One of the more novel acts to emerge on the national scene in recent years, Matisyahu draws inspiration from his practice of Judaism and channels it into accessible songs about the human struggle for hope, peace and understanding. The traditionally clad Hasidic reggae singer, songwriter and rapper spawned a media frenzy in 2006 with his major label debut, Youth, earning him a Grammy nomination and a surprise top-40 hit in "King Without a Crown."
Now armed with an equally catchy single, "One Day," the Brooklyn-based musician is touring in support of Light, a new album that further integrates rock, new wave, pop and hip-hop influences into his reggae-rooted foundation. "It just kind of picks up where the last record left off in terms of expansion of the sound, sonically, and crossing into different genres," he tells Xpress. "The new record's got more layering. I would say it has more of a hip-hop kind of beat than reggae beat."
Many of the new tracks were born out of beatbox jams with long-time guitarist and collaborator Aaron Dugan. Adding color to their early sketches were a host of notables from across the musical spectrum, from Jamaican teenage-wonder producer Stephen McGregor to Adam Deitch (Lettuce), Eric Krasno (Soulive) and Norwood Fisher (Fishbone). The result is a dense and diverse set of songs that call to mind everyone from Sublime to Wyclef Jean and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Matisyahu says the spirit of musical experimentation and many of the lyrics on the disc mirror his religious evolution over the last couple years. "It's about coming to terms with the fact that there are no easy answers, that life is a continuous search," he says. "I think religiously as well as musically, I feel that it's important to stay open to combining different elements and mixing different things, different aspects, different ideas, sounds from different places, and trying to bring them all together to create the sound or the version or the idea or the life that you want to live."
Backing up his uplifting message with action, Matisyahu's stop in Asheville is a benefit for the WNC Jewish Federation, a local charity that raises and distributes funds to a number of local groups such as the Asheville Jewish Community Center and the Center for Jewish Studies at UNCA. "I think there's positive things musicians can do in terms of bringing awareness, certainly to social change, and to atrocities," he says, although he's quick to add that he doesn't see political action as a main goal. "For me my focus has always been more on inspiring change within myself and within the listeners. In the music, it's more of an emotional thing, more of a spiritual thing that people go through when they hear music."
While Matisyahu is clearly passionate about his faith and acknowledges that it's at the forefront of his public identity, he doesn't see himself as a religious spokesperson or proselytizer. "It's just a part of who I am. … In a sense, for people who are living in middle America who have really no experience with Judaism, I might be the only face to it, the only connection that they would have, or that they would see," he says. "On the other hand, I don't feel that's my role and I don't feel that's my purpose. That's not really what I'm out there to do. It just happens as kind of a byproduct of who I am."
On this tour, Matisyahu is backed by a new band, Dub Trio, and he says that fans can expect to hear a lot of improvisation. "We basically approach the songs totally different—we'll take a song that's on the record and start to play it and then we might completely change the feel up of the song based on what's influencing me or inspiring me or the style of music at the moment. I don't feel locked into a song; that it has to be played the way I was playing it five years ago," he says.
Citing past shows in town and a motorcycle trip he took through Western North Carolina a couple years ago with his father, Matisyahu says the area has special significance for him. "I'm definitely looking forward to coming to Asheville," he says. "The Orange Peel is a great venue. We played there before a couple years ago and it should be fun."
[Jake Frankel is an Asheville-based freelance writer.]
who: Matisyahu, with Trevor Hall
what: Reggae, rock, hip-hop; benefit for the WNC Jewish Federation
where: The Orange Peel
when: Sunday, Nov. 15 (8 p.m. $30. all ages. www.theorangepeel.net)