Matisyahu is not quite a man who wears many hats, but he is perhaps a man who wears one hat with infinitely many sides — namely those of reggae, hip-hop, rock, rap and beatboxing.
Most famous for his songs “One Day” and “King Without a Crown,” the Jewish American musician has always had an affinity for blending what seem like opposing styles together into his own unique sound.
While primarily raised in New York City, Matisyahu spent the first few years of his life in Berkeley, recalling the Grateful Dead concerts that his parents would bring him to as a young child. He’ll be returning to the Bay this Thursday to play a show at San Francisco’s Regency Ballroom, touring his most recent album, Undercurrent.
Although the suggested artist page on his Spotify directs viewers almost exclusively toward reggae artists, Matisyahu’s newest album contains considerably less reggae influence than some of his older music.
“Whenever different opportunities arise … I use them to make music — always music that feels right to me, I’ll never compromise that, but always different directions, and sometimes even (different directions) at the same time,” he explained in an interview with The Daily Californian.
Clearly, Matisyahu has no intention of settling on one conventionally defined sound anytime soon.
What really stands out about Undercurrent, though, is not simply the beauty of the final product itself but the unique production that went into making the album. Its songs initially began as the spontaneous improvisations that Matisyahu and his band would do at their live shows, which they recorded and then rehearsed for their album.
“We went to a studio, Studio G, and … self-produced a record with kind of long songs, songs that kind of resemble some of the improvisations that happen live during our show, and then recorded an instrumental record. Then I went back and crafted songs and lyrics from them.”
Touring this sort of free-flowing, jam-session-based album is, to Matisyahu, something of a gift in that it doesn’t call for any reworking of the music to fit the live stage.
“Certain songs I’ve released with digital drums or lots of synthesizers, you always have to do this reinterpretation, but these songs are actually born from the jams from live shows, so it’s very natural to come back now and play them. You know, we do them differently night to night, but they were born from this kind of live experience, so it’s really, it’s kinda nice.”
This album is, in the simplest sense, all about the music — but, at a deeper level, it’s all about the moment. The whole idea for this album was inspired by those moments onstage where the music happens organically. As Matisyahu puts it, he and the band get into these “zones,” which the album tries to capture and recreate.
“With this record … it’s kind of like no fucks given, and it’s kind of like there’s no writing for radio or writing … to make them like quote-unquote better songs or easier to listen to.”
The self-production of Undercurrent gave rise to a freeform style and lyrical vulnerability that feels deeply moving and unquestionably spiritual, in a way that perhaps it couldn’t have been with the influence of outside producers. A testament to Matisyahu’s commitment to his craft — especially in this, what he calls his “most artistic record” — he makes no sacrifices in the way of authenticity.
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While perhaps not as widely popular as some of his other hits, Undercurrent is simply the most recent edition of a man exploring and combining a variety of musical interests — putting aside what kind of sound sells best.
“In the past I have made different types of records, because I’ve always had like a lot of different interests, and with music as well, you know I’ve always had a lot of musical interests, and I think that’s kind of part of what I am or what I do is bringing together things from different worlds that seems seemingly distant. Not only in music, but also in culture with the whole reggae thing and the Jewish thing and finding the connecting point between them and reinterpreting and then kind of putting my own spin on it.”
If there is courage in living your truth, then there is certainly courage in making music of it. Matisyahu embraces all of his truths through his sound — unapologetically his own.
Matisyahu will be performing at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco this Thursday, Nov. 16.