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Reel Time: Matisyahu in the Studio

by Mike Greenhaus on October 10, 2013
I’m noticing a similar pattern with my last record where I had a different plan in mind and then, I went in and worked with a producer and said, ‘Well, let’s do more,’” says Matisyahu. It’s early August and he is sitting in a park around the corner from Studio G Brooklyn, where he’s spent the first half of the summer working with producer Joel Hamilton (Pretty Lights, Dub Trio) on his new album. “The chemistry was there as soon as we started,” he says.
Though he’s spent the past year sketching out ideas with two sets of longtime collaborators—Dub Trio and old friends Aaron Dugan, Rob Marscher and Mark Guiliana—Matisyahu’s vision changed when he met Hamilton and began crafting an album that blends elements of the singer’s slick hits with the energy of his more rootsy early work and live shows. It is also the first record to truly tackle his current spiritual quest and decision to shave his beard—the most visible sign of the Hasidic path he followed for many years. “It’s mainly a very inward album,” he says.

Early Ideas
Most of the recordings happened within the last couple of months. [Dub Trio’s Stu Brooks and DP Holmes] started coming out to LA, where I live, and we were turning things out fast—we almost had a whole record. Then I got together with Aaron, Rob and Mark, which was a group that I wanted to put together for a while. To get ourselves in gear, we booked a benefit show in Tarrytown, N.Y., and we recorded five songs. [Earlier this summer], I came home to White Plains, [N.Y.], to stay with my parents because my kids are in camp here. I had this off-time before our tour started and thought to myself, “I have to get the rest of this album out of me. I don’t want to sit around until October to finish it.” I had some conversations with Joel, and I knew he was the right guy. I sent him the [song] stems I was working on, and we’ve been pretty much working day and night since then. Joel was the missing ingredient.

Something Old, Something New
We’re recording live instrumentation to analog and then blending it with a fresher, more digital sound. That’s the direction I went with [2009’s] Light to some extent, but [2012’s] Spark Seeker was more full-on digital. It’s a return because it feels, in some ways, very organic, very raw and stripped-back, but in other ways, it is definitely an evolution. It’s charting into new territory in terms of the styles it mixes. That’s something Joel has become really good at, especially after his last record with Pretty Lights. The more I’ve been doing this—the more I have been able to get the right people around me—I’ve had a stronger sense of the sound I’m looking for with each record.
Under The Influence
I’ve been listening to a lot of current music—Twin Shadow, Holy Other, Frank Ocean, Major Lazer—and that’s helped me expand my musical palette. I also always find myself returning back to some earlier songwriting influences like Rickie Lee Jones and Tracy Chapman. I continue to pull from all these influences and create something new while melding them together. And in terms of using my voice, that’s true as well—how to be more dynamic, how to get across emotions using different styles, different colors and everything I’ve acquired over time. There is one song that we will probably put on the record that we have been playing for a couple of years, but with the exception of that I’ll probably wait to play the rest because I want people’s initial reaction to be to the [recorded versions] of the songs.

The Old Jewish Man Inside of Me
Hebrew prayers are one of my creative voices. You can hear them when I rap or when I use certain tones in the reggae things I do. Those prayers and that concept—that idea of using your voice, words and air to reach out to God—is creative and connected to any of the other voices that I use when I make music. It’s one of the staples in my music. It’s like there’s an old Jewish man that lives inside me.

Inner Struggles
[My physical transformation] happened since I wrote and recorded my last album. So I would say the last album was leading into that, but I didn’t shave until right before it came out. I have still been making changes and dealing with that—and dealing with my fans and friends—and all the things that I learned through this process. For me, Judaism became a creative force in my life and less about the rules and the way that I am supposed to live my life. It is more about how I’ve been able to enrich my creativity. It’s a personal record and it’s not as much about ideas or things in the world as much as it is about my own inner struggles and processes that I have dealt with in the last couple of years.


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