NEW YORK — It’s Thursday evening and Matthew Miller is exhausted. He woke up early in the morning prepared to take on a full schedule of appointments and interviews as Matisyahu, but ended up spending most of the day as Dad, having spontaneously accompanied his son’s kindergarten class on a field trip.
By sunset he has returned to Brooklyn to work on some music before rushing back to Manhattan, driving through hipster and Hasidic enclaves in Williamsburg on his way to a comedy show in Madison Square Garden.
Two years have elapsed since Matisyahu put out his last album, and it will be another year before the next one sees light. Meanwhile, having just released a new single “Love Born,” as well as anti-BDS song “Dodging Bullets” with rapper Kosha Dillz, he mainly keeps busy touring, as well as writing music and acting as his own manager.
He has realized his dream as Matisyahu, the mega-hit Jewish reggae artist. So, what now? Being a good dad. When Matisyahu dropped his son off at school in the morning, the teacher asked if he wanted to join the class on a field trip.
“I looked in my son’s eyes and saw that took precedence over whatever meetings or interviews, or whatever I thought was supposed to happen today,” he says. “I was able to be in tune with my son and my real goals in life, of which number one is to be a good father. I was able to put everything in check as to what’s important and that’s exactly what I’m talking about: that ability to improvise in your life. It’s the same thing on stage.”
Improvisation is how Matisyahu keeps his music fresh these days — and how he stays inspired.
‘I was stressed out about going into the studio without the crutch of smoking weed’
“When you’re really listening and paying attention to yourself and the people around you, you can go in a new direction, in a direction that the universe is taking you in,” he says.
That’s how “Love Born” came about. Matisyahu’s producer, bassist Stu Brooks of the band Dub Trio, had just returned home from Spain after the BDS fiasco that temporarily canceled Matisyahu’s performance in the summer of 2015. Brooks recorded the track (sans lyrics) with Matisyahu in mind.
By then, Matisyahu was a month sober (and remains so today).
“I was stressed out about going into the studio without the crutch of smoking weed,” he says.
He feared lacking inspiration, or the ability to get his “creative juices flowing” before improvising the initial lyrics. He devised the song’s hook, “love born from pain is the real thing,” referencing “life without a crutch, having no real padding, taking things as they come, feeling the real feelings, the ups and downs, not faking it, but not raping the reality.”
The song is about persevering through the pain and raw emotion of getting sober, of the anti-Israel antagonism he and Brooks faced in Spain, and the honest feedback he gets from both fans and detractors.
“When it’s time to write, when it’s time to create, where do you get that from? That’s why so many artists and musicians end up getting into drugs or finding ways to squeeze the juice out of themselves, out of the world around them,” Matisyahu says.
“So when you don’t do that, you have to find it in a way that’s very raw, that’s very real and that’s the concept of ‘love born from pain is the real thing’ in the sense that there’s a certain love, or a certain surrender, that comes out of not escaping, but loving the reality. It’s an act of acceptance,” he says.
For Matisyahu, music is like therapy, as he calls it, and he wants it as authentic as possible.
On stage, he aims to create an “existential” experience for people. Playing a show sober, he performs in whatever emotional state he’s in that day.
‘There’s a certain existential crisis when the dream becomes a reality’
“Oftentimes I’m down, and I get out there and try to have a transformational experience by entering the music, exploring the music, and eventually I find my core self and my light,” he says.
At this point in Matisyahu’s career, the thrill of success has passed.
“There’s a certain existential crisis when the dream becomes a reality,” he says, comparing it to an exciting new crush that becomes a marriage, day in and day out.
The same songs and music that inspired Matisyahu years ago may not be as relevant to him personally anymore. So performing has become a balance of keeping fans happy, playing the same songs they want to hear, literally hundreds of times, but improvising the music, switching up the instrumentals (but not the lyrics), taking risks on stage, and not knowing what a given song might sound like, even seconds before he performs it.
Going back on the road with plans to play in Jerusalem in May, and a Hanukkah tour starting in mid-December, Matisyahu calls performing an “avodah,” or a practice — akin to any practice, such as meditation, which requires focus, hard work, and honesty. At the same time, he embraces uncertainty.
“It’s about allowing there to be questions or instability,” he says.
He may not always know what his songs will sound like live, but he aims to feel connected enough with his musicians and audience to make sure it’s right for the moment.
“If you’re living your life in a certain way, you can be in tune with those things and create something that which in my mind is more authentic than already having a programmed answer,” he says. “It’s being in tune with yourself enough so you can listen to your inner truth and what needs to come out.”