“I think, to be honest with you, most people have one thing to say,” Matthew Miller said. “They have one thing to put forward.”
For Miller, better-known by his Hebrew and stage name, Matisyahu, that one binding theme is his Orthodox Jewish faith, an ever-unfolding struggle to grow closer to God. From this fount, he ladles nearly every lyric accompanying his eclectic fusion of reggae, hip-hop and jam rock. Even his own blood relations fall far behind in terms of influence.
“It’s natural,” he said. “When I’m writing songs, I’m not usually thinking about my kids. Those are two different things. Family’s family; it’s not necessarily part of art or the creative process.”
So how does music inspired by mediation, Old Testament study and teachings from rabbis translate into gold-certified records, charting singles and crossover success?
Simple: The dude can spit.
Matisyahu shows stand up as bold, high-energy performances when measured against today’s jam and rap standards. It’s a sight both rare and compelling: a guy in his 30s sporting gray curls unfurling from a yarmulke, spouting off with a technical speed few in the rap game can handle. Sync that kind of talent with a skilled, fearless fusion band, and you’ve got live shows not easily forgotten.
It’s no surprise that 2005’s “Live at Stubb’s” marked Matisyahu’s arrival in the public consciousness, an institution that praised the urgent edge to his voice — something of an anomaly in a genre as laid-back as reggae. Ska-addicted stoners shook with a certain divine fear of “King Without a Crown,” as his double-time verses likened God’s providence to a drowning man’s rescue line.
When asked about the biggest difference between that breakthrough album and its recently released sequel, “Live at Stubb’s: Vol. II,” Matisyahu pointed out the obvious.
“The difference is about 700 shows,” he said. “In the early days, honestly, I was trying to prove myself. Every time I got in front of an audience, I was trying to show people who I was.”
Audiences across the country reciprocated his sincerity by turning out in droves after the release of “Live at Stubb’s: Vol. I.” But these days, he wonders if that wasn’t the most genuine reflection of himself.
“On this tour in particular, I feel myself coming out of my shell,” he said. “I’m starting to realize that I have this following, this group of people who ... we’re really sharing something together, giving to each other. There’s been times during my process where I’ve been in my shell, and unable to open myself up to realizing and connecting with people.
“I think I’ve gotten to a certain place now with my music that I feel it’s true, and I feel that it resonates with people in a real way.” Photo by Jared Polin