One From The Vault: Matisyahu

As a teenager, Matthew Miller wasn’t much for following rules. He left his White Plains, N.Y., home to follow Phish on the road, camped out in Colorado and spent time at an Oregon wilderness camp trying to find what was missing in his life.

Finally, a trip to Israel helped him connect to his Jewish identity and eventual rebirth as Matisyahu, the Hasidic reggae star that concert-goers can’t get enough of.

Matisyahu had tried life as a musician prior to his current success. While in Oregon, he formed a band, SoulforI, that performed at festivals, bars and clubs in the area. But it didn’t catch on.

“That time, it was sort of like a rat on a wheel running around in circles if the smallest little thing happened,” Matisyahu told Pollstar. “When I was 18 and doing it in Oregon, you can chitchat and make it more glorious. But when I was already an adult of 24, 25 years old trying to make a real living and a life with it, it’s definitely tough.”

Photo: John Davisson
The July 25, 2005, issue of Pollstar.

Following his return to New York, Matisyahu’s journey into Hasidic Judaism and his love for reggae started to gel. He met Aaron Bisman of J Dub Records in 2001 through mutual friend Ben Hesse just prior to beginning a year of serious religious studies.

“J Dub was already in formation as a not-for-profit organization that set out to really promote new Jewish music and bring Jewish music into the cultural conversation,” Bisman told Pollstar. “Matisyahu was already this great example of what we sort of believed was out there and was possible. He really became our flagship artist. We started working with him right away.

“Then he sort of disappeared into yeshiva. He went and studied in a traditional Jewish setting in Crown Heights for a year. When he emerged from there, he was like, ‘OK, I’m ready to do this. I want to be a musician. I have something to say and music to make.'”

Matisyahu said music had been a part of his life since he was a kid, but reconciling being a touring musician with his religious life was a lot to think about.

“I needed a year to just settle into being religious,” he said. “At that time, they kind of had to pull me out a little bit. I wasn’t too sure if it was the right thing for me to do at that point.”

But Bisman and company starting booking gigs around New York City and Matisyahu quickly built a fan base. The label co-founder, who now manages the artist, said pitching Matisyahu, who wears his faith’s traditional dress of a white shirt, black pants, long beard, yarmulke and prayer shawl could be a challenge.

“We’d go in and pitch him to people, whether it was an agent or a publicist or a club, and always there was sort of that, ‘What?'” Bisman said. “Then it was like, ‘Just see him’ or ‘Give us like 30 seconds.’ We’d throw on a CD or show them a press piece or video clip and, every time, jaws hit the floor.

“We had to prove ourselves and prove that what he was doing was authentically performed reggae. He wasn’t just using reggae as an outlet to do something else. Reggae was actually the art form he found his voice in.”

Matisyahu, backed by guitarist Aaron Dugan, bassist Josh Werner and drummer Jonah David, hit the road and was soon selling out venues at every stop. While he sings about his love of God, he said it’s never to preach, only to share.

“We really have this element of sneak attack with a lot of audiences where people don’t really know sometimes what to expect,” Matisyahu said. “They get pleasantly surprised when they hear the music. I think initially because of the religious thing it was filling a gap, kind of.

“That’s definitely key, to not preach. It’s not about pushing people; it’s about life and trying to find some kind of order in the chaos. I explain that and it comes through the music on its own.”

Photo: Henry Diltz
Matisyahu, guitarist Aaron Dugan, bassist Josh Werner and drummer Jonah David

Matisyahu’s J Dub debut, Shake Off The Dust … Arise, was released in 2004 and sold about 12,000 copies in less than four months. Bisman said Or Music, and its relationship with Epic Records, came on board at that time and Live At Stubb’s was released earlier this year.

“We realized we really needed to begin thinking about distribution and the right setup for us,” Bisman said. “A number of labels sort of approached and had an interest in Matisyahu. Then Michael Caplan and Larry Miller from Or Music approached and really had a vision. They had ideas on how to grow it; they’d done it with Los Lonely Boys.

“It happened sort of quickly, but that’s also in praise of Matisyahu’s success and growing buzz that Epic wanted to get involved quicker than I think all of us initially expected.”

Matisyahu is scheduled to tour through October including several dates opening for Phish’s Trey Anastasio, with whom he shared a stage at this year’s Bonnaroo music festival.

He said performing with Anastasio was “awesome.”

“It’s like full circle for me. It’s amazing what can happen because when you’re 17 years old, you dream,” Matisyahu said. “And I always had that dream that I would be playing music in that way.”