You'd think it would be easy to identify Matisyahu after a show. The rapper/reggae singer dresses in a black suit with a broad-brimmed hat, wired-rimmed spectacles and a beard so long, it does ZZ Top proud. But after a recent performance in Jacksonville, fans mobbed one of Matisyahu's promotion crew by mistake.
"It's amusing," says Matisyahu (Matthew Miller), calling from a Memphis tour stop. "I have a kid here on my street team who is my height, my build, and since he's a Hasidic Jew as well, he dresses like me. We both entered a room and he's pumped up, and I'm an introvert, so people crowded around him since they thought it was me."
It's an honest mistake. Matisyahu, who has toured relentlessly since releasing his 2004 debut, Shake off the Dust… Arise, is an inspired ball of energy onstage. So you'd expect that to translate offstage as well. But that's not really the case for the singer, who innovatively combines reggae beats with his Hasidic beliefs.
Initially, it seemed like Matisyahu's act was a novelty.
"I understand where they were coming from now," says Matisyahu of his detractors. "I was totally blind to it then. I didn't read the press. I understand why they were skeptical about what I'm about. Any time anyone is a little different, people question it. I can see why people wanted to know what I was about and if I was real."
Matisyahu says he's genuine and passionate about both his religion and music. "Those are two aspects of my life which are so real to me," he explains. "They're both very important to me."
Matisyahu's second album, Youth, featured more of the animated performer's spirited reggae tunes. After its release, he toured with neo-funk/jam band 311.
The quirky entertainer has evolved since that jaunt. He's singing new tunes on this tour. Some of them appear on his EP, Shattered, released in October; others will be on his forthcoming album, Light, due in spring 2009.
"I've been working on singing and it's been great," he says. "It's something that I needed to do. I needed to take that next step. It's been as enjoyable as anything I've done."
Producer David Kahne (The Strokes, Paul McCartney) helped Matisyahu break out of his vocal shell. "He was really supportive," Matisyahu says. "He kept pushing me, and I've added something [to the music]. It's worked out fine."
Matisyahu is very religious, but that wasn't always the case. "I found religion not long after 9-11, but it had nothing to do with that [tragedy] but maybe it did in some way," says Matisyahu. "All I know is that I was in a rut and I matured. It was miraculous. I found myself divinely inspired. I wouldn't be who I am without my beliefs."
But Matisyahu was devoted to music before he connected with his spirituality. "Music has always been very important to me," he says. "I grew up pretty secular and went to public school. I remember loving Michael Jackson as a kid, and then there was beatboxing. By the time I was 17, I realized that I wanted to become a professional, successful musician. I remember watching Bob Marley videos and I started thinking, 'Yeah, this is what I want to do.' And it all worked out."
It's an amazing story since Matisyahu's unconventional image hardly corresponds to much else in rock and pop these days.
"I don't know how anyone could have predicted this," he says of his success. "But it happened. I'm proof that you don't have to copy anyone else in this business to be successful."