Make no mistake about it: Matisyahu is still a serious Jew.
Even a casual hearing of his new album, “Spark Seeker,” which hits the stores next week (on July 17), will makes it abundantly clear that his Jewish identity is at the center of his art.
“It’s a very important part of who I am,” the popular reggae singer-rapper said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “My inspiration comes from it. It gave form to my music. It’s very much a real part of my life.”
There have, however, been some changes made. Last fall Matisyahu shaved his beard and cut his payes. That choice, he admits, “was a little scary at first, to be honest.” And it was headline-grabbing news, at least in the Jewish media.
He explains, “It was no longer necessary to show people that I’m spiritual or Jewish by my outward appearance. Growing up, the way that I looked was very important to me. I was always trying to impress people, and when I grew my beard there was a certain freedom, a separation, getting past this the way I looked, identify myself as a spiritual seeker.”
He laughs and adds, “I looked in the mirror afterwards and said, ‘there’s my face, it’s still there.’”
It is a good face, too, lean and angular.
In one of the key songs on the new album, “Baal Shem Tov,” Matisyahu writes, “It’s your life to live, I can’t live it for you.” But if you ask him if that warning is intended for overzealous fans who are unhappy with his new look or his earlier break with Chabad, he replies, “A lot of these lyrics were written before I made these changes. It shows how the lyrics are coming from a new place.”
On the other hand, it is not a totally new place. The album title, “Spark Seeker,” is an obvious reference to the idea embedded in much of the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah — the need to collect those sparks of holiness that were scattered in the original act of Creation.
“The title has a kabbalistic reference, as does a lot of my stuff,” Matisyahu said. “When I first started reading about the kabbalists, I would hear about them being seen in strange places. It would turn out that they were doing some kind of spiritual work to elevate the sparks. In my life and career I’ve had the opportunity to find myself where I could make some spiritual moves, to do some work that is spiritually important.”
At least one of his fans in the rabbinate concurs. In a recent issue of the Huffington Post, Rabbi Yonah Bookstein writes, “‘Spark Seeker’ represents a continuation of Matisyahu’s personal journey and his independent streak. The changes he is showing the world are part of his spiritual quest, and are fueled by the same desire for authenticity as the call that led him to avoid the world of materialism and towards a spiritual Hasidic path.”
Rabbi Bookstein concludes, “Matisyahu has not forsaken his spiritual quest or the Judaism that has inspired him on his journey so far.”
If the themes of the new album are familiar, the sound is somewhat less so. As has been the case for each of his previous recordings, Matisyahu is working with a new producer and production team, this time the hot hip-hop majordomo Kool Kojak. There’s a lot more singing, a denser, more textured sound, and a bit more mainstream pop feel.
“This is a new direction for me,” Matisyahu said. “I’m working with a producer who is younger, more of a peer. He comes from the same background as me. Doing the album was more like meeting with a friend, making beats and writing hooks. So this was a real fun record for me.”
However, he admits, the tour that will fill most of his summer and early fall, will draw on his usual working band and make no attempt to reproduce the sound of the new record.
“Live and in the studio are totally different things,” he said.
The other change in Matisyahu’s professional life may come as a surprise to his fans, but for him it is a return to what he once thought would be his path in life: he makes his film acting debut later this summer in the Jewish-themed horror movie “The Possession.” Directed by Danish suspense film specialist Ole Bornedal, the film stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick as a divorced couple whose child has been visited by an ancient curse. Appropriately enough Matisyahu plays a rabbi-exorcist.
“I was into acting as a kid,” Matisyahu revealed. “There was a time when I was 18 that I played the boy in a production of ‘Equus’ in Oregon, and I thought that was going to be my life. I have been busy and haven’t had a chance to do much acting, but this is my first crack at it in 15 years.”
Many artists who moved between the worlds of pop music and the movies have found commonalities in the creative processes of the two forms, but Matisyahu finds them significantly different.
“With music you’re working with a producer, and you walk out of the studio six hours later with a track that’s almost completely finished,” he said. “There’s an almost immediate payoff. Making a movie doesn’t go that way.”
But with the changes in his music Matisyahu recognizes a certain similarity between the acting process and his day job.
“I never thought about it before, but now that I’m in a place where there’s so many different voices with which I can rap or saying I am taking on characters in my music. When you’re acting in a scene, feeling the emotion, you are getting into character, and now I’m getting into character with my voice.”
Despite leaving Crown Heights behind, Matisyahu davens regularly in his new Los Angeles neighborhood, although not always with a congregation.
“I daven with God these days,” he says only half-jokingly. Then, referring to a throat condition that required vocal rest, he adds, “This year I had to learn to be silent for a couple of months, and I had to learn how to daven silently. It’s hard for me to do that in a shul when I’m around a lot of people. But you grow, you learn new ways of expression.”
“Spark Seeker,” Matisyahu’s new album, will be released on Tuesday, July 17. He will be performing at the Paramount Theater, Huntington, L.I., on July 23, and at Randall’s Island on July 29. “The Possession” opens on Aug. 31.