Matisyahu Talks Keeping Kosher, Observing Shabbat on Tour

Categories: Q&A


matisyahu.jpg
Beau Grealy
Shabbat is a Jewish tradition when friends and family come together every Friday night and Saturday to relax and reflect as the workweek recedes. Some Jews are more observant than others: where there's one Jew eating a double bacon cheeseburger (totally unkosher), there's another who won't step foot into a car (one Shabbat rule prohibits operating anything electrical). For Matisyahu -- a Jew of the more religious kind -- a national headlining tour will not get in the way of his weekly devotion. Fortunately, we got ahold of the Reggae beat-boxer before Friday's sunset, when he'd be turning off his battery operated cell phone. He will be singing his single "One Day" -- which was casted as the theme song for NBC's Winter Olympics campaign -- among other songs from his most recent album Light at The Regency Ballroom tonight for Jews and gentiles alike.


How did you and Akon get together for the song "One Day"?

There were a couple of people who knew him and played him the song. People said he liked it a lot, and then [my] record company was into having him. They sent an email. We didn't really ever meet.

You've collaborated with several artists on your album, Light, [such as Jamaican vocalist Jah Don and members of the Ska band Fishbone]. Did their individual styles end up coming through in ways you didn't anticipate?

There was a certain blending of genres and styles that I wanted to bring out, and therefore I reached out to different artists and producers who could help me. There were some surprises, like certain moments on the record where things came together that I wouldn't necessarily expect. For example, there's a song "Motivate" that was produced by a Jamaican producer named Stephen McGregor who has a certain sound I was really into: Jamaican reggae dancehall. I have a friend who is a classic Jewish guitar player who played a guitar solo [for that song]. It gave it this classic rock feel even though that wasn't initially what I was going for with Stephen.


Your earlier album Youth sounds totally different than Light, which uses various genres that weren't present on the former.

Youth was recorded in the summer of 2005. In five years a lot can happen with an artist in terms of the music that they hear. You're like a sponge: you take in stuff, develop stuff, and your taste changes. There are some bands that stick with one genre and that's it. I've never been that way with anything in my life. I consider that to be one of the strong points of my music and who I am.

Is it difficult to observe Shabbat and keep kosher while you're on tour?

Not really. Shabbat is just a day off. The only down side is that I don't usually play on Friday night. Kosher is also not so hard. I recently became vegan, and try to eat macrobiotic -- really healthy food. I have to prepare my food ahead of time, and make sure I bring a hot plate with me.

Do you attend Shabbat services at local synagogues in the town where you're performing?

I'll find the local schul [another word for synagogue] and go there. On this tour, I played for Sublime on a Friday, and came off stage five or 10 minutes before Shabbos. I hopped in the shower, then walked to the rabbi's house in Atlanta. I had to be on stage the minute Shabbos was over [the next day], so I had to walk back over.

Are you often asked to give your political viewpoint on Israel?

I get asked that. I don't try to mix politics with what I do. I just try to stay away from taking sides and saying what is right and wrong. I go from a spiritual place, not a political and intellectual place, about why we should or shouldn't have Israel. As of late, I feel there's this wave of anti-Semitism masked by anti-Israel that's very disturbing. It's everywhere. I was in Europe a lot this year so I felt it there - certainly in London.

In your biography, it says you drew upon three years of Jewish learning to write the songs for Light. What was that process like, and how did you avoid turning what you'd taken from your extensive studies into clichés?

The person I learn with, who is also a co-author with me on lyrics, is based in Israel. We come up with themes for songs based on the themes of the stuff that we're learning. Keeping it from being cliché is the whole point: to write lyrics that are meaningful and important to you in your life, and real to me in my life, as opposed to just taking ideas that are regurgitated, or that I've heard before. It's about finding the real essence of what being Jewish is about, and delving into that emotionally through music.

Do non-Jewish people often approach you and say that your lyrics have had a huge impact on them?

Of course. Most of the people who are touched by my music aren't Jewish. The whole idea of Judaism is that it's a global religion. It's the religion that Islam and Christianity are based on. A lot of the themes in Judaism are central and fundamental themes for humanity. That's what Judaism is supposed to be about: providing and creating spiritual ideas for the market place and for the world.

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