The conversation didn't start well when I asked singer Matisyahu to comment on his new album, Akeda.
"Have you heard it?" he replied.
Since it's not out until June 3, I told him the truth, that I had not.
"Listen to these songs," he said, "and call me back."
He sent links to three of the songs. "Watch the Walls Melt Down" has an upbeat hip-hop vibe. "Confidence" is the sort of reggae hybrid from which he made his name, most famously with 2005's Top 40 hit "King Without a Crown." That song transformed Matisyahu into an unlikely celebrity as the Hasidic star who could kick a rhyme while donning a beard, sidelocks, and yarmulke.
Most interesting of the new songs is "Reservoir," a lonely piano ballad that seems more British than Jamaican, inspired by Jarvis Cocker or Damon Albarn rather than Bob Marley. Although featuring Biblical references and a Hebrew prayer, there is a real sense of hurt, which I asked him about.
"The song expresses how I feel more than any sentence I could give you about it. My relationship with God is very deep and complex and emotional. I try to express that in the songs, that things aren't so clear-cut or black and white."
If you aren't up to date on the personal and religious turmoil to which he's referring, check out the video for "Watch the Walls Melt Down," featuring a Matisyahu who looks very different from the man that the world had come to know. Driving down the sunny Pacific Coast Highway, there is no yarmulke, his beard is shorn, and his hair is now light and closely cropped. This change in appearance has brought criticism, confusion, and even hate from fans.
"It can be painful when you put yourself out there and open up your heart, and people don't get it. Or worse, they put out a lot of judgment. It's difficult when people think I betrayed the Jewish people or fell off the boat."
Growing up in New York and going to public school, Matisyahu was Matthew Miller, a kid who came from a secular family -- though he received a Jewish education, attending Hebrew School three times a week. It was only at the age of 19 that he changed his name and immersed himself in a deeply religious life, spending many years within the Chabad community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Now based in Los Angeles, shedding rigid tenets while still searching for spiritual fulfillment, Matisyahu is not shy about sharing his pain, nor admitting that he does not have a thick skin. He truly wants people to like his music and feels hurt at reactions toward this latest stage of his journey. But there must be some positive support in his life for his religious evolution?
"My parents have been very supportive. I'm no longer together with my wife. That ended about a year ago. In terms of friends, there's been a mixture. Certain people obviously just wanted me as a friend because I made them feel cool and proud of their traditions, and now they think I'm no longer helping them out. There were some who were ashamed of me. I've had to deal with a lot of rejection and emotions."
But to be clear, not all of his friends rejected him, nor did he reject Judaism. He was in San Diego as we spoke, celebrating Passover with "a couple of my boys." He's also very proud of the eclecticism of the new record.
"Certain themes run throughout the record. Some songs have more of an electronic feel, others have a more pop feel. I don't try to create music by genre. I am a mixture. My music is a mixture."
As we wrapped up, I asked if he could describe his current relationship with religion. He apologized for not being able to.
"I've always had trouble in interviews. The only way I ever felt people could understand me was through my music."
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Matisyahu. An acoustic performance, as part of One Split Second, the second annual benefit for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. Saturday, May 10. Gibson Showroom, 180 NE 39th St., Miami. The event begins at 7 p.m. and ends at 11. Tickets cost $100 via ChristopherReeve.org/OneSecond.
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