It’s been a year of transition for Matisyahu. Since the beginning of 2011 he’s gone from being primarily known for his blistering, rock-influenced live reggae shows to the man behind the global pop anthem ‘One Day’ — NBC’s official song of the Vancouver Olympics. He’s left behind the Hasidic Jewish enclave of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and moved to Los Angeles. And most significantly, he’s shaved off his trademark beard and forelocks and distanced himself from the religion that once helped define him. Now, he’s back with a new album, Spark Seeker, out July 17 — a sleek, pop-influenced collection of tracks produced by Kook Kojak (Ke$ha, Nicki Minaj) and recorded in Los Angeles and Israel. He talked to TIME about the album, his faith and how he defines himself now.
TIME: Let’s talk a little bit about the album first. This is a bit of a departure for you.
I tend to look at it as an evolution. I think my music has always been a mixture, depending on whom I’m working with — what band, what musicians, what producer. This record definitely has more of a sort of pop, urban hip-hop kind of feel to it, mixed with a world music vibe because we recorded in Israel and got a lot of Middle Eastern sounds from over there.
You worked with producer Kool Kojak on Spark Seeker, who’s also worked with Nicki Minaj and Ke$ha. How did that partnership come about?
A friend of ours hooked us up just to try writing together, and we wrote ‘Sunshine’ in one day. That kind of kicked it off. Every time I’d be back in L.A. we’d work on more music together and before we knew it we had half a record.
Your fans have definitely gotten used to hearing a certain, rootsier sound from you. Have you gotten a sense of what their reaction to the new stuff is going to be yet?
I think it’s going to be good. I mean the last song I put out, ‘One Day,’ had a very universal feel and a pop vibe to it. So I think my fans will go where the music is. And I think the music is as good as it ever has been, regardless of what genre it is or what style it fits into. I’m really proud of it — I’m proud of the words, I’m proud of the melodies, I’m proud of the instrumentation and the music. I think it has a strong message and it’s going to help a lot of people.
The past year or so has been pretty busy for you. There have been a lot of changes. For most of your fans, the big one came last December when you tweeted a picture of yourself without your beard and forelocks, and wrote, ‘No more Chassidic reggae superstar‘. What was behind that decision?
I just felt it was time to let go of that look. Because my identity became wrapped up in that, and even though inside I was starting to shift my ideology a bit, I still had the same outward appearance. It was just time to let go and try something new.
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Do you no longer consider yourself a part of the Hasidic community?
Well, I lived in Crown Heights for a decade. I moved there when I was maybe 20 or 21 and I was there for 10 years. I got married, I had three children, and we stayed in the same apartment I had when I got started. So that was a very monumental part of my life and I learned a lot from immersing myself into a culture in such an extreme way. I feel like I got a certain knowledge of Judaism that I couldn’t have gotten from reading at the library. And I gained a lot from the experience. But there were also, you know, darker sides as well.
Darker sides to the faith or darker sides to the experience?
You’re seeing the ugly side of religion, of people you know. I was just this kid who was trying to be like every other Hasidic person from this neighborhood, and then I had this music career. And all of a sudden I was selling hundreds of thousands of records, and you know, in this little community, you get eaten alive. Everybody knows you, everybody wants something. At one point it was wearing a hat — I’d decided I wasn’t going to wear a hat anymore — and then I got chewed out at shul because someone said, ‘Well the kids are looking up to you, don’t you think you should?’ Everyone always has an opinion. And a lot of times people in that community, their opinion is very strong. So you have to learn how to put up with that. But at the same time it was beautiful, you know? My kids were in school there and we had friends there. I met good people.
Was it harder to go back to Crown heights after being on tour? Or was it harder to leave Crown Heights and go on tour?
I enjoyed coming home to Crown Heights. There was a certain order to life there. You know, Shabbos, spending time with your family, eating and being in shul. Prayers at nighttime, prayers in the morning. Everyone knows everybody, you walk your kids everywhere. It’s a real community, and growing up in the suburbs of New York, I didn’t really ever sense that type of community. That was one of the cool parts of it.
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Do you get recognized when you walk down the street in Hasidic Brooklyn, or recognized by your other fans?
Well, I haven’t been back to Crown Heights and I haven’t really been into many Hasidic neighborhoods since last winter. I spend a lot of time at home and a lot of time on the road. So, I haven’t had to deal with it too much. But in general, yeah, I’m a lot less noticeable. I slip under the radar.
Do you still consider yourself a Hasidic Jew?
I don’t really know if I would consider myself anything in particular. I would say I’m inspired in a Hasidic way but I certainly don’t keep all the customs and rules I once did.
We’ve talked a bit about, ‘Why Hasidic Judaism’? Can we talk a little bit about ‘Why Reggae’? What drew you to the music you first started playing?
My mother’s sister married a man from Barbados and my cousins were raised in Barbados. So we traveled down there, they came up every summer for camp, and I started paying attention to their music. And that was the first place I ever remember hearing reggae and liking it. After that I got into Bob Marley, and I went and saw Israel Vibration, and they changed my life. There was something about the heaviness of the music, the meditative quality, the spirituality of the lyrics with all the Old Testament references. It was just the full package for me.
You took the name Matisyahu when you converted originally to Hasidic Judaism, which is the Hebrew version of your birth name, Matthew. Would you ever going back to being Matthew Paul Miller?
To some people, to my parents, that’s who I am — to my sister, to my old friends. I still feel a strong connection with my Hebrew name and with Judaism. I may not blindly agree with every dimension of it as I once tried to do, but it’s still so much a part of me.
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