Matisyahu took a moment to talk with me about the evolution and maturation of his music before he set off on his Release the Bound Freedom Tour at the beginning of this month. I also coerced him into discussing false teeth, horror movies, and a possible future in ASMR. Check back to see photos of his show at the Boulder Theater on March 19.
You mentioned in a previous interview that reggae was the gateway into your personal religious and spiritual journey. Now that your religious identity has evolved, how has your relationship with the way you create music also evolved?
In some ways it’s gone back. After making different types of records and touring, and having some hits and having to play those songs over and over – just the whole journey – what I’ve tried to do is come back to the original feeling that I had for music in terms of the release and the emotional quality it helped provide for me in my life. In some ways, in terms of making music, I’ve gone backwards and tried to eliminate the middleman, in a sense. The latest record that we just finished is a self-produced record. There aren’t a lot of extra sounds or overdubs or instrumentalists or complex compositions. There’s a lot of improvisation included in the songs. The approach was to create a sound with other individuals in a real band. Some of the music that I’ve made before was more of a collaboration maybe between a couple of people, or two or three people, but this was really a band collaboration that came out of a year of touring. It’s kind of a cool thing. In the sense that I started out with Live at Stubb’s and the whole band thing, it’s sort of a return in some ways, but with a different comfort level when it comes to music and writing songs and knowing what it is that gets me going, and what I’m going after without any real compromise outside. No compromises were made for radio or length of songs. For example, the new record has eight songs on it. The longest song is 14 minutes and the shortest song comes in right around maybe six and a half minutes. So you know, there were no compromises made. It’s the music that we love to make live, and we just decided rather than trying to make a different type of record that we have to recreate live anyway, we would make a record with the types of songs that we want to be playing when we spend so much time on the road.
When you wrote Live at Stubb’s, you were in your mid-20s, correct?
Yeah, early to mid-20s – 24 or 25?
So now it’s been 10 or 11 years since that was recorded and as you’ve matured and developed a new understanding of your spirituality. How has that changed your relationship with your music? For example, do you approach a performance of “King Without a Crown” differently than you would have 10 years ago?
Yeah, that particular song, “King Without a Crown,” was a real conundrum for me for quite a few years because it got to a point where my style developed in a different way. You know, I never really wrote lyrics that I was opposed to because the things that I wrote when I was in one frame of mind or another, none of them are really contradictory to what I believe now. It’s kind of like building blocks of my existential experience of the world – spirituality and identity, and specifically Jewish identity – and how all of that tied in. Like you said, there’s been a continual development. It’s not like I was into one thing and then I just jumped into another boat or just decided, “This isn’t for me.” Everything led one step to the next, very organically. So in that sense, it’s almost like things start to unfold and you don’t even realize what’s happening. And then there are monumental events that tend to be more physical, like the growing of the beard or the shaving of the beard. A lot of times people will mark that as “This is when it happened.” It’s this whole developmental process. In terms of the music and how it’s affected the music, there is a maturity on some level to the music that I’m making now. Like on this new record, the choruses all have a mature feel and there’s a lot of exploration as well. I think the fact that we did it as a band with live instruments gives it kind of a mature feel even though the feel is edgy and definitely hip-hop – it’s probably the most hip-hop record that I’ve made – it’s not in-the-box at all. It’s all live so it feels like music from our generation, basically, like the Roots, that early live hip-hop style.
How does the current band line-up for the upcoming tour reflect the evolution of your music and sound for your most recent EP?
Well, the most recent EP that we released this past fall is a collection of songs that I worked on with different producers and it’s very different than the record that I’m putting out in Spring. I think by the time I’m in Boulder, the new single will be out, so you’ll get a feel for it. But it’s a very different feel, it’s at the other end of the spectrum. It’s more collaborations that I did with Polish Ambassador and different producers, Salt Cathedral, so it’s more in the box, in a sense, it’s more of a digital sound.
For Release the Bound, I would describe most of the lyrics as more spiritual and soul-searching than religious. Does this mainly reflect your spiritual progression, or are you also hoping to attract a broader audience that may identify more with a spiritual message than a religious one?
No, that’s not so much of a calculated thing. When I write lyrics, unless I’m writing a song for radio, I’m not really trying to make my lyrics more accessible in any way; I’m not really thinking of the audience. It’s more of an inner reflection.
And you’re not really writing for radio anymore?
Sometimes it’s fun to see if you can write a radio song, but on this record I didn’t do that. We’ll see. Maybe I’ll write a song for radio.
How do you think the recent changes to the American government are going to affect the music industry and the themes that artists choose the write about?
I think you see a lot of musicians start to politicize their views, and their music starts to become politicized. People feel that they want to take sides or they feel that they have something to speak up about, but outside of that I don’t that you’ll see too much of a change.
Do you think it will affect your music?
Not so much, I don’t think so. I’ve never been much of a political artist. It’s more about my own spiritual journey.
Who is Matisyahu outside of the music career? Is there anything fans would be surprised to learn about you, maybe you have a false tooth collection or you’re part of a bowling league?
What was the first thing you said?
A false tooth collection.
No, and I’m not really a fan of bowling, but I was in a horror movie. Someone’s teeth fell out. It’s called The Possession. You should go check it out. It was with Kyra Sedgwick. I play an exorcist and it’s pretty intense, actually.
I have one kind of silly question for you. When I was researching a bunch of your interviews, I noticed that a lot of people made comments about ASMR. Do you know about ASMR?
No, what is that?
It’s Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. It’s kind of a subculture of people who get brain tingles by certain voices and the way people talk, and certain noises. A lot of people on YouTube were commenting that you have the perfect voice for ASMR. If you go to Reddit, there’s posts about Matisyahu and ASMR.
It’s people making noises?
It’s the way that you talk. Because you have a very soft voice, on a lot of your interviews people commented that you have a good voice for ASMR. One of my friends is super into it. I don’t get it; it doesn’t make any sense to me. Apparently my body doesn’t respond to the vocal sounds that way. But it’s kind of like a brain orgasm, is the way people describe it. It makes your skin tingly. People were commenting that you should start a YouTube channel for ASMR. Would you ever consider doing something that like?
That sounds really interesting. I’m fascinated. I will immediately check this out after I pick up my kids.
It’s something about whispers and fingernails tapping on desks and stuff like that, but a lot of it has to do with the whispers.
I relate to this. I think I have these brain orgasms – in my sleep though. It happens during the day as well.
Well, there might be a future for you if you did whispered, spoken word renditions of your lyrics on a YouTube channel.
This could be a new market.
I’ll let you go so you can go pick up your kids. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me for Groovey TV.
I can’t wait to see you in Boulder.
It’s gonna be a great show.
See Matisyahu on the Release the Bound Freedom Tour: