There are several ways to interpret the title of Matisyahu's third studio album, Light. On its cover, the 30-year-old singer is nearly obscured by the rays of the sun. That's the literal way to look at it. You can also take it as a spiritual symbol of Matisyahu's strict Hasidic Jewish beliefs — where "light" stands in for God. That's the obvious reading.
Then there's the most likely interpretation: Light is heavier
than Matisyahu's 2006 breakthrough album, Youth. Its lyrics dig
deeper, its sound stretches beyond the reggae and hip-hop that have
been the cornerstones of his music. It's the result of growing up and
getting famous. Light, in effect, unloads the baggage the singer
acquired over the past few years.
"The whole purpose of the record was the redemptive quality of it
all," he says. "It's not just about dwelling in that darkness. It's
about the light that's born out of the struggle or search for
Matisyahu leaves it open to listeners to figure out what it all
means and to take out of his music whatever they choose to hear. And
while Light grooves along to languid, Jack Johnson-style rhythms
and lyrically connects similar peace-and-love themes, Matisyahu says he
doesn't want to hit anyone over the head with his message. "Music is a
place where people can have their own experience," he says. "It's
important to allow people to have that personal experience. You can
definitely put things together, but I try to leave that for the
He was born Matthew Miller in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He was
into Phish and other neo-hippie jam bands. He attended Hebrew school at
a White Plains, New York, synagogue. He studied his Jewish heritage in
Israel. And about a decade ago he changed his name to Matisyahu, which
is Yiddish for Matthew. He started getting serious about music around
the same time. "It was always what I wanted to do, from the time I was
a kid," he says.
In 2004, Matisyahu recorded Shake Off the Dust ... Arise for
JDub Records, a small label that specializes in Jewish artists (he's
still affiliated with the company: Light bears both JDub and
Epic imprints). A year later he released Live at Stubb's, a
concert recording that reached the Top 30. In 2006, Youth peaked
at No. 4.
Since then, Matisyahu has spent time on the road, touring and
writing and raising a family (he has two sons). He didn't want to
over-think the songs on Light, he says, preferring to let his
thoughts and the music come naturally. "Creating music is just
reflective of the life process a person goes through," he says. "It's
not about a thought-out plan for me. It's a natural, organic growth
process and what's born out of it.
"I was 23 when I made my first album. I started developing the
concept for this record when I was 26. My grasp on Judaism and life in
general is a little bit more in depth now. I'm dealing with issues that
are more mature."
Light is indeed more organic and mature than Youth or
any of Matisyahu's previous records. The flow is more elastic, and the
singer settles into the grooves more effortlessly than he has in the
past. Even if the lyrics remain rooted in (and somewhat confined by)
Matisyahu's spirituality, it's more of a pop album this time around
— and way more accessible. The first single, "One Day," is a hit.
(The song was recently tapped by NBC to play over its Winter Olympic
Games ads. So you're gonna be hearing it a lot over the next few
But best of all, at least as far as Matisyahu is concerned,
Light has managed to free him, for the most part, from the
novelty tag of Hasidic Jewish Reggae Rapper. "I was totally unaware of
it at first," he says. "I was newly religious, I had a new career, I
just got married — I honestly didn't have time to process how I
was being perceived by everybody."
Bob Marley originally inspired Matisyahu. Specifically, it was how
the reggae legend drew from his heritage and traditions for his music.
"It was like, 'I now found mine, and this is what I'm going to
do,'" he recalls. "I was blind to the whole idea that this thing was
really far out for people and could be seen as a gimmick. It wasn't
until recently that I realized that a large percent of the population,
if they've heard of me, know me as the Hasidic reggae guy. It was a
little hard to swallow that.
"I am glad to be past that stage," he concludes. "But I try not to
think about that too much. It's important for me to be authentic to
myself and not worry too much about how other people perceive me."