The evolution of Matisyahu takes another turn

By Mark Kennedy

Associated Press

Published: Monday, July 16 2012 4:25 a.m. MDT

This undated image released by Thirty Tigers shows Hassidic raggae musician Matisyahu. The 33-year-old Matisyahu is far from the one who lived for years in a modest apartment in Crown Heights, the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. He's moved his wife and three sons to Los Angeles, favors pastels over dark suits, ditched the yarmulke, changed his management team, and is self-releasing his music. This month, he releases his fourth studio CD, "Spark Seeker," a fresh sound produced by Kool Kojak with reggae, hip-hop and electronica layered over Middle Eastern instruments and rhythms.

Thirty Tigers, Mark Squires, Associated Press

NEW YORK — A chapter in one of the most unusual spiritual journeys ended in, of all places, a Supercuts.

It was in one of the chain's salons on Manhattan's Upper West Side that Matisyahu's life as the world's first Hasidic reggae superstar came to a swift end in a pile of hair.

He walked in with a decade's worth of uncut dark beard, the result of his devotion to orthodox Judaism, and walked out clean-shaven. What he is now isn't always clear — and that's fine with Matisyahu.

"I think that things grow and people move in different directions," he says. "I'm just continuing and trying just to make the decisions that feel right and go after, intuitively, the things that I know to be right."

The 33-year-old Matisyahu is far from the one who lived for years in a modest apartment in Crown Heights, the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. He's moved his wife and three sons to Los Angeles, favors pastels over dark suits, ditched the yarmulke, changed his management team, and is self-releasing his music.

"The last decade of my life has been immersed in Judaism and Jewish culture and Jewish religion and Jewish spirituality and I really took that trip as far as I could take it. And then I started to find other things resonating," he says.

On Tuesday, he releases his fourth studio CD, "Spark Seeker," a fresh sound produced by Kool Kojak with reggae, hip-hop and electronica layered over Middle Eastern instruments and rhythms. It is as hard to pigeonhole as the artist who made it.

The album, recorded in Los Angeles and Israel, veers from the pure pop of "Sunshine" — a song Katy Perry would happily release — to the acid hip-hop of "Tel Aviv'n" and dancehall in "Searchin." The rapper Shyne — whose conversion to Judaism has been widely noted — appears on two songs.

"It got more groovy," says Matisyahu, with a smile.

As always, there is depth to Matisyahu's lyrics, a man who, naturally, writes of constantly seeking answers. One line — "They say I'd inspire but I'm still looking for my fire" — stands out.

"When you write a record and you go back and think of what are the real key moments? That's one of them," he says. "That's the idea that you're never giving up on that as an artist or someone who's trying to be creative and create music that's inspirational for people."

Kojak likened working with the singer to playing street ball in New York — both were guided by instinct and played to each other's strengths. He says he admired how his friend handled the challenges that came with balancing faith and his own life.

"I think regardless of the depth of one's spirituality, life demands change at times, and adaptation is obligatory," he says. "In my opinion, he is the true definition of an artist, and I think this album fully expresses that notion. His evolutions — spiritual, personal, artistic — are all well documented in this work."

Matisyahu was initially seen as a musical oddity when he emerged 10 years ago — a Lubavitch sect member in a flat-brim black hat and bushy beard who loved hip-hop beats and sang dancehall reggae in a Jamaican accent. He was a former Deadhead who, before his conversion, had followed Phish on tour, dabbled in drugs and grew up nonreligious as Matthew Miller in White Plains, N.Y.

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.

His 13-song CD "Light" in 2009 borrowed from dance and electronica and he provided the voice for "Drown in the Now," a hit for the electronic duo The Crystal Method. He went back to Stubb's in 2010 for "Live At Stubbs Vol. 2."

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