In light of his new record, “Spark Seeker,” out now, I interviewed over the phone Matisyahu to discuss his body of work, the recording process and his creative future. The intent was to approach the music, rather than the chatter surrounding Matisyahu’s appearance. For a taste of that music, click the link above for information about a live YouTube performance this afternoon at 3 pm EST.
Yesterday we also published a shorter piece that’s half-review, half-profile, which includes some pieces of this interview.
New Voices: I’ve been listening to “Spark Seeker” and it sounds very different from anything you’ve done before. What were you trying to accomplish with the album that makes it sound so different?
Matisyahu: There’s a lot of elements that probably make it different sounding from anything I’ve done. I think that every time I go to approach making music, it’s going to have a different sound, because I’m usually working with different people. So, for example, the first live record has a certain sound because I was working with one band. My second live record, “Live at Stubbs II,” had a different sound, different musicians. Working with David Kahne, we worked with different musicians, and David and his musical tastes. And now with Kojak, the producer. So the music is always going to change, being that I’m a varied artist, I don’t really have my foot stuck into one genre. I take from a lot of places, I listen to a lot of different types of music. Therefore, whoever I’m working with tends to be the direction in which I’m leaning towards.
For this record, me and Kojak, our musical ground kind of met, in terms of working for most of the record from a digital place — programming beats and writing songs in the studio, verses with the band. That’s first off. And then there’s the element of our trip to Israel where we recorded a lot of live instrumentation, Middle Eastern instruments, which gives it another twist — more of a world music vibe. So it’s got a cross between a world music sound and a more modern pop sound, a little bit of old school hip-hop throwback, with the Jewish or the spiritual content. A lot of melodies and a lot of hooks, a real crunchy kind of sound. So I guess that’s how it’s different.
Was there anything you were listening to, a band or an album or anything, that really inspired you while you were in the creative process this time?
Not really. No, there wasn’t.
At the end of the third track of the album, a track called “Searchin,” there’s a recording of a voice that repeats “The digging you must do yourself.” I know that that is based on a Chasidic saying, “The rebbe is the geologist of the soul.” I’ve been trying to find a copy of that clip. Where is that clip from? Did it inspire the song? Or was it something you discovered after writing and recording?
I think we were working on the song and then I asked a friend of mine to say something, some type of Chasidic story or parable or idea. I really wanted to have — like on my first record “Shake Off the Dust,” I had incorporated the rabbis whom I was learning from at the time in the yeshiva. I recorded them, and we worked them into the songs. We had entered them into some interludes. On “Youth,” I did it with one rabbi. So I wanted to come back to that, and I asked Zalman…
[The founder of Jewish Renewal, Rabbi] Zalman Schachter-Shalomi?
Yeah, that’s it. Zalman Schachter. I asked him to do it. I have a relationship with him. And that’s what he came back with.
I like the fact that in describing this album, you’re really talking about it as a collaborative process, as a bunch of minds coming together so that you can make the music you want to make. I think that’s really cool. One of the collaborations that you do a couple times on the album is with Shyne. What was it like collaborating with him? And how is his creative process different or similar to your own?
Well, he’s a real — he’s a rapper. That’s the way he approaches the music in a sense that he writes — like, he would come into the studio and [write] his lyrics in his head. He didn’t use a pen or anything. When he would get into the sound booth to record his vocals, he has a sort of character that he takes on, I think an element of his persona that comes out and has an outlet. In a sense there’s a similarity. We both have a creative outlet to play a certain role or to go into a certain character. The difference is I definitely write all my lyrics out. I don’t come into the studio with them memorized and cutting them in different parts. I try to take it and do them in longer chunks. So it’s a little different creatively.
It’s cool to see you guys play off of each other. You have a chemistry that works perfectly on an album like this. It’s something that stood out to me. I felt like, particularly on “Buffalo Soldier,” you both went very hard in your own unique ways. It makes the track stand out.
Cool. Thanks, man.
That brings me to another point. I feel like this album is a way of building bridges. There’s a surprising amount of real hip-hop, some mainstream pop, some of the music is dance-y. There’s a bridge between the traditionally observant life and modern Judaism. There’s even a bridge between the various stages in your own personal journey. In that vein [of building bridges] what do you hope to accomplish in your lifetime? Is there something you have yet to do that you really want to succeed at?
I guess I know my entire life as not so much “What are the things that I’d like to succeed at?” but more to be the best at what I do. To do what I do to the best of my ability, you know? And that being the music that I make. There’s always room to grow with that. I feel this record is really a growth from the last one. I feel like I’m on the right track.
Were there any challenges to recording this record that made it uniquely difficult? Did you feel like it was a hard record to put together?
No, not at all. Very different from the last record, from “Light,” which was a difficult process, and painstaking and months and hours and hours. This record was made in much more of a fun kind of way. It was made in the sense that I became close friends with the producer and it was just the two of us in the studio for most of the time, just having a good time, rocking over beat,s basically. Making beats and writing rhymes in the studio. Just playing and having fun with the music. It was much more — it was a very enjoyable way to make a record. A lot of fun. It also wasn’t crunched into a certain amount of time. It was made over a period of two years. So there was never that feeling of trying to push it out or squeeze it out.
What made “Light” so difficult?
Working with David [Kahne, producer of “Light”] was a different experience. Me and Kojak were more like peers, like a buddy you have in high school where you go over to his house and work on music and kind of blow each other away with ideas, with each other’s talents. It was fun. With David it was — I was bringing together. I was working with a lot of different producers and musicians, and I was writing songs and demos for about six, seven, eight months. Which was sort of an enjoyable process.
Once I had all that material, I went with David — and David is — how do I describe him? He’s kind of like a wizard-genius-computer-nerd-type guy. He would be in the studio from 11 to 10-o-clock, 11-o-clock at night. I was coming from Brooklyn. We really wanted to do it together, so I spent a lot of hours in the studio that winter and that spring. We’d spend seven, eight, nine hours a day for six, seven, eight months straight. It was a little more in the basement, in front of a computer, working out all the stuff. It was a little more of an intense process in that sense.
How will [the new record, “Spark Seeker”] impact your live show? I predict a very different kind of live show for you.
Well, it’s going to be more dynamic. I’m still playing with the same band. It’s the Dub Trio, and I still love — we’ve gone back to old songs and re-written them, re-created them to adjust them to the styles that we’re into now. There’s a lot of dynamics already for this show. There’s a lot of improvisation. There’s a murky, sludgy reggae that we get into. But the band in general has much more of a rock background, although we get into a lot of electronics and hip-hop stuff too.
It’s a mixture. I think with the new songs what we’re going to do is play them pretty similarly to how they are on the record, at least to start and see how that feels. There will be songs that are punchier, that are shorter — three-minute, four-minute songs — that are more dance-y and a little more maybe hook-y than the rest of the live show, which is more of an organic, improvisational background.
More of a jam band feel.
Yeah, I guess so.
On a lighter note, is this the first time you’ve had blond hair?
Right now, it’s not so blond. It’s a little bit darker now. I don’t know when’s the last you saw — but it’s changing. I’m just trying out different things, and seeing what feels good.