Blending the look and culture of Orthodox Judaism with the musical styles of reggae and hip-hop, Matisyahu has cut a distinctive path in the music world since his first hit single, “King Without a Crown,” in 2005. Yet in the last few years, the rapper from Brooklyn by way of upstate New York has made some major changes, altering his beard and growing dreads before more recently adopting a clean-shaven look that seems to draw more attention the more he refuses to discuss it.
His fifth and latest CD, Undercurrent, was released last year and intrigued both fans and newcomers to his sound thanks to the fact that he expanded his sonic palette to incorporate Phish-style jam rock with a live band into an already-complex musical stew. He’ll be bringing it all together on Saturday at Discovery as part of his “The Forest of Faith” tour, and as the headliner at the bowling alley/music venue’s annual Backyard Bash, which also features Hirie, Leilani Wolfgramm, Dirty Rice and other musical acts.
“This record in particular is made with a live band, and the process was born of improvisations from being on the road for the better part of a year,” says Matisyahu, whose real name is Matthew Paul Miller. “My live show started to take a heavy turn in that direction, so I wanted to make a record that was more in line with what it is I’m actually doing in shows.
“I started by recording the shows leading up to the recording of the record, so we went back to the studio, listened to improvisations, loosely built forms, then recorded just instrumentals of these improvs,” he continues. “Those came out on average to be seven, eight or nine minutes a track even before I put vocals on it. I took those 65 minutes of music and wrote verses and choruses and added after that. It shows the fans the creative nature of what we do live.”
The fan response has been positive, as the 38-year-old artist has found that the eclecticism of the record connected with fans from all over the world.
A comfort with different musical genres has been ingrained in Matisyahu since childhood. His parents were fans of classic rock and the Grateful Dead, while his peers were hip-hop aficionados. As a boy, he acted in plays and musicals via a gifted children’s program and loved showing off his moves at school dances. A passion for freestyling and beatboxing emerged in high school amid a troubled phase in which he was sent to a wilderness camp near Bend, Oregon, to tame a burgeoning drug habit, and paid off when he started performing at open mic nights.
“There was a bit of a culture clash, but in some ways the two things were interspersed with each other for a very long time for me,” Matisyahu recalls. “When I started listening to Bob Marley and reggae and heard their many references to the Old Testament, I immediately found the connection between Old Testament and reggae that made sense in my mind.”
As he studied Marley’s lyrics about the importance of finding one’s roots and culture, Matisyahu embraced Orthodox Judaism. His love of reggae remained, however, because the lyrics spoke to him more than “so-called Jewish music.” He wanted to find a way to combine all of it together in music the way he had in his offstage life, and thus his unique sound was born. His first CD, Youth, went gold. But after marriage, children and a divorce, he felt drawn to a more modern branch of Judaism.
“There was a time where people told me I had to be a purist and just do certain things; and to honor the path I was on, I put down my records and just tried to do one thing,” explains Matisyahu. “That helped me to basically understand in truth the Hasidic lifestyle and the way. Then again, the time came where I said, ‘It’s time for me again to expand my horizons and try to find myself in all this.’ ”
“I think that there was a time when I was more concerned with what people thought, and I was focused on trying to get more fans or people to like me,” he continues. “I’d get frustrated or my feelings hurt. But at a certain point I had to make peace with it and said, ‘You’re not going to be happy if you try to make everybody happy.’ I basically do me, do what I know is right. I follow my own heart and do not get discouraged when people make comments.”
Matisyahu headlines the Backyard Bash, which takes place on Saturday, April 7, starting at 12:30 p.m. at Discovery, 1888 E. Thompson Blvd., Ventura. For tickets and more information, call 856-2695 or visit www.discoveryventura.com.