Matisyahu talks about faith, change, and where he finds his "Spark"

Matisyahu comes before you a changed man.

Born Matthew Miller, Matisyahu’s career has mirrored his own personal and religious growth. When he burst upon the music scene with the 2004 single “King Without a Crown,” Matisyahu was not only heralded as a fresh take on the reggae/rap sound but also championed as a genuine avenue of pride for the Orthodox Jewish community.

So when Matisyahu posted pictures of himself earlier this year clean-shaven, minus his Orthodox tresses, and sans yarmulke, many fans in the Orthodox community were upset. Elad Nehorai, writing for Huffington Post, called the photos “(a) clear and outright rejection of (Matisyahu’s) values, and also as his position as a leader and role model for us religious Jews who still want to be a part of secular culture.” It’s a reaction that Matisyahu understands, if not sympathizes with.

“When you hold someone up to be a role model or spokesperson, that can be something you draw strength from,” Matisyahu said in an interview from his Los Angeles home. “But the drawback to that is that that person may not always reflect the things you want them to. People change. They have to in order to grow.”

But an outright rejection of values and faith?

“I don’t really know if I would consider myself anything in particular (anymore). I would say I’m inspired in a Hasidic way, but I certainly don’t keep all the customs and rules I once did. I just felt it was time to let go of that look. Because my identity became wrapped up in that, (but) inside I was starting to shift my ideology a bit.”

Growth has always been an integral part of Matisyahu’s life. For the Jewish religion, finding one’s way in the world is something that takes genuine reflection and purpose of thought. It stems from what’s known in the Jewish tradition as cheshbon hanefesh, the internal journey to discover what you’re called to do. It’s something that Matisyahu takes very seriously.

“When I released (2004’s) ‘Shake off the Dust…Arise,’ it was very much a reflection of where I was in my personal journey. Orthodox (Judaism) helped me find my way. But now I feel like I’m moving in a much more internally spiritual direction, and this new album (‘Spark Seeker’) reflects that.”

To that end, “Spark Seeker” shows us a calmer Matisyahu. The tracks unfold with all the emotion but less of the fire of his previous work. The album also maintains Matisyahu’s trademark accessibility with songs that convey his personal and spiritual positions without political agenda.

“I’ve never really been interested in politics,” he said. “Not American politics and certainly not Israel’s politics. I write songs that are more identifiable and about personal struggle and overcoming things. I’ve always stayed away from politics, because who am I that makes my opinion more valid (than someone else’s)?”

“Spark Seeker” has no overt political message, and clearly the album doesn’t carry the same religious message of his earlier work. But much like the physical expression of his short hair and beard-less face, the message of “Spark Seeker” is one of discovery and growth.

“The idea is that there are sparks of Godliness that are found within the world. And when you use something — whether it’s music or food or whatever — when you use things with the right intention, you unlock those sparks and bring them back home to God.”

article originally ran in Cityview on August 9, 2012