When I spoke with Matthew Paul Miller—stage name Matisyahu—he was in Minneapolis getting ready for a show at the iconic First Avenue theater. It's a strange coincidence that he was staying with a friend who helped him record some of the first music he ever wrote when he was living in Bend over a decade ago. In the mid-'90s, the rapper and beat-boxer best known for his quickly delivered positive, Old Testament-inspired rap, and for embracing and then ditching a signature Hasidic Jewish traditional beard and yarmulke, came to Oregon to get his life realigned.
"I'm 35 now, and I was 18 then," said Miller. "I had come to Bend to try to get my life together and get some direction and clarity. There was a place called Café Paradiso [where La Magie Bakery is now on Bond]. Thursday they had an open mic. I would rap freestyle about people walking by and put a bucket out."
Since then Miller has taken on and shed skins like a snake, always maintaining a radiating positivity to his body of work, the style of which he developed after leaving Bend for New York City and becoming a student of Judaism. Using spiritual and religious metaphors and imagery to stand in for real life experiences, the result is danceable, accessible yet profound hip-hop. Miller said that some of his first memories on stage performing music and acting were from his time in Bend, including a leading role in the controversial play Equus, best known for its mentally vulnerable nude scene.
"The naked scene was a lot for Bend to handle at that time," said Miller. "I remember one night performing that play, driving my motorcycle downtown, and jumping right up on stage [with his band]. At that time I was trying to decide if I wanted to pursue acting or music. It was when I was able to start pursuing the things I loved creatively. Bend was a place you could do that, it was not too big and too overwhelming. It gave me some great opportunity just being on stage and learn how to be a front man and work with a crowd, singing and rapping and performing."
Miller's return to New York City was followed by a whirlwind discovery and rocket to mainstream success with 2006's Live at Stubb's recording from a concert in Austin, Tex., featuring the song, "King Without a Crown" that broke into the top 10 on the modern rock charts. He toured extensively, becoming well-known for his radiating live show which incorporates everything from praying to crowd surfing.
His seventh release, Akeda (a reference to the story of Abraham) came out in the early summer of this year and expresses his ever-transitioning aesthetic.
"The last one was a really upbeat record, produced more like a pop record with dance tracks and layering, and it was a real positive upbeat record," explained Miller. "This record is more emotional, darker, moodier. More organic, raw, stripped back. It still has a hopeful element to it. It has that Matisyahu flavor to it. It's positive music but it deals more with the darker elements of life and experiences and emotional things I went through."
Through the shadows of his life, Miller's music and Miller himself still remain intensely spiritually inspired, eloquently combining skilled lyricism with religious vocabulary delivered with a reggae twist that gives him a style all his own.
"If you take a song like 'One Day' with a messianic vision of peace, that's an idea that's not based in experience, it's based on hope and peace found in the Old Testament," said Miller. "It's not about relationships in my life or my fans or my religion or breaking up for falling in love or my son or my daughter. That's one of the major changes [on Akeda], a move away from ideology. Bringing it into an emotional experience. It's more about those ideas becoming real life."
9 pm. Fri., Oct. 17
Midtown Ballroom, 51 NW Greenwood Ave.
$22.50. Tickets at bendticket.com