Since his initial breakout in 2005, Matisyahu has become almost as famous for his music as for his unique identity as the only major Hasidic Jewish reggae star. Yet, keeping up such a recognizable outward appearance can be taxing, especially in an industry that can demand extreme consistency from its best-known stars. So it was with an apparent great sense of relief that Matisyahu tweeted a surprising new picture of himself this past winter. He had shaved off his trademark beard, and was without a kippah and his traditional Hasidic garb. Since then, Matisyahu has been making more than just superficial changes. His latest album Spark Seeker signals a revolution in his sound, swapping dark dub-influenced reggae for bright, crisp beats and arena-sized synths. We recently got the chance to sit down with Matisyahu to chat about his new album, his new look, and his thoughts on music’s power to heal.
OS: In an interview with WNYC earlier this year, you mentioned that “several things” led to your decision to shave your beard, but you didn’t really go into what exactly they were. What was it that led to your change in mentality and appearance?
M: I would say that it was an evolving experience. It was something that I had thought about many times. My decision to keep it in the first place was a big part of my life, which came from a situation when I was auditioning for a commercial and was just becoming religious. I hadn’t shaved, and they asked me to shave for it, so I went to speak to a couple of rabbis. Each one had a different answer, and I ended up becoming closer with the rabbi who was more strict. From that point on, it became less of a choice of mine than a situation in which I was conforming my own logic to the ideology. But over time, my intuition and my own sense of right and wrong began to grow into their own, and I didn’t feel that I needed to follow rules that weren’t based on my own sense of right and wrong or my own sense of what I wanted to do with my life.
OS: So it was very much a decision in which you followed your internal compass instead of submitting to ideas that were imposed upon you from the outside world.
M: Exactly. That’s the basic idea of what has happened to me. Initially when I became religious it was my own quest and my own decision. I was doing things that were meaningful to me. At a certain point, I think, there was definitely a shift. This is just another state in the evolution of that shift forward.