From Light to

Darkness and Back


                atisyahu is no stranger to interesting juxtapositions, but even for a Hasidic Jew who embraces urban culture with his own hybrid of hip-hop and reggae, it is no small task to balance darkness and light, his deepest struggles and his natural optimism.

      His lyrics have been inspiring listeners since the breakthrough success of his 2005 debut album, Live At Stubb’s (JDub Records). He manages to be optimistic without being preachy, and his message of hope transcends his personal religious beliefs. His reward? An insanely loyal fan base, a wealth of collaborations, and respect from a wide spectrum of listeners.

      On his new album, however, Matis visits the other side of the coin. Light (Epic) is all about darkness and the struggles that we go through in our daily lives. Though the album is certainly not grim, Matis definitely takes his listeners on a journey to experience the darkness before the relief and comfort of the light.

      His success has made him a larger-than-life icon to his fans, but Matis seems to work hard to remain humble, making it clear that he believes the message is larger than the messenger. His commitment to musical growth and his strong morals are two reasons he continues to gain new fans; Matis stays focused on his objective: to inspire.

      The revolving cast of musicians in Matis’ band changes depending on what he’s feeling for each record. Recent touring collaborations with Dub Trio have added a tremendous spark to what was already a stellar and exciting live show.

For now, the fans are awaiting Matis’ new album and attending his summer festival performances, where he’ll be performing material from Light. Matis spoke with us while on a break from the road to discuss his new album, his future aspirations, and how his son reminded him what it’s all about.



You’ve grown with each new album. What can we expect from Light?

My songwriting has definitely evolved and it has always included a culmination of different genres. This album is very flowing, very natural sounding. I made the decision to leave lots of open spaces for improvisation in this music, to let it breathe.


The album is finished, right?

It’s pretty close. I added two additional songs at the end that I wrote, but otherwise it’s complete.


What inspired the writing on this album?

It’s inspired by…hmmm. That’s hard to say. There’s not really one thing or one concept that is driving the motivation for this new album. I want to make music for different people—I want to inspire anyone who listens to it.

What goal did you have in mind when you recorded Light?

There are a lot of goals and reasons, but it always comes back to the same thing, which lies in the need to express myself. It comes from going inside myself and letting out everything that I find. Whether it is ideas or emotions, the music seems to take it from concept to expression. I usually know exactly what I want the song to sound like, so in the studio it’s about figuring out how to translate it. I feel that I’ve grown a lot in that sense, as far as my musical capabilities. I listen back to old stuff now and say, “Ahhhh! (sighs with disappointment).

How have you grown personally since you’ve entered the limelight? 

I had an experience recently that cleared up a lot of things for me. I was having a down afternoon and was in a really bad mood when I went to put my two-year-old to sleep for a nap. He wouldn’t calm down and insisted that I sing “So High” to him. I began to sing it and he sang along with me and it was so powerful… It all came to me at once. It made me feel so much better and helped remind me of the purpose of why I do what I do—for that moment, for that relief and joy.


Is it a struggle to keep your lyrics non-denominational even though you have a strong religious foundation?

Early on in my career I was trying to balance my religious world and my music world. It was difficult for me to find the middle ground sometimes; it took me a while to figure out how to achieve a balance and know when to push for what.

It really comes back to my understanding that it’s not about having the answers to the questions and it’s not about standing firm and being unbendable. It’s about slipping and falling and finding your way back up. People are so afraid of going backwards, you know? The rediscovery of what we already know is often our most valuable lesson. If there is a theme of Light, that’s what it would be.

Is it difficult to uphold you religious practices on the road?

It depends where I’m at with things. When I’m on the road, I’m always prepared to accommodate my beliefs, but there are a lot of things that try to pull me away from them. I keep an extremely clear head. It’s so easy to fall into a bad pattern, so it is the prevention and preservation side of things are of most importance to me.


If you had to sum up your message into one defining concept, what would it be?

For me, at the end of the day, it all comes back to God, to the idea of connectivity and reaching out of the depths to call to you and comfort you.


How does it feel to be seen as an icon? 

It’s funny because after any amount of success, you’re the same person, right? While the perception of you might change on the outside, your internal dialogue stays the same. If you stay conscious of that, then nothing will change as far as personal perception. I certainly don’t walk around thinking of myself as famous. My family definitely plays a big part in that. I try to stay as humble as possible in every way.


You have quite an adoring, loyal fan base. What do you attribute this to?

I guess for a lot of people, the music has helped them heal after hard times. If I can help people make sense of things, then I’m thrilled. It is a truly amazing feeling. In a way, I’ve grown alongside my fans through it all.


You’ve collaborated with a wide array of musicians in your backup band. How influenced are you by the people who surround you musically?

The style of my music definitely depends on whom I’m working with at the time. I find the people who will assist me with the vibe I want. Globalization and the Internet has blended all genres of music together, so it’s easier to find people who are willing and experienced in different styles. This summer I’ll be on the road with Dub Trio, Rob Marscher, and Aaron Dugan. At the moment, they are the ones who will take my music to a new place.

Aaron Dugan is the only one who has been around for your entire career. What’s your relationship like with him at this point?

We’ve become very close and we are very tight friends now. We went from a working relationship to being really close friends, to family. Though we might seem like two entirely different people, at the end of the day, we come from the same place.


What has been your most memorable show so far?

The last night of the Festival of Lights we played in Brooklyn. We had done seven shows in a row, but we still had so much energy to give for the last set. We had so many guests come on stage, but everyone worked so well together, one after another. It just felt like family. That show really stuck out in my mind.


What are you listening to right now?

I’ve been really enjoying Aaron’s Theory of Everything. I listen to music most when I’m out on the road. Lately I’ve been listening to M.I.A., Santigold, The Arcade Fire, and then I switch back to reggae and hip-hop. I actually haven’t been listening to much hip-hop lately. Have any good recommendations?


You know, the usual–De La Soul, P.O.S., the new Reflection Eternal.
Thanks, I’m going to have to put aside some time for downloading now.



And how did you get so good at beatboxing?

I never had an instrument to work with, because I’ve always identified with begin a vocalist. I was 17 when I started, and when I was eighteen, I put a PA system in my bedroom so I could play with reverb and effects. It’s just been a big passion of mine, so I’ve been progressing with it over the years.


What are your plans for the rest of the summer?

My new record Light will be released sometime in the summer. I am going out on the road with Dub Trio nationally and internationally. We’re playing a lot of festivals and really trying to hit as many dates as we can. I’m going to be very busy, to say the least.


What do you wish to accomplish before you hang up the mic strap?

I have a long way to go with what I wish to accomplish, what I want to do, and what I want to express. I want to do it better, always better. I want to keep going into the room to create for purpose and not for habit. Music is sacred and I need it way more than it needs me. I only wish to continue along with it.

You were a big follower of Phish when you were younger. Are you still a fan?

I think they’re amazing and I’m definitely still a fan, but now I opt for music with a steady beat that hits you in the chest, you know? Things like Bob Marley and Trevor Hall. That’s not to say that Phish doesn’t have an amazing rhythm section, because they do. I just like things more straightahead nowadays.


How did you get into music in the first place?

My hip-hop journey started with beatboxing because was something I could do and something I could do alone. Nas’ album, It was Written, really got me into wanting that thump in my chest, which naturally got me into reggae. Reggae really has all of the sonic components of music that I love–bass, harmony, melody, and rhythm, all of it.

-GX-

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