Matthew Miller, better known by his Yiddish stage name Matisyahu, stopped listening to music when he became an Orthodox Jew. “That was backed by the religion where there were periods of time you couldn’t listen to music,” he explains. That meant no secular music for the budding artist. Yet, Matisyahu formed a band and began a musical career while still following the Orthodox beliefs, mixing his spiritual beliefs with his lyrics.
That is why Matisyahu’s sound, especially in earlier discs, is heavily influenced by the reggae, dub, and hip-hop he listened to in his teenage years, before his music intake came to a halt. “I was always listening to music on headphones everywhere I was,” Miller says. “When I stopped, I was trying to find the music in life and where I was going. I was feeling the harmony of existence.”
However, the artist did pick up the tastes of his bandmates during the 10-year secular drought. While on tour, he found himself immediately blending new-to-him sounds into his style. Almost a decade later, Spotify introduced Matisyahu to many more major influences, including Elliott Smith, Kid Cudi, and Frank Ocean. “I find myself liking current hip-hop, even stuff that doesn’t really fit with my way of looking at life,” Miller says.
While his spirituality still strongly influences his music, Matisyahu shaved his signature beard back in 2011. The act shocked fans who saw him as an example that religious and mainstream worlds could collide, and it caused a disconnect. But ultimately, he realized his spiritual journey is his own.
“I began to question the Orthodox ideology that I adopted at 21-years-old and was living under for 10 years,” Miller says. “When you do something like that, it’s more than a hobby that you’ve been doing. When you change your way of thinking and submit your own intellect to a higher idea, that’s intense. The last record reflects me coming out of that, even though it was a growth process happening over the course of 10 years.”
That disc, Akeda (Hebrew for “binding”), was released in June of this year and has a more self-reflective nature, both lyrically and sonically. The rose-colored glasses Matisyahu wore while writing the choruses for the tracks “King Without a Crown” from Shake Off the Dust…Arise and “One Day” from 2009’s Light have been left behind for evaluative lyrics that show a raw honesty and reveal inward contemplation.
In “Hard Way,” he admits to being human when he sings, “Who am I to say?/ I know nothing it seems/ Until it’s way too late/ I’m learning this the hard way.” Like other tracks off the intensely personal album, the sound mirrors a self-growth, starting with soft, melancholy piano chords and evolving into an electronic-driven intensity.
“I just came to a certain place in my life where I knew it was time to move forward and let go of some things,” Miller says. “When I was writing, it wasn’t trying to get across an idea or connect a couple of ideas or make an anthem about peace; it was what I felt like on Facebook reading comments about after I shaved, when I made the decision to let go of the beard. I was trying to come back to a feeling.”
With all the negative responses to his new image and spiritual journey, performing and touring is hard at times. “If it was up to me, I’d only be playing my new music,” Miller says. “I know part of my fanbase would love that, the part that is connecting with the new music in a deep way. However, fans come to the show to hear ‘One Day,’ which is always on the lineup.”
However, the singer thrives on live improvisations and feeds off the energy of each group of people he encounters. “Performance is the meat of it all. It brings everything together,” Miller says. “Where I like to end up is in an intimate moment with God, praying through the music, through the Hebrew words, through the singing. If I have that experience, I have done what really keeps me going. That’s a moment I strive to reach, to bring people together.”