My Page: Matisyahu “Homeward Bound”
The spiritually driven reggae singer channels the changes and challenges of the past few years into his new, intimate self-titled LP.
Typically, for me, a song is created in collaboration with one or two other people. Parts are crafted and added in different ways—sometimes by the live musicians I’m working with, sometimes by my producer. It depends on the record and the specific writing method. On my last album, Undercurrent, we used the band to write and produce a full-group set. The inspiration for that came from being on the road and improvising nightly with all these amazing players prior to writing the album. Having so many great, unique live moments made me want to try and record an LP that way.
This new, self-titled release was created in a very different way, and I didn’t have the band involved until it was time to play the songs live. In fact, Matisyahu was mostly made at home with only two people who quickly became family to me. Improvisation was still an important part of the writing process, all the way until the final stages, but it was more about what each of us brought to the table and how we manifested our shared vision.
We made Matisyahu during the pandemic so a lot of the lyrical content reflects my experience being at home with my wife and children. I even toyed with calling it Beis, which is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet and the first letter of the first word of the Torah, beresheit—to create, as in “He created the world.” It also means “house” or “home.” And, in some deep way, I believe that creation is linked to the idea of the home—and the creation of this world is linked to God looking for a home as well.
In the past, I’ve done a lot of writing on airplanes, in the back room of my tour bus, in my hotel room and while I’m waiting around for my show to start—but now I can safely say that I’ve done a lot of writing at home as well. It is preferable to write while not having six kids pulling at you; although, that, in itself, became the topic of a song on the new record, “Tugboat.” For sure, I have to get away and have some quiet time or at least listen to some quiet music when I am working on a song idea.
Sometimes I’ll write while I’m holding a baby and, oftentimes, I’ll gather content from my experiences being a dad. I usually amass some lyrical content in the time leading up to writing the music for a record. When I am writing a rap and poem, I’m almost always writing to music— random beats or instrumental versions of new songs I’m into. Later on, once the music has been written, I’ll use those ideas as jumping-off points for what will eventually become full-fledged songs after a lot of rewriting and organizing.
There is always a way to talk about an issue in your life authentically. It’s just about finding the right path. Sometimes it’s natural and sometimes you have to find a special method to put it out there in a beautiful way, even if it’s an ugly reality. All good music does that—blues, reggae, gospel. Ultimately, art can be expressed through chaos, but there are so many ways to express yourself creatively. It’s just a matter of how much an artist feels comfortable sharing.
And, at this point, I relate to every version of myself. While I might not listen to all my music anymore, when I perform I have learned how to channel the place that I was at when a specific piece of music was written—a place that allows me to find the original joy in that song. It’s a tremendous exercise for any hard-touring artist and not as easy as one might think.
My Jewish heritage also still definitely plays a major role in my music. It’s always been a huge part of my being, since before I moved to Crown Heights and became Matisyahu—since before my first Phish show in Worcester, Mass., and my experience with God that night.
There are other themes that run through all my records, though they can change over time. For example, family plays a larger role now than it did when I was recording Shake off the Dust, Youth or even Light. I was still a new dad and hadn’t even begun processing it all—I was on full blast between my career taking off, my religious journey and my newfound fatherhood. That being said, God, spirituality, Jewish liturgy and biblical references are a huge part of what I know. They are the places that I keep returning to.
My son Judah was born after Matisyahu was completed this past winter, but his birthday connects to the record in a really cool way. He was born on the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Shva’t, which is also the day that the sixth Chabad Rebbe passed. This Rebbe is the inspiration for the first song on the album. He was referred to as “not a regular guy” by the KGB because, after repeated arrests for continuing to practice Judaism, he was taken and tortured in Siberia. And, when they put a revolver to his head, he simply said, “This will scare a man who believes in one world and many Gods. I believe in many worlds and one God.”
It’s a story told by my Rosh Yeshiva; I included as an interlude on my first album, Shake off the Dust. And Matisyahu is my seventh record, representing the completion of a cycle over 18 years, which is an important number in Judaism. It means life and that is why I decided to self-title this album—a cycle completed and a new life. It’s also the day the leadership was passed on to the seventh and last Rebbe.
In many ways, the recorded versions of these songs will eventually become the definitive versions—though that is not always true for many of my favorite bands, as Relix readers know. Something happens to a song as you play it live. If you are willing to experiment, which I always am, you may find your songs evolving over and over again.
Having a diverse fanbase, I am continuously trying to find a balance between the evolved and the classic versions of the songs in my catalog. There is something to be said for both. And what I’ve found—during my 20-plus years making music—is that, if you stay open to both sides, then you’ll eventually find a flow that expands what your fans love about you while still reminding them why they loved you in the first place.
Matisyahu released his seventh studio album in March. Crafted during the pandemic, the self-titled record was produced and co-written by the Columbian-born, Brooklyn-based pop and electronic duo Salt Cathedral.