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The evolution of Matisyahu

10/1/2014

Matisyahu speaks at the DMMC’s Music University on Sunday, Oct. 5, followed by a performance at Wooly’s that evening.

Matisyahu speaks at the DMMC’s Music University on Sunday, Oct. 5, followed by a performance at Wooly’s that evening.

Born Matthew Miller, Matisyahu’s career has served as a reflection of the man. It started in 2004 when Matisyahu made waves with the single “King Without a Crown.” The song was a critical and commercial success artistically, but more important to many people was Matisyahu’s loud and proud declaration of his Orthodox Jewish faith.

So when the philosophical outlook of Matisyahu “the man” changed in 2012, it was reflected in the music and artistic approach of Matisyahu “the brand.” In the spring of that year, he posted pictures of himself online, clean-shaven, minus his Orthodox tresses and sans yarmulke. There was a firestorm within the Orthodox community, where many outspoken critics saw the change as nothing less than an outright rejection of the values that made Matisyahu who he was in the first place. The Orthodox community wanted him to speak for them and saw him as a role model. They wanted him to be a beacon to Orthodox youth, showing them that they didn’t need to forsake their traditions to be accepted in a secular world.

“When you hold someone up to be a role model or spokesperson, that can be something you draw strength from,” Matisyahu said in an interview. “But the drawback is that person may not always reflect the things you want them to. People change. They have to in order to grow.”

People like to think of their heroes as unchanging, put them on pedestals and think of them as “carved in marble.” But they are men and women, just like everyone else, and they are entitled to grow and evolve.

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“I don’t really know if I would consider myself anything in particular (anymore),” Matisyahu said, speaking of his current religious belief state. “I would say I’m inspired in a Hasidic way, but I certainly don’t keep all the customs and rules I once did.

“I just felt it was time to let go of that look. My identity became wrapped up in that, (but) inside I was starting to shift my ideology a bit.”

At the end of the summer of 2012, Matisyahu released his album, “Spark Seeker.” The album showed that his ideological shift was more than just in look. The album is poppier than his previous work, more radio-ready and easily accessible by a mainstream audience. This past summer, that evolution continued with the release of “Akeda.”

Growth has always been an integral part of Matisyahu’s life. For the Jewish religion, finding one’s way in the world is something that takes genuine reflection and purpose of thought; it stems from what’s known in the Jewish tradition as “cheshbon hanefesh,” the internal journey to discover what one is called to do, something that Matisyahu takes very seriously.

“When I released (2004’s) ‘Shake off the Dust…Arise,’ it was very much a reflection of where I was in my personal journey. Orthodox (Judaism) helped me find my way. But now I feel like I’m moving in a much more internally spiritual direction.”

The stylistic change hasn’t done Matisyahu’s career any harm. “Spark Seeker” and “Akeda” both cracked the top 40 on the Billboard 200, and each reached No. 3 on the Billboard Indie chart. His songs have never been overtly political, but each of the last two albums moved him even further towards the middle of mainstream pop accessibility. For the same reason, he’s never considered himself a role model.

“I’ve never really been interested in politics,” he said. “I write songs that are more identifiable and about personal struggle and overcoming things. I’ve always stayed away from politics, because who am I that makes my opinion more valid (than someone else’s)?” CV

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