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Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009

Matisyahu Finds His Light

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Matisyahu immediately established himself as a singular musician with his 2004 album, Shake Off the Dust…Arise. To this day, there still aren’t many Brooklyn Hasidic Jews who fuse reggae and hip-hop.

But in some respects, it’s only with his newest CD, Light, that Matisyahu has become his own man on an artistic level, making a CD that he says comes closer to fully reflecting the sound and range of music he wants to create.

“I sort of broke away from anyone who was telling me how to make music or what kind of music to make,” Matisyahu says. “I just sort of went, ‘These are the kind of beats I want on the record. These are the people I want to write it with. This is who I want to work with.’”

To be sure, reggae and hip-hop continue to be at the root of many of the new songs. For instance, “I Will Be Light” is a pure reggae/dub song, while “Escape” leans heavily on hip-hop with its rapped vocals and skittering beat.

But Light also ventures well beyond those styles. “So Hi, So Lo” manages to be both graceful and hard-hitting with its fusion of soul and rock. A bit of grand, symphonic pop sweetens the melody of “For You,” while the beat has street-level grit. “Motivate” and “Darkness Into Light” bring a rock element into Matisyahu’s musical vocabulary.

The move toward a wider-ranging sound hasn’t happened overnight for Matisyahu (his English-language name is Matthew Miller; Matisyahu is Hebrew for Matthew). In fact, his musical interests began to expand soon after his first CD was in stores, when Matisyahu began touring and his band introduced him to new music on their long van rides.

The music on Light wasn’t created overnight, either. After touring behind his second CD, 2006’s Youth, Matisyahu took a break from touring and began what eventually grew into a two-year process of writing and recording Light.

“I wanted to take the time with the record,” Matisyahu says. “I didn’t want to be rushed. I didn’t want to sort of be in the middle of touring, then home for a week to work on the record and then go back out on tour and come back. That’s how the Youth record was made, and it was telling of the time. That time period of my life, that’s just how it was. Everything was on the run. And I wanted to make a more settled record.”

Now, the songs on Light are helping Matisyahu achieve a goal for his live shows. He says that as he toured behind his first two studio albums, and for his 2005 concert release, Live At Stubb’s, he found himself falling into the trap of trying to deliver increasingly high-energy shows.

“I started to notice that all of the songs at the end of the tour, all of the songs would be about five [beats per minute] faster than when we started the tour and the recordings,” he says. “Every song was getting faster. And there was this feeling I’d get, sort of like herding cattle or something, like having to keep this energy going at this high level all the time or else it’s not a good show.”

More recently, Matisyahu found himself wanting to create a more varied concert experience, both in mood and intensity.

“I really am way into the idea of having the orgasmic experience, the ups and downs, so [I want] more meditative moments, more quiet moments, just authentic moments,” he says.

Matisyahu plays The Pabst Theater on Saturday, Oct. 31.

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