January 21, 2019

Matisyahu on music, religion and life in L.A.

Less than 24 hours after performing with the Moshav Band at the Jewlicious Festival in Long Beach late on March 1, musical artist Matisyahu (aka Matthew Miller) was sitting in the bleachers of the frigid L.A. Kings Valley Ice Center in Panorama City, watching two of his sons, Laivy and Shalom, skate around the rink with 10 other young children as members of a new Los Angeles Jewish youth hockey league.

This spring, the reggae/hip-hop/dub musician will release his new album, “Akedah,” on the independent label Caroline Records, a subsidiary of Universal Music Group. After being dropped by Epic Records, a Sony-owned label, not long after the release of his 2009 album, “Light,” he established his own label, Fallen Sparks.

Since his emergence in 2004, three of Matisyahu’s studio albums have hit the Billboard charts, and all three reached the top of the reggae chart — many of his singles, extended plays and live albums have made it big, as well.

Just before his sons hit the ice, Matisyahu spoke briefly with the Journal about his work and his ever-evolving Jewish identity. 


Jewish Journal: You moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles more than two years ago. Are you enjoying life here?

Matisyahu: It’s more laid back. The weather is better. I wouldn’t say I like it more — it’s just different.

JJ: You’re no longer on a major label, instead working under your own label, Fallen Sparks, and releasing “Akedah” on Caroline Records. What’s it like going the independent route?

M: Being on an indie label, your bank isn’t as big, and your marketing powers aren’t as big, but you have more control over what you do and what amount of money is spent. When you’re on a major label, they could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on things that you might not feel are important.

JJ: Why did you pick “Akedah,” the title of the story of the binding of Isaac, for your upcoming album?

M: It’s a concept that I started becoming interested in several years ago. I went to the grave of the Baal Shem Tov [founder of Chasidic Judaism] in Ukraine. I sat and studied for a while, and the story of the akedah was one of the major themes that we started discussing. There’s a lot of depth in that story.

JJ: And will that depth come out in the album?

M: The theme of akedah runs through the record and it’s a narrative. … It has obvious themes and it has deeper themes. The difference is that it all comes back and is very personal. No longer is it just abstract ideas. Any idea that I take, whether it be akedah or it be any biblical reference I have in the Torah, I bring it back to me personally — how it represents me in a very personal way.

JJ: Is your music today as religiously themed as it was when you identified as Chasidic?

M: This record is filled with Jewish themes. My last record [“Spark Seeker”] was, as well. I was trying to understand when people would say, “Oh it’s not Jewish anymore”; I realized what it is. What people want is blatant, obvious Jewish references so that they don’t have to think, versus a record filled with all kinds of the depths of Judaism, Chassidus and kaballah but requires someone to go just a little bit beyond the surface. 

JJ: Do you feel comfortable today labeling your Jewish identity in any way?

M: All the terms and labels and things like religious or Chasidic or Orthodox don’t really apply to me. … Being Chasidic, to me, is not about the way you look. It’s not about necessarily the rules you follow, but it’s more about a certain main idea. 

JJ: Can you elaborate?

M: [A Chasid] could be anybody. It could be someone who’s not even Jewish. Sometimes I see someone, I’ll be, like, “That’s a Chasid — that guy.” To me what a Chasid means is very different than what it means to the rest of the world. That’s why it becomes very difficult for me to say I’m this or I’m that.