Exploring the Juxtaposition of Undercurrent: A Conversation with Matisyahu


9 June 2017
Megan Caruso

Matisyahu’s hectic schedule and lifestyle proceed him – as a man who has taken on the full artistic direction of his latest release, Undercurrent, he’s layered with responsibilities that span vastly beyond the creation of music alone. There to assist in his busy lifestyle was his receptionist of the moment, his six-year-old son, willingly answering the phone and demanding to know my business with the artist. Matisyahu was on his way to film the final scene for his latest experiment, the movie-styled visual component to Undercurrent.

 

"It’s called Undercurrent because it flows from one thing into the next."

 

Born and raised in New York City, a passion ignited in Matisyahu at an early age when he began delving deeper into the exploration of music, of Judaism and spirituality, and of personal growth. These three subjects mingle intermittently within each intention behind Matisyahu’s work, and they are what drive him to keep on creating.

“There’s always been one general approach to my life, which is a yearning inside that keeps me on the search,” Matisyahu said. “I’m always looking for something, whatever it is, like with music or religion; it’s just some kind of pull towards expansion into the unknown, and into myself.”

A commitment to honor and support his own artistic expression and direction brought Matisyahu on the path to his latest record. Admittedly, he approaches each new venture as an open-ended art project rather than an album, dismissing the checklist of pop-radio norms for his own personal exploration.

With the budding idea of his sixth studio album, Matisyahu was ready to merge two aspects of his life that don’t always align: his produced music and his live performance.

“I do weird ass shit at my shows,” he states. “I go through all my old songs and change them and mix ‘em up, bring lyrics in different places and changing melodies. My show is like improvisation, this mish-mosh of all my songs that flow in and out of each other. That’s exactly how this record is. Literally, it’s called Undercurrent because it flows from one thing into the next.”

With tracks that stretch on for lengths of nine or ten minutes, Undercurrent has been dubbed a “journey” by Matisyahu and those he had shared it with previous to its release. But this is familiar territory as he has always set out to ignite a journey within others, both on stage and off.

“For me, the time that music affects me the most is when I’m running or driving, as the soundtrack to what’s happening in my life,“ Matisyahu adds. “That’s the kind of music I try to create, something that people can just walk, get into a walking meditation to and just vibe with.”

The journey didn’t end with the completion of Undercurrent. In the creation of his 2014 album, Akeda, Matisyahu worked closely with a single director for 4 of his music videos, using the same characters in each video to unfold his story. This time around, the thought occurred to him to make one visual component that spanned the length of the entire album, further exploring the themes of Undercurrent.

The film-styled visual features Matisyahu as a doctor in an old insane asylum tending to his patients who are also the members of his band. The doctor goes rogue with his patients as they set off on a cross-country adventure to find the fantasy girl one of the patients is chasing. The movie was in the works throughout the duration of Matisyahu’s most recent tour, but this was news to the rest of the crew as it came to fruition.

“We actually shot the majority of [the film] on the road,” he mentions. “I didn’t even let my band members know what we were doing. Basically, they’re acting in this movie and they don’t even know it.”

Matisyahu spent nearly three weeks writing the storyline for the film with a close friend from Jerusalem before he decided on how to capture the most authentic visual pieces he could.

“As we went through and we wrote out the scenes it was kind of like, these things happen in everyday life on tour to some extentLet me see how much of this I can get done without them realizing what we’re doing.”

The film ends with plot twist after plot twist, as Matisyahu comes to find that he was never the doctor, but a patient in the hospital himself. The fantasy woman? She was his therapist all along. Several “flips” like this occur throughout the film, all while flowing seamlessly with the eight extended tracks of Undercurrent.

The beginning of the album juxtaposes Matisyahu’s past and his hopeful future, as he compared the first two tracks off the album, “Step Out Into the Light” and “Back to the Old.”

“'Step Out Into the Light' is a celebration of my approach thus far, even though I’ve changed a lot and gone through phases, whole-heartedly. 'Back to the Old' is what’s right in front of me: the people that I see, places that I be. That’s the next phase for me, appreciation of what you have instead of feeling like that driving force [of exploration] is starting to go away.”

Matisyahu knows that his fans are receptive to the unexpected, and this is something that he wholeheartedly embraces. He worries less about what he needs to do to entertain and more about what he needs to do to help his fans delve into their own exploration of self and surrounding.

“Whether they’re surfers or punk rock atheist kids, [my fans] are coming for a religious experience,” Matisyahu said in closing.

And he gives them just that.



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