Matisyahu says he’s told the story a million times, but he didn’t seem too put out to tell it again during a recent conversation with GO! Magazine.
The rapper and reggae singer, known for melding Orthodox Jewish themes to alternative rock and hip-hop sounds, was discussing his most-recent visit to Bend, the city he called home from 1997 to 1999 and where he started his musical journey. Last summer, while visiting his 3-year-old daughter, who lives in the city with her mother, he ended up performing an impromptu free show at Crow’s Feet Commons after a chance meeting with a friend of the venue’s owner.
“Man, I used to sit in this park (Drake Park) and rap while my friend Aaron (Chambers, AKA MC Mystic) played a djembe, and we’d put out a spare cup for dollars, and now, I have an opportunity to do something cool like that,” he said from a recent tour stop in L.A. Matisyahu returns to Crow’s Feet Commons with his full band Sunday night.
“I feel like — not ownership, but you know what I mean. Bend has got such a thriving music scene right now. So many bands pass through Bend, and when people, other artists in bands that I know mention Bend, I’m like, yeah man, that’s my town. That’s where it all started for me, literally. There was a spot, Cafe Paradiso … they had a Thursday night open mic night that was literally the first place I ever started performing. When I was 18, I worked at Mt. Bachelor; I had a band together, it was the first band I was ever in.”
It’s been about 20 years since Matisyahu — born Mattew Paul Miller — first set foot in Bend. At the time a teenager struggling with drug addiction, he joined a wilderness expedition trip for teenagers. He ended up staying in the city, and performed as MC Truth alongside Chambers and others in the group Soulfori.
“I came to Bend sort of as a troubled youth, looking for guidance and trying to get out into the wilderness and figure out who I am and what I wanted from my life and where I wanted to go,” he said. “I knew I loved music. So now, for me to be able to come back to Bend where I’m at and play shows — I’ve had a music career; I’ve got a daughter who lives in Bend — it’s pretty incredible. It’s surreal, almost.”
With his daughter in Bend, Matisyahu is a frequent visitor. He’s blocked out a few days around the Crow’s Feet Commons show to spend time with his family and bandmates in the outdoors.
Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, raised in White Plains, New York, and now a resident of New York City, Matisyahu is one of many who relocated to Bend during the city’s ongoing boom. He’s noticed the rapid growth in the 20 years since he’s lived in the city, although he said for the most part, it has retained its soul and character.
“It has such a distinct sort of feel to it, even just the scents and the weather and the air,” Matisyahu said. “It’s one of those places, every time I come back, I breathe the air, and I go right back to being a 17-year-old kid.”
Matisyahu started logging hits on alternative and reggae radio in the mid- to late-2000s with songs such as “King Without a Crown” and “One Day.” His sound — a wide-ranging mix of reggae, hip-hop, alternative rock and pop — and Hasidic Jewish beliefs and image stood out on the musical landscape. Over the years, he’s toned down that image — he shaved his Hasidic beard in 2011, and performs in street clothes — but retained the intensity of his message and music.
His artistic idiosyncrasies make sense when viewed through the cultural melting pot of Bend, which continues to host thriving reggae and hip-hop scenes. Musically, everything fell into place for Matisyahu in Bend, but that fell apart when he moved back to New York City in the early 2000s. Unable to find a new band to perform with, he immersed himself in Judaism.
“It was kind of a blessing in the sense that it made me spend a lot of time in my room working on my craft,” he said. “In Bend, it was more about performing and learning how to be onstage and in front of people. When I got back to New York, it was like, OK, now. I would just buy these instrumental tapes and sit in my room and listen to them and just practice and write. I had this more inner time, introspective time, which led me into religion, and when I got into that, I really began to give up everything. I told myself it was just temporary, but at a certain point, I came to a place where I really — it became sort of clear to me at the time, I felt that music was not gonna be something that God wanted from a Hasid or from me.”
Clearly, he changed his mind, and after getting permission from his yeshiva, he began performing shows in New York City. “Thank God, I had these friends that went to music business school that knew me before, from the two-year period before I became religious,” he said.
Matisyahu continues to push his band and himself on his sprawling sixth album, “Undercurrent,” released in May, which follows last year’s electronic-tinged EP, “Release the Bound.” The album features eight songs created through heavy improvisation, drawing from one of Matisyahu’s biggest influences, Phish (with whom he shared a stage at Bonnaroo in 2005). Matisyahu didn’t start writing any lyrics until his four-piece band had finished recording the album’s instrumental takes.
“I have a certain vision for the sound, and that sound gets created while I’m on tour,” he said. “The only reason I’m able to be still playing music at this point is because of improvisation. If I had to go out and play my songs the way they are on the record every night, I would have lost my love for music a long, long time ago. So basically through improvisation, exploration onstage … the vision or the sound, the molding or the blending of genres or styles or feels, sort of starts to come together, and we record it.”