By now, most people know Matthew Paul Miller as Matisyahu, the American-born Hasidic Jewish reggae artist who emerged on the scene in 2004 as an interesting character in the world of reggae and alternative music. Matisyahu’s music, and his fan-base, is more similar to that of bands like 311 and Sublime, than it is of a pure roots reggae origin, and—right or wrong—his devotion to Hasidic Judaism is what has made him stand out in the mainstream, more so than has his music.
It’s also not hard to find Matisyahu’s persona a little complex. Recently, during an exchange of emails, I gave Matisyahu an opportunity to open up to readers and share his thoughts on the world. But to my disappointment, I found him suspiciously mum on topics of interest to people. In fact, prior to our exchange, I polled several die-hard Matisyahu fans to see which questions they’d like to have answered most by him, many of which he was reluctant to answer in much detail.
Once a member of the Brooklyn community, Matisyahu has made the cross-country leap to L.A., where he now resides. When asked about what his faith means to him, and where he found his calling, he presented vague answers which left a lingering curiosity as to whether Matisyahu is just a very private man, devoted to his faith and his art exclusively—or someone who’s created an identity in order to gain success and notoriety. Here are some of the topics we touched upon in our exchange together. Unfortunately, he was not available for further comment or elaboration, but his Festival of Lights tour comes through the New York City area starting on Dec. 19—with the first of four performances at The Williamsburg Hall of Music, in addition to one show at Webster Hall on Dec. 23.
I’ve read that you were a big Phish fan. I am too! Do you remember your first show? What was it that drew you to that music?
First show was Worcester, MA, winter 1995 or ‘94… not sure. Changed my life, and my concept of music completely. [It] was also my first LSD trip… came during a time after I had come back from Israel. I was starving for spiritual experience.
Also, I know that you are a fellow Brooklynite. What is special about the Brooklyn community for you?
Just moved to L.A., sorry. Brooklyn is still my fav [sic] though… love the neighborhood aspect to it.
Recently, there was an incident that involved a young Hasid and the son of a NYC police officer, which caused some controversy both in the news and the Crown Heights community. I wonder, in times such as these, how do you remain so positive?
[I] didn’t know about it… don’t watch [the] news much. Maybe that’s how.
I read that when you were younger, you were able to travel to Israel—a trip that ultimately deepened your connection to Judaism. What about that trip had the most profound effect on you?
It showed me a new perspective, a different version of Judaism than I had been exposed to. I saw something beautiful there.
Now that you’ve become so successful, how is your music received in Israel?
I don’t like self-promotion; you’ll have to ask some Israelis.
When you first started out performing and recording, did you ever feel at any point that critics regarded you as a novelty act?
[It’s] better to not pay attention to critics. Speak your truth and don’t look back.
You’ve released a couple of live records, and I know that you tour quite regularly. Do you find it easy or hard to keep kosher while on tour?
Nor [sic] easy nor hard, just is. Hard to be healthy wherever you are.
Being typically associated with reggae music, who were some of the reggae artists that influenced your music, and what drew you to reggae music, initially?
Bob Marley and later Sizzla. The music itself attracted me, spoke to my soul.
Your Festival of Lights tour is set to kick off on Dec. 15. I understand this is something you do annually. Can you tell me how the idea was conceived? From what I understand of it, it almost reminds me of Phish’s annual holiday shows.
It’s Channukah. My name is Matisyahu. It seemed to make sense.
Where do you hope your career takes you in the future?
All the way!
Matisyahu will perform at Music Hall Of Williamsburg from Dec. 19 through Dec. 22 and at Philly’s Theatre Of The Living Arts on Dec. 24. For more information, go to matisyahuworld.com.