Matisyahu talks Purim parties, Buju Banton and shaving his iconic beard
For most rock stars, an afterparty involves guzzling bottles of Hennessy behind a well-guarded velvet rope.
For reggae singer and rapper Matisyahu, it’s a Purim spread.
The soulful artist born Matthew Miller will bring his acoustic tour to the Tampa Theatre on Saturday, the same night the Jewish holiday begins at sundown. Though Matisyahu shocked fans in 2011 by shaving his iconic beard and saying he was no longer Hasidic, he still identifies as Jewish and explores spiritual themes in his music.
Purim is a celebratory holiday — it commemorates the bravery of Esther, Queen of Persia, who prevented the genocide of thousands of Jews — so his Jewish fans, at least, should be in a partying mood.
“I don’t know how crazy it’ll get, and how much I’ll be able to be there and enjoy myself without feeling too picked-apart,” Matisyahu said by phone from Anapolis, Md. “Hopefully everyone will just be having a good time and I’ll be able to relax and enjoy myself also.”
In our conversation, Matisyahu discussed his Purim plans, his beard and more. Here are excerpts.
One of the last times you were in Tampa, you ran into Buju Banton, who was awaiting trial here at the time. What was that conversation like?
I sat with him on his balcony. Some of his people were in the room, and the officer was in the room, and he had a cigarette. We just talked about music a little bit. I told him how his music had influenced me.
I’m not Jewish, and I’ve never celebrated Purim, but it’s a pretty good-natured and celebratory occasion, right? Is this the first time you’ve held an afterparty like this?
Yeah, I guess it’s one of the first official afterparties I’ve done. We knew we wanted to do something for Purim, so it just seemed like a good idea.
Is it open to non-Jewish fans as well?
Oh, of course. Yeah. For everybody.
So what should I know if I go?
Well, a lot of times people dress up in costumes. That’s part of the idea of Purim. And they might read from the Megillah, which is the scroll, the story of Purim. And when they do that, whenever they mention Haman’s name – the evil guy – everybody screams and they make a lot of noise. So if you hear people doing that, don’t get self-conscious. It’s not you.
Will you wear a costume?
I’m not sure yet. I haven’t decided.
Do you typically wear one?
I don’t usually wear a costume. Sometimes if I’m going out with my kids or something, I will.
Is it the sort of thing where people might show up dressed as, say, you?
Oh yeah. I have that happen a lot. It’s really something that I’ll just see from the stage. I’ll see some people dressed up like me. Although now it’ll be harder to make themselves look like me. It’s not so obvious who I look like, I guess.
Has shaving changed how your Jewish fans see or treat you?
I don’t think all the fans, but some of them. I would say the majority of the Jewish fans that I have are not necessarily religious; they connect with my music, and one of the elements they might connect with is the Jewish element. But there were some fans that I had which were based primarily on the fact that I was representative for the population, and once I shaved, I guess some of those fans might have felt betrayed a little bit.
What about non-Jews? Has that changed the way that they’ve interacted with you?
Yeah, they’re more relaxed and understanding about that element. A lot of times, it also depends not as much whether they’re Jewish or not, but their history with religion. Some fans have grown up in religious houses and moved away from it, to have somewhat of an understanding of what that’s about.
If you put aside matters of spirituality for a second, what was it like to be clean-shaven for the first time?
It felt fine. There’s no real way to describe it. I felt naked, to some degree.
You’ve done acoustic shows for a while. Do you do Q&As at every one? Is there a question you get at every single show?
It’s usually about the beard, and what led me to shave it, or how has my philosophy changed.
Do you want to go ahead and answer that now, so people may not feel like they have to ask?
Well, they’ll ask it anyway, but sure, I’ll go ahead and answer it. Basically, the way I answer is, it started with me in my early 20s, and looking for a connection to my identity, my history, and feeling a strong passion towards Judaism, so I took on the style, the look, including the yarmulke and beard. That felt like my own decision to represent myself that way. At a certain point, it no longer became about my choice to represent myself that way, but about following a certain set of rules about how I was supposed to look. And I guess over time I began to decide to make my own decisions about how I want to look, how I want to represent myself, and sort of make my own choices about my life. I guess that’s the basis for it at the end of the day.
Have you ever gotten a question from the audience that made you question yourself? That made you step back and go, “Wow, I never thought of that.”
Once in a while, there will be a good question that will make me think in a way that I haven’t before. Sometimes people will ask me a question about atheism or how that fits into my music. That’s a more interesting question.
Did you write the songs on Spark Seeker acoustically and then sort of pump up the volume in production, or did you take these wildly flashy, fast-moving, energetic anthemic songs, and then try to deconstruct them for an acoustic EP?
Some of them were written acoustically, but the majority of those songs were written in the studio, with synthesizers and beats and all that stuff first. This record (Spark Seeker) is pretty much as far away from an acoustic record as it could be. But I knew that at some point, I’m going to play these songs acoustic, because I always do at these shows. So it’s kind of cool, because it gives me an opportunity to return to what the fundamental core of the song is, whether it’s the melody or the words, and then to explore it through different instrumentation, different style. One of my favorite things to do is take old songs and replay them in different formats.
Can you play pretty much every song in your catalog acoustically?
Pretty much every song. There’s different ways to approach the acoustic thing, but we kind of have a formula, so we can pretty much approach any song with that formula and get a pretty cool sound out of it.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*