The A Plus interview: Matisyahu
We strive to avoid gossipy celebrity stories at A Plus. We’re far more interested in what someone’s thoughts are about being a new mom or confused dad than in who they just broke up with. We’d much rather write about a singer’s random act of kindness in visiting a children’s hospital than a clickbait piece about someone in the public eye who’s had a bad day.
This interview series will be an extension of that ethos. In order to differentiate it from our competitors, we’ve named it The A Plus Interview.
The A Plus Interview invites people to answer just a few short, direct questions that aim to be more revealing than those asked by other media outlets. We will never ask questions about gossip or rumors. While we may inquire into a recent project, a more representative question might be “what makes you feel loved?”
The A Plus interview is about rapport, rather than just reporting. It aims to bring interviewing back to its original intent, as rooted in its etymological source, the French verb s’entrevoir: to see each other.
Welcome to the first A Plus Interview.
Matisyahu. 37. Singer.
Although Matisyahu’s debut album Shake Off the Dust … Arise hit shelves back in 2004, it was his sophomore studio effort Youth in 2006 that put him squarely in the public eye with the dancehall smash, “King Without a Crown.” Youth hit the top of Billboard’s Reggae Albums chart in March 2006, a feat he later repeated with his 2009 album Light, which generated the single “One Day” and stayed charted for 69 weeks.
Much of the press surrounding Matisyahu in his early career had to do with his religion and appearance. Identifying as a Hasidic Jew, he burst onto the reggae-dancehall scene with the sidelocks, beard, and traditional dark garb associated with Orthodox Judaism. This was often treated as something of a novelty by the media, though Matisyahu had spent a substantial amount of time studying Jewish spirituality. This was exemplified in 2007, when Esquire magazine named him “The Most Lovable Oddball,” calling him the “most intriguing reggae artist in the world” and praising the “inherent spirituality” in his music.
In late 2011, he posted a picture of himself clean-shaven on Twitter and took to Facebook to explain the change.
“At a certain point I felt the need to submit to a higher level of religiosity … to move away from my intuition and to accept an ultimate truth,” he wrote. “I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules — lots of them — or else I would somehow fall apart. I am reclaiming myself. Trusting my goodness and my divine mission.”
In a 2014 interview with VICE, he expanded on his journey, saying “Judaism is a practice. You can fall in and out of it very easily just like you can fall in or out of a diet. Ideologically I feel a lot different in terms of my relationship to the rules and all that. In terms of the practice, I move in and out of it like I do everything else.”
Matisyahu recently made headlines while in Maui, Hawai’i, when he stumbled on busking musician Kekoa Alama singing “One Day” at a local coffee shop. Matisyahu flew Alama to Los Angeles a few days later to join him in singing “One Day,” as well as the Bob Marley classics “No More Trouble” and “No Woman, No Cry,” at the Hollywood Palladium.
This year, Matisyahu has released two singles while on tour: “Love Born” and “Storm Tossed,” a richly-composed collaboration with Twiddle singer-guitarist Mihali Savoulidis that serves as a mile marker in Matisyahu’s growth as an artist. Sweetened by the powerful vocals provided by the two singers, “Storm Tossed” is a raw, aching song of searching and loneliness. It’s an anthem and a ballad for anyone who has ever found themselves adrift in the pain of a transition.
Inspired by “Storm Tossed,” we asked Matisyahu for his thoughts about performing, life, and home. He was kind enough to answer by email in between shows.
What are the best and worst parts of touring?
Best parts of touring are getting creative, and finding the release and truth in artistic expression on the daily, and getting paid for it. Making a living for my kids. Creating a second family and home for the band/crew I’m with. Creating a supportive and loving environment where people can be themselves, and that also fosters growth and change for this (road) family.
Worst part is when the music isn’t happening. I.e., when you’re on stage trying to get into the vibe and things are just going wrong. This can be a result of sound issues, band not meshing, weird audience, emotional distress, but it’s the worst feeling in the world. Kind of like a bad trip you can’t escape from. It makes you second guess everything. Why do I make music? I would be happier doing anything else.
Just to be clear: Music is the only thing in the world I want to do. I’m married to it and I love it with all my heart, but it’s a complex relationship and the gift of being able to do it comes with a tremendous weight and responsibility. What I meant was that sometimes the weight of it all makes me think I would be “happier” with a job less intense or more simple and straight forward. However, happiness is not the end goal for me. I’m in it for the glory!
When do you feel most vulnerable?
When the music is happening, and I feel myself completely present and at one with it. The feeling is one of complete confidence in who I am and what I’m doing. At the same time, when it’s off and I find myself sinking into a hole, shutting down, searching for a redemptive place in myself and the music, and coming up empty, I feel completely naked and insecure. Not vulnerable in a good way but in my head and feeling like I’m leaving a negative impact on people. So I guess both vulnerable in good and bad ways happens on stage in front of an audience.
Where do you feel most at home?
I am most at home in my back room of the tour bus. It is a small space, but I experience so much here. I have spent the better part of a decade in this space. Kind of like a traveling, super-cush jail cell with windows. Looking out at the world around me. In fact, when we have days off, I get rooms for the band and crew, but I sleep on the bus in my room. It’s like my temple.
I love waking up and not needing to be in a strange room, or get into an elevator, just open my window and take in the air and scenery. Street level. Walk out and I’m right smack in the middle of everything without any time to adjust. Just spit up into the universe. Like an alien, as people are going to work or lunch, bustling all around. Busses, junkies, everyone off and involved in their day. And I am sort of just taking it in. Kind of like a wandering soul only blessed. Not holed off in some palace away from the world, but right smack in the middle of it all. Like the Jews leaving Egypt in the desert (slaves) surrounded by the cloud of glory trying to find redemption and their land of milk and honey. On their way to the mountain of God to receive his commandments and their destiny. Trying not to fuck it all up.
Many thanks to Matisyahu for his time and candor.
By A Plus’ K.S. Anthony