Tour illuminates Matisyahus search for divine spark

Matisyahu, who made waves last year by shaving off his beard and proclaiming his transformation from Hassidic reggae star to just plain star, is kicking off a national tour with a show at San Francisco’s Nob Hill Masonic Center on the first night of Chanukah.

The show will include songs from his most recent album, “Spark Seeker,” released last summer, as well as classic hits such as “Jerusalem” and “King Without a Crown.” The acoustic performance on Saturday, Dec. 8 starts his annual Festival of Light tour. An hour before the show, he will help light the Union Square menorah at 7 p.m.

Matisyahu’s new look photo/mark squires

Although millions recognize Matisyahu for his black hat, payes and bushy beard — all of which he no longer wears — the 33-year-old musician chafes at being pigeonholed into one look or musical style. He spent a decade in New York’s Crown Heights neighborhood and was part of the Chabad-Lubavitch community, which he says was a big part of his life, but not the only thing that defines him.

“It was a lot of learning, a lot of experience, and my inspiration spiritually comes from that,” Matisyahu said by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “So it’s still a part of my life, but in a more internal kind of way.”

A video for “Sunshine,” a song off the new album, offers a glimpse into his transformation, which he says began several years ago. Filmed in the Israeli desert, it shows the singer hanging out with Bedouin children and riding a motorcycle — his hair dyed blond, his face smooth-shaven.

But Matisyahu doesn’t want to dwell on his appearance. He is still Jewish, he said, and his music is infused with Jewish imagery and themes. “We live in a world where people tend to think in extremes and categorize with ultimate statements,” he said. “While it’s true that at one point it would have been pretty accurate to describe me as ‘Hassidic reggae,’ for most of my career my music has been a blend, a mixture.”

Matisyahu says his latest album is about the impermanence of the physical form and searching for more meaning — in essence, something he’s been doing all of his life.

Born Matthew Miller and raised in upstate New York, he always marched to the beat of his own drummer. He hated school, started smoking marijuana and dabbling in hallucinogenic drugs, then dropped out to follow Phish, the Grateful Dead tribute band, around the country.

“All along there has been a common theme in my life, a spark I have been searching for since I was that 17-year-old kid dancing in arenas and freestyling in parking lots for change to make it to the next show,” he said. “The spark-seeker is digging and searching for truth, for meaning, for inspiration, and is willing to let go of everything to find that truth.”

But the freestyling, beatboxing seeker also needed structure and rules, which Orthodox Judaism provided. After a trip to Israel at 19, he joined the Lubavitcher movement, married an Orthodox woman and had three sons with her.

“At a certain point I felt the need to submit to a higher level of religiosity, to move away from my intuition and accept the ultimate truth,” Matisyahu wrote a year ago to explain his decision to shave his beard. “I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules — lots of them — or else I would somehow fall apart. [Now] I am reclaiming myself. Trusting my goodness and my divine mission.”

Asked about the reaction within the Hassidic community to his transformation, he simply says: “If anyone is a real friend, they will be a friend. If I was living there [in Crown Heights], I’m sure I’d have to deal with it more, with people’s attitudes about what I did that’s right or wrong.”

Last year, Matisyahu moved with his family to L.A., where he says the community is a lot more relaxed.

As he prepares for another national tour, Matisyahu is focused on the spiritual force that has always been central to his life: his music.  “The thing I have to offer, and what I have always offered, is my music,” he said. “The fact that I was religious or that I represented something to people was a side. But at the end of the day, it’s the music that inspires people.”