An Acoustic Evening with Matisyahu
Feb. 17, 6:30 p.m., $25-$75, The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford, (888) 824-2874, thebushnell.org
As a teenager, Matisyahu — the shape-shifting Chassidic-reggae-hip-hop musician who performs at Hartford’s Bushnell Center on Feb. 17 — freestyled for spare change at Phish shows. A few years ago, he sang Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” to 50,000 people at Bonnaroo. God certainly works in mysterious ways.
That could serve as a tidy summary to a novel career trajectory. Sometime around 2002, when Matthew Miller (as he was then known) was writing his breakthrough hit “King Without A Crown,” he was already diving headlong into the Lubavitch sect of the Chassidic Jewish faith. Over the next few years, as Matisyahu (Matis, for short), he became a bonafide superstar. Both Live at Stubbs (2005) and Youth (2006) went gold. A song called “One Day” could be heard on NBC commercials for the 2010 Olympics. He jammed with his idols, including Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio. As his latest album, Spark Seeker, shows, the process of transformation, for Matis, will never end; recorded in Los Angeles and Israel with producer Kool Kojak (who’s also worked with Nicki Minaj and Ke$ha), the release coincided with Twitter pictures of a beardless Matis. (Later, he appeared in an online video without a yarmulka and left a cryptic message on his website: “No more Chassidic reggae superstar. Sorry folks, all you get is me...no alias.”)
Matisyahu is currently touring behind Spark Seeker: Acoustic Sessions, backed only by a cellist and two guitarists, fielding questions from audience members in between songs. The soft-spoken musician talked with the Advocate by phone from Cincinnati about the tour so far, paring back his sound and discovering what lies beneath. [This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.]
What has the experience of performing in such an intimate setting been like for you, and what sort of reception have you seen so far?
The reception has been great. The shows have been sold out, almost all of them. It’s really not about the number [of musicians onstage], because I do play with a trio. But it’s drums and a lot of electronics. It’s a completely different style of show. It’s not new to me, because I’ve done lots of these shows over the past few years, but I’ve never done an official tour. I’ve done one show here or there.
I read that you are fielding questions from audience members. Has anyone asked you something that you found really surprising? What’s the general tone of the questions?
It depends on the night. Sometimes it’s just a total free-for-all, like, “Hey, Matis, can I come up onstage and hug you?” Or, “What’s your favorite color?”, “Would you perform in my festival?” Sometimes it’s much more of a serious tone. There’s usually a lot of joking around that goes on. Ideally, there’s a lot of joking around, then there’s one or two serious moments. But I’m never surprised by the questions people ask, because people ask the most far-out and ridiculous things, so I’ve come to expect that.
Is there one that sticks out as something that caught you off guard?
You know what people ask me about a lot? They ask me about “what’s my favorite,” my favorite this, or my favorite that. It’s a concept that I don’t understand, this concept of favorites, you know? “What’s your Torah passage?” Or “what’s your favorite song to play?” I don’t have favorite anything. I like things. But it’s not like a competition for me... I don’t put all of my eggs in one basket... I guess it’s just a way of speaking. They just want to know what songs I like. Maybe I’m being too literal.
Do those questions lead to very short answers from you, or are people expecting you to really expound upon the nature of your favorite color, for example?
Sometimes people want to know the history, the story. They want to know what’s behind the beard, or [did I go through] a change of philosophy, the inner workings of why I shaved, or if I’ve changed, if I’ve moved my stance, religiously. So then, that sort of prompts me to give more of a full explanation of why I grew a beard in the first place, to give it some context. That’s usually one of the opportunities I have to expound more, to go more in depth about who I am, my life choices, and so on.
When people approach you with spiritual questions, ones they wouldn’t find themselves asking too many other entertainers and performers, is there a certain pressure on you to have the answers to these deeper questions? Does it put pressure on you to steer people the right way or give the right kind of answer?
To me, the right kind of answer is “there are no answers.” I don’t feel pressure. I don’t pretend to be a teacher or something. I’m a musician and a singer, and I’m living my life and struggling through ups and downs. I think that’s what people relate to. I keep trying to grow more, to evolve as a person, as a musician. So, I’m very honest.
I guess that’s the biggest quality that I have when it comes to these things, that I’m sort of transparent. I’m not hiding anything. I’m open and I’m honest with people... Things are what they are. Some nights, these Q&A sessions are a complete free-for-all, like a joke, but at least they’re fun... People get to see that side of me, which they might not see otherwise. Other nights, I feel like there are deep messages that come through them. That’s part of doing the Q&A thing:
You don’t know what you’re going to get. But that’s the way I like to live. That’s the way I like to play music as well. I like to improvise. Things are changing every night.
I know you’ve spent time on tour with jambands as a spectator, and now you’re on the other side. You’ve seen that scene both from parking lots and the stage. I wondered if you have a perspective on that scene and that crowd from both sides.
Yesterday I was on Twitter, and somebody retweeted that clip of me with Trey [Anastasio, Phish singer/guitarist] at Bonnaroo in 2005. I was watching that, and I was like, “Man, that’s so awesome that that happened.” So freaking cool, you know? I guess that’s part of what some people relate to with me. Nobody was ever born a star or a successful musician. We all make our lives happen. But I knew that I loved music. I knew that I needed to be somehow involved in making music. I didn’t play an instrument. I didn’t know how to write songs. But from that first Phish concert I went to when I was 16 [12/28 or 12/29 at the Centrum Centre in Worcester, Mass.], I thought, “This is it for me.”
That music has a very strong improvisational component to it. Are you able to fully express yourself through improvisation in the style of music that you’ve chosen to pursue?
There’s a combination of things, but yes. I personally feel most satisfied through improvisation. We’ll play a song, and there are so many things to focus on when you’re singing and playing a song: the lyrics, what the lyrics mean, trying to find the emotion of the words. Then there’s the style that I sing. I don’t really have one style. I go back and forth between different styles. The notes, the voice, how the voice sounds. And then there’s listening to what the musicians are doing, interacting with the audience, or not interacting with the audience. There are so many different things that are going on, but still, to this day, when we get into a good improvisation, and it’s really happening, when I’m coming up with words, freestyling different ideas — that’s where I find the most satisfaction, when it’s happening.
In the sense that this show strips back the music and places it in an acoustic setting, has the process of pulling back revealed anything about your music — or music in general — through the process of peeling back the excess layers?
Yes, it has. One thing is that it gives me an opportunity to be a musician, in the sense that I’m beatboxing, doing bass and drums. So, I can forget about my words and my lyrics and all of that. I’m rapping and singing, and I can just get into the groove of the music. I don’t know if that’s taught me anything or if that’s just a fun aspect for me. But it has allowed me to get back to the words when I am singing songs. When I’m playing with my band [the trio discussed earlier], and there’s a raging audience, and I’m dancing and doing different things, it’s very easy to get away from the words and what they mean. One of the things stripping back has done is, okay, what are these words? What do they mean to me? Do they mean anything to me anymore, these words, after singing them 10,000 times? How can I make these words relevant to me? And then there’s always the question of what do you force and what do you just let happen. You can’t force emotion. You can’t force meaning. It either is or it isn’t... Somehow stripping back has allowed me to refocus on the words and trying to feel how they are still relevant in my life.