Interview: Matisyahu talks album, performing and creative evolution

Prolific and inspiring, Matisyahu is an artist in constant evolution. While the Grammy-nominated vocalist has transformed his music regularly, he’s always tended to his roots.

His once orthodox lifestyle heavily influenced his emergence more than a decade ago, when fans regaled in his Hasidic-rock-reggae stylings. Since 2004’s Shake of the Dust, Matisyahu has released those confines, but still applies teachings from his faith.      

Fast forward through an incarnation into heady jams and he makes another shift with his sixth studio album Undercurrent. Improvisation takes precedence, with the 38-year-old’s band taking the reins.

Backed by lauded musicians including guitarist Aaron Dugan, bassist Stu Brooks and drummer Tim Keiper, the result is jam-laden live performances–and, like snowflakes, no two are alike. As for the album itself, it’s a stimulating journey through eight free-flowing tracks.  

Matisyahu recently launched The Broken Crowns Tour in support of Undercurrent. AXS caught up with the vocalist between shows, where he discussed his creative evolution, performing and more.

AXS: Since breaking away from your Hasidic reggae roots, what’s been the most satisfying aspect of your artist evolution?

Matisyahu: I don't believe I broke away from my roots. I moved away from religious practice but my time in the Chassidic community has impacted my sense of everything. This is also true of reggae music, it continues to make a huge impact on the music I make. My roots have always been founded in bringing different things together and finding the link between them. I believe the most satisfying aspect of allowing myself and my music to evolve is the music. Where we are as a band today is a result of years of trying to push forward.

AXS: Your music seems to have come more ‘alive’ on latest album Undercurrent, with live shows featuring full-band improvisation. How did that come about?

M: I wanted to create an album based on where the music is now and what a current show feels like. It's not a live album, but the songs were all started from live improvisations we recorded on tour.

AXS: Since no two song performances are alike, what influences the journey of the jam?

M: There are a lot of factors, but mainly the ability of the musicians to listen and react with each other.

AXS: Your lyrics are generally deeply personal. What’s it like baring your soul every time you take the stage?

M: Well it depends how much I actually listen to the words as they come out. It feels good to pour out your soul, but it's taken some time for me to realize that can't be forced, so when you're not in that space you've got great musicians who can help transport the crowd there.

AXS: Having performed for more than a decade, how has your connection with audiences changed?

M: It changes from tour to tour. Sometimes I am feeling very connected to the room and sometimes I block them out so I can focus on the music. Shifting the focus between self, band members and the audience is one of the many juggling acts going while I am performing.

AXS: On that note, what’s one of the craziest moments that you’ve had while performing?

M: Last night someone kept yelling, “Go back to your roots,” so I incorporated that into the dub. I began repeating it in different octaves and then by the end of the jam I was saying go back to creation.

AXS: Off the subject, if you had one superpower what would it be?

M: Balance. 

AXS: What’s next on your horizon?

M: Just some serious touring for now and a new reggae jam I just released called Broken Crowns. I still have a ways to go. 

Keep it here on AXS for tickets and continuing coverage on Matisyahu and The Broken Crowns Tour.

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