This week's installment of the 2010 Twilight Concert Series (@7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 12) features one of the most uplifting rockers of our time: Matisyahu, a devout Hasidic Jew known for blending hip-hoppy reggae melodies with truthful, spiritual lyrics that while personal, transcend individual boundaries and produce a global sort of peaceful unity.
Matisyahu's breakout hit, King Without a Crown put him on the international map in 2006, and his 2009 single One Day, off of his album Light was so inspirational, it was chosen as NBC's Olympic theme song for their 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games coverage. Clearly his peaceful messages have reached far and wide, yet for Matisyahu, his music is still a personal and very spiritual experience. "Unification doesn't mean giving up yourself," Matisyahu once told MTV News at an early South by Southwest performance in Austin, TX. "It means finding out who you are and being alright with that and then being able to connect to others."
Here, we were able to connect with Matisyahu, and ask him how his music came about and what it means to him.
Lara Rosenbaum: How did you get involved with music? How did it all begin?
Matisyahu: When I was a kid I did chorus and stuff like that and when I was in high school I got into music in terms of really listening to it. I became a lover of music. My dad also had a drum set in the house so I started playing the drums and was always singing. I also started writing little songs.
My friends were into rap and I learned to beat-box in school. When I was 18, I lived in Oregon and started performing live at coffee shops and open mic's (as MC Truth). My friends and I put together a band, and I'd beat-box. And then I came back to college in New York (NYU) and performed at more open mic nights.
Then I became religious and sort of stopped playing music for a couple years. But I had friends in college who were in the music school at NYU and I'd sit in with them. One of them asked me to perform with them on a recording they were doing and I recorded my first three songs, one of which was King Without a Crown.
Later, I had a friend who started a record label (JDub Records) and who went to NYU's music business school. They got a grant to do Jewish music and started booking me shows and working with me very closely. We soon made the first record, Shake Off the Dust in a home studio in DUMBO in Brooklyn.
LR: Wow. Sounds like there was a little luck and a series of events that helped it all fall into place!
Matisyahu: There are events that fall into place, but really, it's the other stuff along the way that's more meaningful. It's the inner things that are going on that mean so much more. With any musician, there's a time when they heard a certain style of music, for instance, and realized they could do it well. Those are the moments that make it happen. It's really about that more than having a friend or record deal. It's the first show you go to and the moment when you realize that's all you want to do, or when you play something for the first time and realize you could do it and that you're talented. When you start to believe in yourself and focus on what you love. It's when music is just in you, and you're not thinking about a career. You're eating, breathing and sleeping music.
I think that's much more important than events coming together.
LR: What were some of these specific moments when this happened for you?
Matisyahu: I can't really say that there was one specific experience. There was a lifetime of them: from when I was little kid listening to Michael Jackson, or the first time I started getting into Bob Marley, or the first Phish concert that I went to when I was on hallucinogens. There were all these moments along the way and I can't really point to one and say, "This was it." There were moments all along and I knew from the time I was little that this was what I really wanted.
LR: Your lyrics are so uplifting and spiritual. Does your music come out of your faith?
Matisyahu: The first songs I started writing were based on reggae music. It was about being a singer and using my voice; that's where I felt at home. And that was the music I listened to most. And when I got into say, Bob Marley's music, one of the first things that really attracted me to it and that I felt a connection to was that there are references to the Old Testament, so there was a lot of imagery, and a lot of ideas and direct quotes. I sensed the wisdom.
So basically, before I became religious, when I was in my twenties, my lyrics were driven by that same style of writing. And as I became religious, I drew more from the Torah-which can mean so many things. There are a lot of the philosophies in the Torah, and as I started to get into that and study, I would find quotes and ideas and note them. There are some core, central themes to Judaism that also are central to human universal themes.
When I went to write that first record, I had been studying yeshiva for two years, so I took all those ideas I'd noted and based songs around them. I did it in a way I was familiar with, because of my history with reggae music.
LR: In Light your style gets away from reggae a little bit, and goes a little more indie and hip-hop. Why did you make that choice?
Matisyahu: Every decision is made for a reason-whether it's the style of music or which musicians or producers to use. I'm always interested in developing and evolving my style. It's a mix between different things and sometimes it can go in one direction more than another, or sometimes it's just about taking different elements of different styles and putting them together into something unique.
LR: Last call question: We're all looking forward to your concert here in Salt Lake. Are you planning on doing anything else when you're in town?
Matisyahu: Any recommendations? (Readers, help him out and make some suggestions in the comments section, below!)
I have my motorcycle with me, so maybe I'll go for a ride for a couple hours to get away. There are probably some nice rides up there in the mountains.