“I really am way into the idea of having the orgasmic experience … the ups and downs,” says Matisyahu of his most recent studio and road experiences. The Brooklyn-based songwriter, rapper, and singer stands as a unique artist. He first came on the scene as “that Hasidic Jewish musician guy,” with a 2004 album titled Shake Off the Dust … Rise. With his new album Light, he’s back with a more developed mix of musical styles.
Matisyahu’s move toward a wider ranging sound didn’t happen overnight. His earliest recordings blended reggae and hip-hop, but his musical interests began to expand soon after his first album was in stores. “It started with long van rides [on the early tours] and listening to the guys in my band, listening to their music, and just being totally opened up to all different artists and all different styles of music,” he says.
After touring behind his 2006 album Youth, Matisyahu took a break and began what eventually grew into a two-year process of writing and recording Light, which has a greater range in tempos and musical styles. In 2008, he went to Jerusalem for the high holidays and worked with his friend and teacher Ephraim Rosenstein to consolidate years of learning the Torah into 16 new songs.
“I wanted to take the time with the record. I didn’t want to be rushed,” he says. “I didn’t want to be in the middle of touring, then home for a week to work on the record, and then back out on tour. That’s how the Youth record was made, and it was telling of the time. At that time period of my life, that’s just how it was. Everything was on the run. And I wanted to make a more settled record.”
His revamped backing band includes his longtime guitarist, Aaron Dugan, keyboardist Rob Marscher, and the members of The Dub Trio — guitarist DB Holmes, bassist Stu Brooks, and drummer Joe Tomino.
“The last time I saw The Dub Trio I was really struck by them,” Matisyahu says. “We got together in Brooklyn. We played a show and it felt like totally amazing, really beautiful. It’s a bigger band now — a lot of melodic keyboards and guitars with lots of pedals and stuff, a lot of dubs.”
Some unlikely collaborators helped Matisyahu achieve his genre-hopping goals for Light. There was the presence of Joel and Benji Madden of the pop-punk group Good Charlotte, who co-wrote with Matisyahu “Darkness Into Light.” And his primary producer on the project was David Kahne, who is more known for his work in the pop field than anything based in reggae or hip-hop.
In some respects, it’s only with Light that Matisyahu has become his own man on an artistic level, making an album that comes closer to fully reflecting the sound and range of music he wants to create. Reggae and hip-hop continue to be at the root of many of the new songs. “I Will Be Light” is a pure reggae/dub song, while “Escape” leans heavily on hip-hop, with its rapped vocals and skittering beat. On “Smash Lies,” Matisyahu fuses reggae and hip-hop seamlessly. But much of Light ventures well beyond those styles. “So Hi, So Lo” manages to be both graceful and hard hitting with its fusion of soul and rock. A bit of grand, symphonic pop sweetens the melody of “For You,” while the beat has street-level grit. “Motivate” and “Darkness Into Light” bring a rock element into Matisyahu’s musical vocabulary.
“I broke away from anyone who was telling me how to make music or what kind of music to make,” Matisyahu says. “I just sort of went, “These are the kind of beats I want on the record, these are the people I want to write it with, and this is who I want to work with.'”