Matisyahu discusses new album, evolving sound, and playing Aspen
If You Go …
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Oct. 7, 9 p.m.
Tickets and more information: www.bellyupaspen.com
With his 2004 debut “Shake Off the Dust…Arise,” rapper Matisyahu broke onto the scene blending hip-hop, reggae and rock sounds in high-energy songs that explored Judaism and faith. But Matisyahu, who plays Belly Up tonight, has evolved both musically and personally over the past decade, and says this is just the beginning.
“This is my life’s work,” Matisyahu said from a recent tour stop in Virginia. “Where I was 10 years ago was a very different place from where I am now, in terms of my vocal range and colors and styles and authenticity. There’s constant lessons you learn along the way. I have my work cut out for me for the rest of my life.”
His breakthrough hit, “King Without a Crown,” endeared him to hip-hop fans, while his appearance — including the traditional Hasidic dress and full beard — was unlike anything seen before on rap stages. Matisyahu’s since dropped his yarmulke and shaved his beard, but faith is still very much a part of his work. The title of his new album, “Akeda,” for instance, is Hebrew for “sacrifice,” and refers to the Biblical story of Abraham offering Isaac as a sacrifice to God.
Much of the new material blends Biblical imagery with Matisyahu’s personal experience and includes some more contemplative lyrics and more organic musical arrangements from his band, Dub Trio. “Broken Car,” for example, is a low-key hip-hop song with a light reggae arrangement.
“It’s all about there being weight to the words and the sounds,” he said. ”A lot of bands make a lot of noise, but the stuff that we love is something that really cuts through, and sometimes less is more.”
“Reservoir” is a personal, cathartic track with a stark arrangement behind it that blends the Old Testament with personal reflections, exploring the expectations of fans and the resistance he’s met from some since changing his physical appearance.
“It’s an emotional song for me,” he said. “It’s kind of like a prayer — kind of like talking about my relationship with my religion and all that, and I get into some more personal issues on that tune. So I wanted (the music) to be sparse so that you could really follow the storyline and the lyrics of the song.”
He can still turn out a reggae-rap banger, though. “Watch the Walls Melt Down” is an upbeat track focused on Matisyahu’s image as a “Hasidic reggae superstar.”
Early on, Matisyahu felt like he had to get dance floors moving and make waves as an outsider trying to break into the rap game. But as he’s matured and grown as a musician, the 35-year-old said he trusts audiences to follow him into some different artistic terrain.
“People say, ‘He doesn’t have the energy he used to have and he’s lost it,’ but others appreciate it,” he said. “I think when I started out I felt like I had something to prove to everyone, so my shows were really high energy and not that dynamic. At this point, I want to let the music breathe — the music and the show is a lot more like my personality than just saying, ‘Well, I’m going to go out there and kick ass for an hour and a half.’”
On the current tour, Matisyahu’s performing a mix of new and old songs — though some of the old songs may sound new to fans. “King Without a Crown” has taken on a darker, dance-hall sound, while the guitars on “Indestructible” have been swapped out for keyboards, drum pads and a more electronic aesthetic.
“I go back and listen to old songs that I know fans want to hear, that I’ve been playing for like 10 years, and I’m not that excited about,” he said. “So I’ll go back and give them a current vibe to what I’m feeling and what I’m listening to. They’re recognizable, but they’re altered.”
Matisyahu has played several shows in Aspen since 2006, when he headlined the Jazz Aspen Snowass Labor Day Festival. He’s since performed a handful of times at Belly Up, an experience he said brings out the best in him.
“We’ve had a few really good shows in Aspen at the Belly Up,” he said. “It’s a cool, intimate venue and that works well with my style of music.”
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