"I realized if I was going to survive being a public figure," he said in a phone interview, "I was going to need to learn how to, basically, be a dick when I need to be, and put up walls and put up boundaries."
And so, when Matisyahu performs at Park City Live this Saturday night, he does so as a more self-actualized version of the individual and artist he aspires to be. How he looks and what he plays will be so because he chooses so.
Matisyahu — the Hebrew stage name of 37-year-old West Chester, Penn.-born Matthew Paul Miller — said it was a gradual process getting to that point. Initially, when his music career took off just a short time after he had decided to immerse himself in his Jewish heritage, he was all too happy to be what everyone else wanted.
That wore off quickly, however, when he found himself at odds with others within his enclave in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
"I became a representative for, actually, a very specific branch of Hasidic Judaism. And at first it felt good — it made me feel important, it made me feel a part of something, and representative of something," he said. "And then, I started to feel this tremendous pressure, because I lived in a very small community, where everybody knew me, where people would bring tour groups by my house, everyone had a comment — it's not a community where people have reservations about telling you what's on their mind, or what they feel or what their opinion is. All day long, people would be hitting me up for money or telling me how I should dress when I'm performing, or how I should sing, or what I should do. I felt very little understanding for me or what I was doing, and very small-minded people trying to have an opinion about it."
Matisyahu also felt increasingly trapped by the musical persona he'd created, convinced that chasing more mainstream success had led to him "catering the music" and compelled him "to try to put on shows that were really entertaining and really high-energy and uplifting even when I didn't feel that way. It was like putting on a mask."
The eventual tipping point came when "one reporter caught me in Israel one night after I'd had a few drinks" and Matisyahu, already questioning the depth of his faith, went on record dissociating himself from the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic community.
The backlash was swift and severe, but ultimately liberating.
"At first, people were really upset. And then I started to feel this tremendous freedom, and I think everyone did. I think, in that community, people were like, 'OK, he doesn't represent us anymore — he can kinda do what he wants and we can reap the benefits of him making Judaism cool,' " he said. "… What I realized is, when you have some kind of public image, or something that goes beyond the music, there's a benefit to that, but there's also a downside, in that there's a lot of people that claim to understand you and like you that have very little knowledge of your music. It's just that I'm representing something to them in who I am — and once that changes, those people feel like I lied to them or I tricked them, or whatever it is. In fact, any of the fans or the people who listened to the music along the way, they get it right away, they're like, 'This is the story he's been telling all along.' "
Matisyahu subsequently shaved off his beard, cut and dyed his hair, stopped wearing the wide-brimmed hats, and moved to Los Angeles.
He also changed up his music. For a time, the reggae-and-rap that had defined his style became more subdued, sublimated under a poppier sound born of a collaboration with producer and Dr. Luke protégé Kool Kojak.
Now, Matisyahu is evolving again.
After issuing a five-track EP last year, "Release the Bound," which featured team-ups with EDM artist The Polish Ambassador and Colombian pop duo Salt Cathedral, he has taken yet another direction for his latest project.
"It became very clear to me, the sound I want to create," he said, which did not entail "collecting beats from different producers and then writing over them." Instead, he put together a four-piece backing band and together they created a fusion of hip-hop, reggae, alternative rock and "jazz improv," that, when issued later this year, will "be a double-LP. But there's only eight songs, and the track length is approximately, like, 10 minutes a song. So it's really a journey." The single "Step Out Into the Light" is out now.
The lyrics, which he started crafting only after all the music was recorded and "could stand on its own," emerged during a six-day stretch in which he "locked myself in a hotel room for six days in Brooklyn," leaving only to "walk back and forth between the hotel and the studio and just lay down vocals."