January 10, 2007
Matisyahu gets a new spiritual groove
Matisyahu Miller -- known to his legions of fans by his first name, and to his friends simply as Matis -- makes the trip almost daily. He bikes from the Crown Heights apartment he shares with his wife and two young sons to the loft space he's just rented in the old industrial neighborhood, giving him a place to write and rehearse his next album.
"I might call it 'Dream Awake,'" he says, as he cracks open a grimy window in the newly painted empty loft, sits down on the floor and lights a cigarette.
The title references the life he's been leading the past several years as he moved from being a troubled suburban teenager into life as a frum Jew immersed at once in both the shtetl of his religious community and the world of reggae music.
Recent years have been "like a dream I had. All the pieces just came together, like a dream," he said.
But since making public that he is breaking off from Chabad-Lubavitch, the Chasidic group to which he has been closely connected since before his 2004 debut album, there have been a few less-than-dreamy moments, as well.
Now in a more religiously fluid place, "we're just frum Jews," Matisyahu says of his family. "I live in Crown Heights but I daven in Borough Park in Karlin [synagogues]" when he gets up early enough to reach it in time for morning minyan. "My wife loves the community; that's why we're still living in Crown Heights."
With his unruly beard, faded blue hoodie and little round glasses, Matisyahu, 28, fits easily into artsy, edgy Greenpoint, which is on the cusp of being colonized by yuppies but unlike neighboring Williamsburg isn't yet populated by young parents pushing expensive strollers whose occupants wear tiny Ramones onesies.
The tzitzit hanging out of his sweatshirt and the velvet yarmulke on his head connect him to his Jewish world.
And true to his location and appearance, Matisyahu is a synthesizer of disparate worlds. His music braids together rhythms and themes found in roots reggae -- love of God, though here "Hashem" rather than "Jah," and a desire to return to Zion -- and dance hall sounds. He manages to merge Chasidic melodies and nigguns (wordless songs) with reggae-style scatting.
For Matisyahu, it is all about the spiritual search, the desire to mend this "world of fragmentation," as he sings, and to serve and connect with God. "You're like water for my soul when it gets thirsty.... I give myself to you from the essence of my being. Where you been, where you been for so long...."
Matisyahu first entered public consciousness with his debut album, "Shake Off The Dust ... Arise" in 2004.
The following year, after talking Phish's Trey Anastasio into letting him play a set at the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee, he proved to the tens of thousands of people there that he was more than a novelty act. Fame grew with the release of "Live at Stubb's" (which sold 650,000 CDs), a second studio album called, "Youth," which debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard charts and sold 1.2 million records, and nationwide radio airplay and touring.
Coverage in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly and alt-zines -- all prominently featuring photos of the black-hatted, bearded young man -- both broadened his appeal and confirmed the unlikely musical marriage. In 2006 he cut ties with JDub, the Jewish boutique label that started his career, and joined powerhouse label Epic. The same year, Billboard named him its top reggae artist.
Through it all, Matisyahu, who adopted the Yiddish pronunciation of Matthew, the name he grew up with, has been an overt spiritual seeker, weaving his desire to connect with God through most of his songs.
In "Got No Water" he sings: "Hashem's rays fire blaze light my way light of my life/ And these days well wait no longer night/ reaching for my God like skyscrapers in the night/ I said I know it's hard inside is empty galus [exile] cuts like a knife/ Internalize Torah vibes bound to feel alright."
Matisyahu's first albums are frankly Chabad-oriented, with calls for "moshiach now" and short clips of Lubavitch rabbis talking theology and offering blessings.
But now, the lanky young singer says, he's breaking his ties to the movement.
Matisyahu spent last Sukkot in Israel and made a surprise appearance at a Jerusalem club. Afterward, in comments made to the newspaper Ha'aretz, he said "I am no longer affiliated with Chabad," and that he wants to convey a more universal message.
The move has prompted criticism and resentment, from some for whom his association had been a point of pride, in discussion on the street and in the blogosphere.
"I've only been religious for eight years and I want to explore Judaism. That is so normal. For some reason it's considered a big deal, but it's so basic," Matisyahu says. "I've always been very open to things, not afraid of growth and change. That's how I got religious."
He's moved away from Chabad because "it was about becoming part of this machine and feeling like it was taking away from my service of God, not adding to it."
As a 20-year-old, Matisyahu dove head first into the Chabad world.
Before then, growing up in White Plains, he dropped out of high school to follow the jam band Phish on the road, and started musical -- and other forms -- of experimentation. He finished high school at a teen wilderness program in Oregon for reasons "I'll leave to people's imaginations," he says with a wry smile.
Already into reggae, Matisyahu's first contact with the frum life came when he was back in New York, studying art at The New School.