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 meaning."
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 listener."
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 weeks.)
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."