The live performance of Jewish rapper/reggae artist Matisyahu takes you beyond escapism and beyond entertainment. It’s a live concert experience inspired by a love for rock, reggae, dub, Jewish worship and hip hop. It’s absorbing, communal and eternally spiritual.
After I saw him at the House of Blues, I interviewed Matisyahu for a forthcoming feature for Popmatters. We talked about his latest album Light and it’s lead single “One Day” which is also the theme song for NBC’s “Countdown to Vancouver” Olympics campaign.
So in prep for the Winter Games, I’d like to share a few quick excerpts from our chat where Matisyahu explains the essence, influences and inspirations for his live show.
Then following the interview, I’ll give you all the details so you can enter Indaba’s “One Day” Remix Contest that starts February 11th and gives you the chance to record with Matisyahu and win lots of other cool prizes.
Let’s start with excerpts from my chat with Matisyahu:
LF: I’ve seen you grow as a performer and build on the intensity from your first performances such as Live at Stubbs and Lollapalooza 2006. How does your spiritual life influence your live show and what do you do to develop as a performer?
Matisyahu: There are so many things going on. It’s a holistic process for me during a show. I’m always focusing on the technical aspects of my voice. I try to make my voice do what I want. One big thing I do to improve on each show is to listen back to performances on CD while on tour. That’s something I do as often as possible while on tour. When I listen to the show the night before, most of the time, what I come away with is that I need to be quite more. That’s such a huge challenge for me. I always need to be quiet more. For some reason, I have this feeling when I get on stage that I’m the centerpiece and that everyone is depending on to take them somewhere.
So each show the goal for me is to create this equal playing field where I’m able to slip out of that mode a bit and be there in the music with everyone else as a listener, creator and participant. I want to create one cohesive vibe.
But when I’m on stage I’m constantly pulled out of that mindset, so there’s a big challenge to be quiet and not steer the ship, but let the ship steer itself. And a lot of that idea and mindset does come from my spiritual and regular meditative process offstage.
What do you do to prepare for that type of performance mindset? I imagine getting into that mental state is very difficult to do night after night.
It’s a combination of practicing it offstage and then onstage during each show. But some nights it doesn’t go the way I want it to, so I try to analyze what happened. I practice daily by actively allowing myself to let go and feel comfortable onstage so I can just listen to and absorb the music. When I listen to the show recording of the previous night, there’s always a point where I’ll ask myself ‘Why did I feel I needed to sing and fill in that same instead of just being quiet’ why did I feel I needed to fill up that space there and not comfortable with just being quite? Why couldn’t I just let that musical moment happen why did I feel I needed to control that situation?’
Then there’s the offstage that lets me reflect on what I do onstage. And, like I mentioned, the ideas based in the Torah and Jewish teachings give me balance when I take the time to practice them in my life. I take walks and do meditations and get in touch with the quite place within. During those moments of meditation I try to become part of the environment around me.
Do you use any type of guide for your meditations while on tour?
Actually, during the “Light” tour this will be the first time I’ll be doing specifically planned meditation while on the road. My friend and Teacher who helped co-write on Light will be with me for the next ten days. We’re starting to get in the specific work of Rabbi Nachman. We’re focusing on his book of stories called the Likutey Moharan. We’re going to study the text than turn the text into specific meditations. We’re thinking of taping our conversations and putting them up on the website so people can listen in if they want to.
During your shows, you and the crowd seem to all move as one. Are there certain performers or bands that you’ve admired or draw inspiration from to create that type of environment?
Early on, it was the classic reggae performers. Seeing videos of Bob Marley for the first time was a big influence on me. I loved seeing the way he approached the stage and music. He would get so immersed in the music and the moment. I always think of his performance as being very royal. You felt like he was a prince or some kind of a king. It was almost mythic for me watching him. It’s hard to describe or put how I feel into words, but I would say it was like watching and listening to royalty.
Phish was also a big influence. During their show I paid attention to how the lighting wasn’t focused on the band. It made them look very small. Granted they were always playing in arenas, but the band always looked tiny. But somehow the audience looked massive. It was all about the crowd. And the focus wasn’t so much on them as a band as much as it was on the communal experience that was happening, you could feel this energy being the audience no matter where you were. I try to bring all those things into to my show in one way or another.
The next influence was Sizzla and other dancehall artists. I loved the way they would hype up the crowd. Those were some of the things I was interesting in the early days. But today I’m not so much interested in creating hype of direct intensity during shows.
The final influence I’d have to say is my bass player Stu Brooks who’s also a member of Dub Trio. I saw him play at a hip hop show playing live rhythms once and I loved watching him move and get into the music. It made me want to scoop him up as my own bass player. I learned a lot about movement from him, too. And I don’t even know if you knows that but I always learn things buy just watching him during shows. And right now Dub Trio is my backing back on tour plus two other players I’ve added to the mix.
In some way or another, I filter all those influences naturally, but I don’t premeditate how I’m going to do a show. I just step on to the stage and take it from there. I don’t feel like any one show is the same. I try to go with what I’m getting from the crowd. It’s a balance between the internal and the external. I try to block the audience out at first, then once I’m in my zone, I start to interact with the audience gradually.
Indaba “One Day” Remix Contest
By entering the Indaba Music contest you’ll have the chance to win a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remix “One Day.” To enter, fans and fellow musicians can visit www.indabamusic.com/remixmatisyahu.
Here are the contest details:
- The “One Day” Remix Contest will launch on Thursday, February 11th –one day before the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics.
- Four-week submission period and a two-week voting period.
- A public vote will determine the top 10 winners to receive a pair of Skull Candy Agent headphones and be featured on both www.matisyahuworld.com and www.myspace.com/matisyahu.
- The First Place Winner and two Runners-Up, selected personally by Matisyahu, will also see a link to their mix Tweeted to Matisyahu’s 1.2 million followers and will each receive a year’s Indaba Music Pro Membership and a signed vinyl copy of Light.
- The First Place Winner will also be awarded the opportunity to participate in a one-on-one collaboration with the singer through Indaba Music.
Matisyahu will also play a pair of shows during the Winter Olympics — at The Whistler Village Square on February 14th, and LiveCity Vancouver on February 15th. Indaba Music will integrate news and content from the Winter Olympics throughout the contest period.
And if you have any questions about the contest and plan on entering it let us know — we’d love to hear about your experience!
Have fun and good luck!
In the meantime, see how other Matisyahu fans got creative during that House of Blues show.
All photos by Colleen Catania