NEW YORK — The world’s first Hasidic reggae superstar is getting a little unorthodox.
Matisyahu Miller, known to his fans by his first name and to his friends simply as Matis, emerges this month with his first full-length album in three years — and a sound more like Jersey than Jamaica.
He’s added electronica, funky pop, straight-up guitar rock and even a touch of folk to his playlist. Singing lessons have given his voice new depth and melody.
“It’s not really any longer about me being the Hasidic reggae guy,” he says an interview. “I’m informed by Hassidism and Judaism and reggae music, but it’s not that black and white, and it’s not that simple.”
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The early reaction? Not always cheers in Crown Heights, the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn where he lives in a modest apartment with his wife and two young sons.
“Just yesterday I was walking down the street and some kid was walking by me. He’s like, ‘Matis, stick to the reggae!’ I was like, ‘Ahhgh!’” he recalls.
Matisyahu, 30, pays any hecklers no heed. An underground curiosity-turned-mainstream star, he’s not about to remain in his unusual genre of one.
“I think the vast majority of people that respect what I do are willing to move with me. I think it’s not so much about genres or styles of music as it is about expressing the emotion or the idea,” he says. “Whatever allows you to do that, whatever style, as long as it’s authentic.”
From musical oddity to artist
Matisyahu was initially seen as a musical oddity when he emerged five years ago, an Orthodox Jew in a flat-brim black hat and bushy beard who loved hip-hop beats and sang dancehall reggae in a Jamaican accent. Seeing him for the first time, you could be forgiven for thinking it was all a Sacha Baron Cohen skit.
His 2004 debut “Shake Off The Dust... Arise,” and the subsequent CDs “Live at Stubb’s” and “Youth” — all featuring versions of his biggest single “King Without a Crown” — became a crossover hit. Not bad for a former Deadhead who, before his conversion, had followed Phish on tour, dabbled in drugs and grew up nonreligious in White Plains, New York.
His new 13-song CD “Light” is still definitely grounded in reggae — just ask your iPod, which classifies it that way. The first single, “One Day,” is reminiscent of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.”
But the album, which features collaborations with Good Charlotte, Trevor Hall and members of Fishbone, also has songs that could easily appear on a CD by Maroon 5. If you politely swayed while listening to his previous work, this will likely make you dance while pumping your fist.
“One of the things I really love about making music is being able to tap into almost like different sides of myself,” Matisyahu says. “I’m sure I will keep evolving in terms of what feels right to me.”
WFNX-FM, the New England-based alternative rock radio station, was one of the first to champion Matisyahu and invited him back this summer to play. Keith Dakin, the program director, likes his new song and sound, but knows the pressure he’s under.
“He’s got to convince the fans and the radio community that, ‘Hey, there’s more to me than just that one song from three years ago. I’ve grown as an artist and here’s another song and another record that will help me stand out,’” Dakin says. “That’s definitely his cross to bear. He’s got to figure out a way not to turn into Chumbawamba.”
‘There’s a lot of layers’
The evolution of Matisyahu’s sound has many roots. While on tour, he listened and absorbed what his band liked: The Flaming Lips, Elliott Smith and Jeff Buckley.
Dance and electronica also started to interest him — and that community returned the favor. He provided the voice for “Drown in the Now,” the first single off electronic duo The Crystal Method’s new CD.
Intense voice lessons also led to his growing confidence as a singer, evident in the CD’s last song “Silence,” which is a lilting, stripped-down folk song.
“I was able to have more control and do more of what I what I wanted to do. And not be afraid to sing. Not be afraid to lose the accent. And let my voice come out,” he says.
Something that hasn’t changed is Matisyahu’s intense work on his lyrics, which often have layers of meaning and explore religious themes.
Take just one tune from the new album — “We Will Walk.” It combines mystical themes he studied from Rabbi Nachman (1772-1810), the crisis in Darfur he learned about while contributing to a John Lennon tribute album, and the tragedy of Africa’s child soldiers.
“There’s a lot of layers,” he says with a smile. “But if you listen to the song, it might sound like a love song.”
To support the new album, Matisyahu is hitting the road, which presents a challenge for a devout Orthodox Jew: No Friday night shows, the need for kosher food backstage, and avoiding physical contact with women not his wife. He says it takes focus to steer clear of temptations.
“You have so much available to you — the whole sex drugs and rock ‘n’ roll thing. If you let yourself go a little bit, then it’s like this landslide,” he says.
Stage-diving — something he abandoned for religious reasons — is back, however. He says he has always struggled with that particular interpretation of the rules.
There’s also another reason.
“It’s such a fun thing to do,” he says with a smile.
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