. It completed the uniform ,but then I got pushed into the suit. That became later when I got really sucked in to Chabad. You need to wear a hat and a suit. In retrospect, it was a style thing. I know the yarmulke represents more than style…but it didn’t fit with who I was any more. Does it really represent my fear of God? That’s bullshit. I wore a yarmulke when I was drunk and puking in public. That became nothing to do with fear of God. People act disrespectively when they’re wearing a yarmulke.
But do I feel God without the yarmulke? It did bring me to a different standard, yeah. I mean, I stopped checking out girls when I was twenty-one and wearing a yarmulke. But it wasn’t about God, it was about identity. I went into a gas station in South Carolina and had it on–I forgot to take it off–and I remember the reaction of the people in the gas station. I remember thinking, Oh yeah, I’m different. I felt proud. But then it became less important to me. My spirituality is happening inside. If it’s really happening inside, I really feel for myself and I don’t need anyone else being aware of it.
I know that you collaborated with Jewish African-American rapper Y-Love who recently came out of the closet. What are your thoughts on another Jewish role model reinventing himself?
We’re not necessarily close friends, but we do know each other. But what he did…that takes what I did to a whole another level. I think that people need to do what they need to do and be what they need to be. It’s every person’s decision to become what they always feel like they need to be.
I agree with you, but I was personally disappointed about his choice to come out and dress up in drag all at once in the video for his single “Focus On the Flair.” Like, consider all the kids you performed in front of at yeshiva gymnasiums before you throw on a dress.
It’s not my cup of tea but if that’s how he wants to represent himself. Live your own life.
Getting back to the new record, you open it with the words of praise “Yevarechecha [you should be blessed].” Why start the record with such a strong Jewy opening?
Shaved beard and blonde hair. He’s obviously given up on Judaism, most people will say. On the contrary, I feel more spiritual than I ever have. It’s not that simple as people want to see, and so I think it’s cool that the first thing someone heard on this record is yevarechecha. It’s a message that we [just] can’t all have simple.
I’m not sure if this is a sensitive topic, but I remember a few years back the New York Times published a story about your contentious break-up with your original label J-Dub. I was wondering if you could elaborate.
I don’t feel the need to make myself look great or cover over tracks and all that. Basically I had some issues with J-dub. Not so much with Aaron but with another person. I found that on more than one occasion I was lied to. And I also thought that there was a certain attitude that they felt like they knew everything and I can’t stand that attitude. The attitude that they are too sure of themselves, especially when it came to me and my career. On top of that, honestly, I got swept away by a big fancy manager who told me everything I wanted to hear. That I was going to be the next Bob Marley. I was going to be a superstar.
I had a lot of faith in myself that I would be successful so when I met a manager who told me that that was his speciality…and so I believed him. If I could go back, I definitely wouldn’t have done what I did. I’ve seen the J-Dubs guys here and there. I may have seen Aaron and told him I had regrets about things. I don’t remember if I did or not.
Don’t get me wrong—I appreciated what they did. I was in yeshiva and two guys came to me and said they could help me.
That being said, I don’t think there’s a need to have a label like that.
So if there are so many changes here, then why keep the name Matisyahu? Why not go back to Matthew if this is about reinvention?
Judaism is still very important to me. It’s still a big part of who I am. Looking here next to me…the books I have are Burnt Books, a comparison of Rebbe Nachmun of Breslov and Franz Kafka. Another is a tehillim, another is a siddur and another is a biography of the [Rebbe] [Note: Matisyahu mentioned a specific Rebbe but I was unable to hear it]. The name “Matisyahu” means a lot to me and it’s not hard to say. Like, it doesn’t have a “chh” in it. It has a spiritual life force. My real name Matthew or Paul are both Christian names and so I don’t relate to them. But Matisyahu feels like it has a spirit I relate to.
I read somewhere that your real given name is Feivish Herschel but you only found out about that years after having been Matisyahu?
I was not aware of that name for many years. Al Pi Halachah [according to Jewish law], my name is really Matisyahu. Those papers were discovered many years after I adopted Matisyahu.
As someone who has thought about name changes, aesthetic changes, why do people change their identities to be popular and accepted like, for example, Bob Dylan and Gene Simmons?
When I started this, I believed it’s all about being real and being true to yourself even it that means changing your name. I think people respond to that. Bob Dylan would have been Bob Dylan even if his name was Robert Zimmerman. I think it would have been the same regardless–he would have written the same songs. I think Gene Simmons had a tough name with a “chh” in it so that was a career change. But I don’t know if they were escaping their Judaism. I think they were just thinking, well, Bob Dylan is a cool fucking name.