Even before the listener presses ‘play’ on Matisyahu‘s new album, they’re greeted with a subtle note of brilliance. The self-titled Matisyahu — out today (Mar. 25) on Fallen Sparks/Thirty Tigers, distributed by The Orchard — bears the image of the reggae singer, and the visage shows how much he’s changed since his first brush with the spotlight. The eponymous album is a reintroduction because Matis’s evolution is also present in the music. Matisyahu shows not just the progress of his musical journey since 2017’s Undercurrents, but his growth as a human and – most prominently – the adaptation to the chaos of the global pandemic.
“I had been writing for a year,” he says while talking to HollywoodLife. He chats on a Zoom call during a dreary pre-Spring morning. There’s a smile on his face and zest in his eyes when discussing how Matisyahu came to be. “I’m always writing,” he says, “and I had a lot of stuff written that I’d worked on. I wanted to work with some different producers and keep grinding and writing some stuff. And I had a whole spring 2020 lined up with producers to travel around and go do that.”
“And then COVID hit and kind of a beautiful mistake that happened,” says Matis. “In that sense that I wasn’t able to work with any of [those producers], but I got to spend a lot of time home.” Essentially grounded, Matisyahu shifted his focus to these scattered producers to two close friends nearby: Salt Cathedral, the Brooklyn-based duo of Juliana Ronderos and Nicolas Losada. “They were totally cool to come to the house and quarantine,” says Matis, “and work on the album.”
“Then it’s taken some time to get it going with the climate and everything [being] insane,” says Matisyahu. Had the COVID-19 pandemic not happened, it’s still unclear what kind of album he would have made. “I feel like the last five years of my life were really connected to the album,” he says, “and m life took a turn. I was on a path, and then I met my wife, and I had two new babies during COVID.” Matis credits the success of his marriage to his wife, Talia Dresler, as really teaching him how to connect with another person. “One on one,” he says, “like a partner.”
Matisyahu was previously married to Tahlia Silverman, and they’ve co-parented their two sons following their 2012 divorce. As he speaks with HollywoodLife, he and Talia have a two-month-old son, Judah, and their daughter, Esti River, is weeks away from celebrating her first birthday. Yes, a lot has changed for Matisyahu in the past two years, and the album had to change too.
“For me, it was always the business and making money being on the road and working,” he says. “I think the whole thing is connected. The relationship with her, the connection with my family, and then COVID hit. No touring and nothing and just being home. It definitely affected the album. It made a completely different record.”
It’s hard to mourn the album that was lost when Matisyahu shines on one of his finest albums ever. From the opening notes of “Not Regular,” Matisyahu radiates a warm and vibrant ambiance, one that fills a whole galaxy without being overwhelming. The previously released songs are a summary of the album’s multifaceted sound: “AM_RICA,” with its minimal production and freestyle construction; the boisterous “Chameleon,” boasting the first of two collabs with Salt Cathedral; and the surging “Keep Coming Back for More,” a testament to his new partnership and family.
Family and COVID were significant influences on the album, but they weren’t the only ones. Matisyahu is a product of a partnership between Matis and his producers. Working with Juli and Nico was a “very different type of situation” than the improvisation/jam process that went into making Undercurrents.
“It was three of us in a room, and I would pull up some lyrics, or they’d pull up a beat, and we would just start organically working together,” says Matisyahu. “So improvising in the writing process, not coming into it already like, ‘Okay, I’ve got the beat in advance, and I’ve written verse one and verse two.’ Very organic in a sense that we are just creating in a room, but very different than a band that’s been touring together and been doing it live in front of people and, you know, musicians and my band is all male as well.”
“This is a whole different [energy],” he continues, “where they were in my home. I had a brand-new baby girl with my wife; much more of female energy to the writing of this record.” Matis says that Juli and Nico would come to his home for weeks at a time when the three of them would work on music. “Then, they would bring it back to their place, and they would change elements of [the music] based on what I was doing vocally,” he says. “They’d send it back to me, come back [up] for a few weeks, and we’d rework it. So it was a process of molding it and reworking it, but never in like, ‘Okay, here’s the verse. Here’s the chorus. Here’s the bridge.’ Every song was treated as its own element.”
“It’s a lot more dynamic than anything I’ve ever done,” he says of Matisyahu. “And it’s a lot more storyteller in the sense that it’s based around the vocal. And that’s part of the reason we came to the self-titled Matisyahu name.” Matis also credits the open, almost expansive feeling on the album to the current sound of music today. “There’s space, like in rap music, in so many styles of music now. There’s fullness, but there’s so much space. And you know, the most obvious example is in pop music is Billie Eilish.”
“Pop music is produced, but it’s very spacious, very empty because there’s room for the vocal and the emotion,” he says. “There’s a lot of drops. There are a lot of moments where the music pulls out, and the vocal is still there — it brings you back to the storyteller. It’s one of the things I love in music. So one of the things I feel like has been lacking to some extent in my music albums and even live shows at times in the past is trying to find a way into the music.”
Matisyahu found that when working with Salt Cathedral. “Nic and Juli completely understand this, and it’s the kind of music they make,” he says. “When I started working with them, I think the first song we did was ‘Lonely Day.’ And it was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what I’m looking for. That’s what it is. Space.'”
Matisyahu marks the first time that Matis has worked with a female producer. The experience of working with Juli afforded him a chance to explore spaces he hadn’t before. ”
“Obviously, some producers work really great with vocalists. Some work really great with instrumentalists. Some work really great with bands,” he explains. “And then, each producer brings out a certain thing that they know. And I’ve only worked with male producers. I realized just after working with Juli – she would hone in on certain things that I love, but that I wasn’t necessarily so confident about or other producers in the past, haven’t been like, ‘Oh yeah, give us more of that.'”
He points to the album’s closer, “Raindance,” as an example. “I sang those lyrics over another beat earlier on with a different producer,” he says. “And it was a hard beat, right? But, I do a lot of things, and the way I approached it was kind of like rapping it – but with the sensuality to the way I do it. But, that producer right away was like, ‘Oh, let me hear you do the reggae thing.’ And I was like, ‘all right, cool.’ I can do this in that dance hall style, and I had a lot of fun doing it that way, and it sounded dope.”
“But, when I did it with Juli, it was the total opposite,” he says. She encouraged him to sing it, and that version closes out Matisyahu. “I think that, again, almost plays back into the self-titled Matisyahu thing. It’s sort of, in a way, losing a lot of the extra stylings and colorings and approaching it really telling a story, and finding kind of my voice without all of that.”
His voice is stronger than ever on this new album. For those who have followed him since Shake off the Dust…Arise to the breakthrough Live At Stubbs to the shifts and growths in Spark Seeker and Akeda, Matisyahu rewards them with music woven from the same connecting threads that tie his entire discography together. His voice, earnest lyrics, and natural charisma have not dulled. For those who have fallen off the path, or are meeting him for the first time, Matisyahu is a perfect point to start, an accessible portrait of the artist.
“I feel like I’ve experienced different aspects of life now, whereas in prior albums, maybe I certainly have had [some] experiences,” he says towards the end of the chat, “but at this point, it feels like it’s come to a certain place that I was looking for my whole life. And that always keeps pushing me to go further and push further and push further. And eventually, I guess, ironically, after all that pushing and all of that, I came back to this house right here in New Jersey. Right? And COVID hit, and I got to experience this other life of not working and really being part of a family, really being home. And I feel like I have a much more well-rounded experience of life now, for sure.”
Matisyahu is out today.