In 2004, when Matisyahu burst on the scene with his album Shake Off the Dust…Arise, he stood out in more ways than one. Bearded with traditional Hasidic garb and payos (religious sidelocks), he weaved together many genres: beatbox, rap, reggae, and spiritual song.
Matisyahu's genre-defying style makes sense given his early history. His parents were "dead-heads" and exposed him to rock and roll at home and hip hop through friends in New York. Matisyahu discovered reggae music through cousins in Barbados, visited Israel, went on a Phish tour.
But his style of music mixed with his orthodoxy was a bit more unusual. After growing up in Reconstructionist Judaism, Matisyahu had become "ba'al teshuvah," or what religious Jews call those who go from being less observant to fully observant of the rules and customs. After nearly a decade of religious life, in 2011 he sent out a tweet and a photo letting fans know he'd shaved his beard.
"By 2011, I had several experiences which just kind of helped me get to the place that I had been trying to get to all along. They happened not directly through religion or prayer or Torah. One of the things was I had a cyst on my vocal chords, so I had to be silent. Another thing was I had to do a macrobiotic thing because I had stomach issues. I stopped putting anything poison into my body," he explains."
"Between the silence and not putting crap into my body, whatever it be, and the skills in prayer, meditation that I had built up over the years, I basically came to a place of inner peace. And it wasn't coming to me through the religion, so that's when I made my shift."
Matisyahu says that period, in which he also released the album Akeda, was a unique time in his life. "The fans that have come to my music through that record Akeda are very special to me. They mostly relate to the struggle of breaking free from whatever it is and pressure against doing what you're supposed to be doing according to other people."
His inner peace may have been short lived. "Maybe there are some people that are kind of going from one strength to the next strength, but my life is much more of a roller coaster and it always has been," he says. "The moments of my life that have been pristine moments, they don't stay for too long, and I'm OK with that. That's part of where I've come to at this point."
Matisyahu says that ties in to his new album Undercurrent. "It's more about the acceptance of the ups and the downs and the real-life experience of going through what you go through, whatever it is."
He says that "undercurrent" can also relate to his tradition of mixing together genres. "The music style flows... like the name of the record. The idea or the concept in a person's life of these currents that flow in and out and pull people in different directions."
Matisyahu will be performing in Milwaukee Wednesday, December 6 at Turner Hall Ballroom.