Universal calling

By Naila Francis

Matisyahu acknowledges a shift, and though he admits to its subtlety, it’s one that nonetheless left an indelible impression on his new album.

With the release of “Light,” his second outing on Epic Records, due Aug. 25, the Hassidic Jewish artist delves into darker lyrical territory, while shaking off some of the rigid indoctrination and devoutly religious fervor of his previous efforts.

That’s not to say the man who emerged as something of a novelty in 2004, given his anomalous hybrid of roots-reggae prophesying and rock-band sensibilities with strident dancehall toasting and vocal beatboxing, has abandoned his music’s spiritual core.

“Light,” his follow-up to 2006’s Grammy-nominated “Youth,” is still very much hinged on faith and its attendant principles of compassion and unity. Yet absent are the more overt references to Judaism and in particular the Chabad-Lubavitch branch to which he belonged.

Matisyahu, who performs Wednesday at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia with backing band Dub Trio, has, in fact, drifted away from the confines of that movement. And just like his intense studies in a yeshiva several years ago ultimately sparked a desire to share his discoveries through performing music, his exploration of other Hasidic sects in recent years has fueled a turn toward a more universal consciousness in his lyrics.

“When I became religious, I got very heavily convinced that this was the way and this was the only truth. … There was some idea being pushed on me that my mission in making the music should be about transmitting the message of God and the message of Judaism, and I’ve sort of become almost anti-that because I’ve become aware of how shallow that idea can be,” says Matisyahu (birth name Matthew Miller), who recently turned 30.

The West Chester, Chester County, native, now a Brooklyn resident, is instead more focused on championing a benevolent ideal.

“For me, when I was listening to music when I was a kid, it was all about the release from a lot of negative patterns of thinking and the negativity in our lives and in the world, and letting go of all that and finding that good place within and through music allowing that to flower, to blossom,” he says.

“Music is still to me about bringing people together and the expression of self and about ultimately the goodness that is found within people, but in terms of having a very specific message or specific lifestyle and promoting that form of spirituality, that’s not really my cup of tea anymore.”

Yet even while espousing the virtues of rising above fear and cynicism, he admits, that he, too, struggles to remain hopeful amid the world’s suffering. And it is in the works and philosophies of Rebbe Nachman, the 18th-century Jewish mystic who founded the Breslov Hasidic dynasty, combining a knowledge of the Kabbalah with the wisdom of the Torah, that Matisyahu has found both consolation and inspiration.

“He was a little more messy about tragedy and the insanity of God in this world, and that really became the main theme of a lot of my record, which is why it’s a lot darker than some of the stuff I’ve done in the past,” says Matisyahu, who was especially drawn to Nachman’s story of the seven beggars, about two children who get lost in a forest and are fed by a different beggar every night, each one of varying deficiencies, which ultimately turn out to be among their greatest attributes.

“Light,” from the hard-hitting dancehall bombast of album opener “Smash Lies” to the hushed introspection of acoustic closer, “Silence,” resonates with the story’s search for peace and healing for the world’s brokenhearted.

The depth of the music reflects an ambitious goal of consolidating three years of learning the Torah into the songs, many of them co-written with Ephraim Rosenstein, Matisyahu‘s longtime friend and teacher. But beyond the singer’s lyrical evolution, “Light” represents an expansion of both his musical palette — and his vocal abilities, which are just beginning to flourish, he says, after five years of voice lessons.

“Once I started touring and performing five nights a week, I realized this was an art form and just like anything else, there were skills that needed to be learned,” says Matisyahu, who works on his voice almost daily when not on the road. “Obviously, there’s something that’s just natural and there’s a certain style or emotion that can’t be trained but in terms of having control and stability to do the things you really want to do, I had to work really hard at that.

“I want to be able to create different emotions and a different atmosphere with my voice depending on where the music is. Sometimes, it’s a more reggae sound; sometimes, it’s more of a hip-hop flavor where I’m just rapping; sometimes, it’s more singing, just belting out notes; sometimes, I’m singing more soft in a high falsetto voice. … When I perform live, I go from heavy improv rock to dance kind of beats to a meditative kind of reggae with all kinds of dynamics, and it’s all about learning how to use your voice in all those different places. With a lot of the new record, I drop the reggae accent and try to discover more of my natural voice.”

Despite his reggae classification, “Light” boasts the manifold influences that have been present since his 2004 debut, “Shake off the Dust … Rise,” yet covers even more stylistic ground.

Partial credit goes to an impressive list of collaborators, including Jamaica’s renowned rhythm section Sly & Robbie; producer Stephen McGregor, son of legendary reggae artist Freddie McGregor; and experimental turntable wiz Ooah from the Glitch Mob.

But Matisyahu‘s own changing musical tastes have played a role, too, encompassing “everything,” he says, “from Santigold to Postal Service to (Goldfrapp’s) ‘Black Cherry,’ Arcade Fire, a lot of ’80s staples, and a lot of hip-hop music, artists like Lil Wayne and Jay-Z, even though some of it may not be ideologically lined up with who I am.”

“The music and art and the record that I’ve made are about what’s real to me, what’s important to me,” he says. “My singing and my music is pretty much everything to me, and then my religion. I think this is my best work to date.”

– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer