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The Hot Seat: Matisyahu

The Chosen One reps the south side and helps us celebrate eight crazy nights, mon.

Illustration: Rob Kelly

When Matisyahu first came onto the scene back in 2004, smart money wasn't on the Orthodox Jewish reggae star sticking around. After all, it was his gimmick and his beard that we loved, and not really his music, right? Yet here we are, five years on, and the 30-year-old artist and father of two is as popular as ever. This past August, he released his latest album, Light, then had his single "One Day" picked up in an ad campaign for the 2010 Winter Olympics, and is now playing eight different shows for the upcoming Hanukkah-themed Festival of Light concert event. We asked him the spiritual questions that weigh most heavily on our souls.

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Is it true you're going to play a different album for each day of the Festival of Light?
Yeah, someone just mentioned the idea yesterday [on Twitter], and I just keep toying with it. I don't know if I'm really going to do it or not, but wanted to see what people thought about it.

Probably tough to remember all the lyrics. You wrote some of those songs a long time ago. Do you ever blank out on stage and forget the words?
Yeah, all the time.

How do you deal with that?
Oohs and aahs, kind of. It doesn't happen to me too much these days, because I'm totally sober. But if I'm not, then a lot of times I'll forget words.

Half the nights of the Festival of Light are in Williamsburg. That area is a mix of hipsters and Hasids. Who are the biggest fans?
It's funny. In Williamsburg, there's the north side and the south side. South of Broadway is still one of the biggest Hasidic neighborhoods probably in the country. North side is all the hipsters. And now you have some of them moving into the south side, which is funny because the whole thing is to prove that you'll live with anyone, whether they're black, Hasidic Jews or whatever. Kids from the suburbs. I haven't gotten a lot of love from that community. I guess I get a lot of young fans, but the indie crowd is probably too snobby and more atheist.

People seem overly concerned about your weed-smoking habit, or lack thereof, since you're simultaneously a man of God and a man of reggae.
I love weed too much to smoke it. I'd smoke it all the time. When you're a musician, and it's just around you all the time, it kind of goes with the music and all that. I find that if I let myself smoke a little bit, then I get way too into it and then it kind of kills my whole spiritual hunger, and becomes a substance that I start filling myself with. I quit when I became religious, and then I realized that a lot of religious people smoke weed also. So that was part of my process, I guess. Now I kind of quit again.

I picture a lot of our religious forebears getting high as shit in the desert as they tended to their flocks of sheep.
Yeah, well, the whole Hasidic movement was started by this mystic healer named Baal Shem Tov. He lived in a cave by himself, and his parents died when he was very little. He's a real figure, but there's all these stories about him. He was an herbalist. He would heal people with herbs and stuff. And when you read his stories, you think for sure they were tripping on mushrooms. He'd have everyone hold hands in a circle, and then they'd close their eyes and ascend up to the heavens and see all the angels crying, and then he'd show them a scene of what the angels were crying about here on earth.

Wow. Your song "One Day" is being used to promote the Olympics. How did that happen?
As the musician, I'm usually the last person to hear about stuff. [Laughs] But they heard the song somehow, and it fits in with the whole Olympic theme of coming together.

Do you think it's the greatest blending of reggae and sports since Cool Runnings?
[Laughs] That's good. Yeah, for sure.

Would you ever luge, if given the opportunity?
Oh, hell yeah, I would definitely do it. I would just go for it. I think I'd put on some pads or something, though.

The Festival of Light concert event begins Dec 10.

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