Interview with Matisyahu: Establishing Tradition

As Matisyahu first came to recognition—whether it was via devout Bonnaroo attendees, ground-floor critical prospectors or the surprise radio play of “King Without A Crown” live—it was understandably surprising. After all, virtually no one had ever seen a Hasidic reggae MC, and even in the unlikely event they had, chances are slim the music was any good.

The novelty may not be what it once was, but as proved by the sophomore major label release of Light this August, Matisyahu isn’t a passing fad. The album, which reaches far beyond 2006’s Youth in hip-hop, rock and pop forms, explores the soft-spoken Baal Teshuva’s musical range and universal accessibility, underscored by the use of its first single, “One Day,” in NBC’s promos for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

This December, Matisyahu continues his nascent tradition of the Festival Of Light, eight performances marking Hanukkah across Manhattan and Brooklyn, serving as the end of his fall U.S. tour with Brooklyn’s Dub Trio. Matisyahu had just finished a radio performance when we talked about his varying ways of connecting to his fans—even on Thanksgiving—as well as the use of “One Day” for Olympic promos (“We’re talking about trying to get out to the Olympics to perform,” Matisyahu predicts about his plans for the new year. “Nothing is set in stone yet though.”), and the upcoming Hanukkah performances.

I see you’re working on Thanksgiving. You’re doing a fan chat online. Do you just try to fill your days up with getting in touch with your fans?

It depends. When I’m out on tour I get the opportunity to be in all these different towns and places where I’m normally not, so there’s opportunities to work with radio stations and to do that kind of thing. It’s sort of a good thing to do I think. Then if I’m doing it anyway, what I’ll do is I’ll invite Twitter fans or whatever to those performances. That way people can come check out the more acoustic, intimate type of thing. In terms of the chat, we basically chose just one day a week to do it and we try to stick to that, and we’re doing it on Thursdays. I thought it would be kind of cool to do it on Thanksgiving. I don’t know why.

I assume everybody’s home.

I guess most people usually do those things from the office, when they’re at work. This might be a little different. We’ll see.

I guess the most recent news is that ‘One Day’ is being used for NBC’s Olympic promos. When did you find out about that? How did you feel about that?

Pretty happy. There’s not much to it. It’s a good thing hopefully, it’ll get good exposure, why not, you know?

Was there any sort of validating feeling to it though, considering the message of the song being tied into the Olympic spirit? It is a worldwide event and there’s a universal message that you generally try to get across in your songs and your records.

Yeah. The two fit for sure. It makes a lot of sense using that song. It’s like the ideal song for the Olympics. It’s very accessible first of all and like you said the message is all about universality and unity, you know. People coming together and getting past their differences, which is the theme of the song, so it seemed to be a really good fit.

You took a lot of time with your proper follow-up to Youth with Light, but it’s been out now for a few months. Have your feelings changed about the material since it has come out?

Not that much. Pretty much—I don’t know how it works for other people—when I work on a record, after it’s finished, I don’t really listen to it again. It’s very rare that I’ll go back and listen to it. In terms of performing the songs live, I’m playing with a new band now, and we don’t try to imitate the songs as they are on the record. We try to reshape them and remold them based on what’s inspiring and what feels right.

But I do feel good about the record. As a musician, you never feel like you’ve gotten exactly what it was, I’ve yet to feel that, that I’ve nailed exactly what it is that I wanted to do, but I feel I got an aspect of what I wanted to do. And I feel that it’s a forward progression. Right now I’m not recording anything but I’m performing a lot with this band and it’s quite a different sound than the sound on the record.