Matisyahu's new look. Courtesy photo
For West Chester, Penn., native Matthew Paul Miller life is a constant balancing act. For years the 33-year-old has grown in popularity as the “Jewish rapper” Matisyahu. And now with a new album called, Spark Seeker, a busy tour schedule extending through the rest of the year, and a recent image transformation, the influential star will have to keep his wits about him. Thankfully he has his music to keep him centered.
Music has always been a critical aspect of Matisyahu’s life. Growing up in White Plains, N.Y., Matt Miller’s life was anything but picturesque. “I wasn’t happy in school or education,” Matisyahu remembers. And that’s when he decided to make music an essential part of his life, particularly the music of Phish, the popular jam band fronted by guitarist Trey Anastasio.
“I fell in love with their music because I felt like it spoke to my soul,” he explains. And so without hesitation, he decided to travel around the country, attending Phish concerts and bumping into other wayward souls he could connect with. It was a hard life. He wasn’t relying on anyone but himself for money and food. He had no car and relied mostly on the goodwill of travelers to get him from place to place. And though it was a tough time, it proved to be a critical point in the young man’s life.
“At that time in my life I was not happy so I decided I was going to go out and find what was inspiring,” Matisyahu says. “The music is what was inspiring to me.”
His experiences on the road settled in him the path that would define his life—connecting with people through the power of music.
“During that time is when I really began to connect with the idea of God. There was the element of connecting to God through music, but to me that wasn’t so much about God as experiencing the oneness and the feeling that God is behind that.”
Miller’s pilgrimage across the nation was borne out of the rebellion he felt against his upbringing and the tumultuous relationship he had with his faith in Judaism—but his path would bring him right back to his roots. He eventually settled into an intensive program at the Alexander Muss High School which exposed him to his heritage and reignited in him a love and dedication to Judaism. At 19 years old, he accepted Orthodox Judaism and adopted the traditional name Matisyahu, which is essentially a Hebrew form of Matthew.
The only thing left to do was pick up a microphone and share his story. Luckily for Matthew, it was literally impossible to grow up in New York State without being completely inundated with Wu Tang Clan and Nas. His high school friends would spit rhymes at house parties and Matisyahu always showed a penchant for freestyle. He began as MC Truth in Oregon and in 2004 the nonprofit record label JDub released his first album Shake of the Dust…Arise.
Despite his solid base in Judaism, Matisyahu’s universal themes and clean orchestration won him fans across the spiritual demographic and his breakthrough album, Live at Stubb’s, captured the raw energy Matisyahu shares with his fans.
His music is accessible and enjoyable because of his positive blend of Judaism and inspiring poetry, without appearing as a prophet on a soapbox.
“I believe God is everything in this world and above and beyond this world,” he explains. “God and music are the same but that doesn’t necessarily mean that every type of music is going to be representing some form of God. Preaching to convince people of their ideas has nothing to do with God and that’s not what I want to be about.”
His new album, Spark Seeker, dances along that line magnificently.
The album dropped just as the Hasidic rapper was handling a drastic image transformation in which he shaved off his traditional locks for a sleeker, updated look much to his fans’ dismay.
“I was the Hasidic reggae superstar,” he says in a recent press release. “It just felt good to sort of restart everything.”
And that’s exactly what happened. The new album reflects an artist undergoing transformation—balancing an internal image with the one that returns his glances in the mirror.
“The spark seeker digs for truth and meaning and is willing to let go of everything to find it,” he says. “He’s honest and authentic with himself and lives life from the inside out. He creates music from the depths and doesn’t worry about what category it or he fits into.”
For Matisyahu, the new album was an entirely new process. It was the first time he worked with producer Kool Kojak (Ke$ha, Travis Barker) and the first time he recorded in Israel, two experiences that helped him create a glowing album.
For a young, troubled boy from New York it seems life has come full circle and Spark Seeker is at the apex of that journey—the journey to find the spark within.
See Matisyahu live Thu, Sept. 13 at the Pepsi Amphitheater at Ft. Tuthill County Park. Gates open at 6 p.m. and the show starts at 7:30 p.m. Flagstaff’s Summit Dub Squad will open. Tickets are $28 plus fees. For more info, see www.matisyahuworld.com or call 214-6485.