Matthew Paul Miller is calling in from the suburban terrain of Redmond City, Wash. Given the time-zone differential, it's very early out west, and Miller seems to be in a quiet, contemplative mood. Seeming to prefer discussing life in rhyme and verse, Miller is fairly guarded when probed about his career, his message as an artist, his musical trajectory.
There's certainly plenty to talk about though, especially considering Miller is actually more well known as former "Hasidic Reggae Superstar" Matisyahu. His 2012 album,
Spark Seeker, notched a bend in the natural river of his music career. He stepped back from his faith — "He even shaved his beard!" as the music press cried out —and took a step into the poppier planes of hip-hop world beats and hyper-sleek production values.
"Each record is an opportunity to lean in a new direction," Matisyahu says as he touches on the evolution of his career. More than a year after the release of Spark Seeker, the artist clearly bristles at questions about the notable changes in his style. Since walking away from the stringency of Hasidism in late 2011, he's been bombarded by interviews about his faith and concerns that he was walking away from a successful "shtick."
Honestly, the new album is better when taken at face value. Matisyahu found himself entrenched in the religion that had become his calling card for all the wrong reasons. He was growing as a man and he found the succession of rules — rules about everything in life, he says — too much to bear. But his beliefs are still close to his heart. Listening to his music, actually, his beliefs seem to be closer than ever before. The opening of "Crossroads" paints that quite vividly.
In recording the album, he and producer Kool Kojack flew to Israel and invited some of the country's most compelling musicians into the studio. "That's the process. A lot of it has been about finding the right people, the right musicians," he says. Their influence is apparent throughout his latest album, which accomplishes a meeting of the Old and New Worlds on some level, all filtered through Kojack's hypnotic sonic visions.
"I was really excited about the opportunity to potentially present Israel in another light," he says. Contrary to Western news outlets' portrayal of conflict in Israel, Spark Seeker shows off an aspect of the country's modern culture that too few in the States know about. Like in the song "Tel Aviv'n," there's a jetsetting vibe to much of Matisyahu's latest turn of character. There's also the clear continuation of a journey—a lifelong adventure—that the singer started a long time ago.
And in songs like "Crossroads," Matisyahu is clearly drawing on his past experiences as a musician and traveler, all while doffing yesteryear's yarmulke to his Middle East origins. The album's opening chant paints that picture quite well.
"I've always been committed to my dream to make music. That started as a teen—dedicating my life to music." Matisyahu dropped out of high school to pursue that dream by following Phish around the country on their 1995 fall tour. It proved to be a fortuitous and influential trip for the young musician: "Just for the opportunity to listen, to soak it in."
From there, Matisyahu's career began slowly. He drew from numerous sources of inspiration, including, perhaps unlikely, his faith. Music always has been his medium of choice, and his message of self-awareness and strength has been a constant throughout his career. Early on, he took to small stages around the country and played a fascinating batch of reggae-tinged tunes like breakout hit "King Without a Crown."
"I was playing acoustic shows from the get-go. The very beginning of when I started making music was me and a guitar player," Matisyahu says, referring to both his early days and his more recent acoustic EP and mini-tour. The latter prompted delicate versions of some of his latest material. "Live Like a Warrior" and "Sunshine," in particular, both get right to the heart of Matisyahu's message and work much better than the electronic takes.
Even beyond his busy 2012 and 2013, he says that he's been writing some new stuff—songs that are likely to appear on the next album. Don't expect to hear any of that in Cleveland, though; Matisyahu is keeping the new sound under wraps as he experiments through the summer and into the fall.
"It's a little bit more of a return to the old Matisyahu," he says. Despite the changes in his exterior appearance—the beard, the new sound — Matisyahu has always maintained a commitment to his philosophies on life and faith.
"I'm like any human being — I'm up and down," he says. "I've learned a lot more about my voice. But it's all about continuing to listen to music and continuing to be influenced by music."