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Matisyahu talks about the roots of his repertoire

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The world's best American "Hasidic reggae superstar" takes a break from the chaos.
  • The world's best American "Hasidic reggae superstar" takes a break from the chaos.

Once playfully describing himself as a "Hasidic reggae superstar," Matisyahu is a difficult-to-classify musical force. And that's by design: With roots in reggae, hip-hop and Jewish tradition, the beatboxing singer makes music that smashes genre classification. Across his six albums — beginning with 2004's Shake off the Dust ... Arise (and subsequent No. 1 alt-rock hit "King Without a Crown") on through his brand-new album Undercurrent — Matisyahu has deftly carved out a niche all his own.

With a penchant for improvisation — and a band with the chops to pull it off in a live setting — Matisyahu takes his music wherever the spirit leads him. Though his younger years in White Plains, New York, included immersion in the tenets of his Jewish faith, it was only as he grew into adulthood that Matisyahu (born Matthew Paul Miller) fully embraced Judaism.

Matisyahu's spiritual music is underpinned by two additional influences. As a teenager in the '90s, he attended a concert featuring The Roots, Common and a number of beatboxers. "That was the first time I took hip-hop seriously," he says.

His other early influential musical experience came when he took LSD at a Phish concert. "That completely changed my concept of what music could be," he says. More than its merely being "cool and exciting," Matisyahu found that, for him, music could be a "spiritual or religious experience."

But hip-hop and jam-band music are only two of the styles that inform Matisyahu's music. "Step Out Into the Light," the opening track on Undercurrent, is steeped in soul. He says that when writing that track, he sought to "create something that feels organic and like a throwback, but not in the sense of the style of the music." Matisyahu aims to push the style forward, he says. He characterizes the music on Undercurrent as the most authentic representation of what he does with his band 200 days a year on the road.

Matisyahu notes the traditional working approach taken by most creative artists: write songs, record them yourself, put together a band, learn the songs, and go out on tour. His approach, he says, is nearly reversed. First he develops a vision for the new project. Then he asks himself, "Who are the musicians that are going to be able to create that sound?" He assembles the band and heads out on the road for a year or so. "Fifty percent of a show will be improvisation," he says. Performances are recorded, but only for reference.

"Then I sit in a studio writing room for a month," he explains, "listening back to those recordings, starting to form songs out of those." Only then does the actual recording begin, as Matisyahu creates what's essentially an instrumental demo recording. "Once that's all done, [including] overdubs, and I've got almost a complete body of work done, I take a couple weeks to craft out lyrics and vocal parts, and record those."

After the album is released, Matisyahu takes his band back on the road to promote it, while still maintaining a focus on improvisation.

The members of his current band — guitarist Aaron Dugan, bassist Stu Brooks, percussionist Cyro Baptista, drummer Tim Keiper, and keyboardist Rob Marscher — have deep experience playing jazz. But they don't play jazz with Matisyahu.

"For me, it's all about trying to get the right players involved, so that we can improvise within the hip-hop or reggae feel," he explains. "It's all about risk and reward: The greater the risk, the more the reward when it comes together."

Matisyahu believes that having top-notch musicians is critical. Without them, "that's where all the clichés of bad jam bands come into play, of just noodling around on the same notes and not actually having the music tell a story and go someplace." Because going places, he believes, is "what it's all about."

"There's nothing interesting to me whatsoever in painting a picture that I've already painted."

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