Cat Stevens: The music legend gets back to his pre-Yusuf Islam roots

by Russell Baillie / 05 December, 2017

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Yusuf/Cat Stevens at his Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2014. Photo/Getty Images

The singer-songwriter who went from being Cat Stevens to Yusuf Islam and back again is making a return visit to New Zealand. 

Morning has broken in Dubai when Yusuf Islam finally comes on the line. The interview with the artist formerly – and again – known as Cat Stevens has taken a while to get going.

There’s been an exasperating comedy of inaudible speakerphones and dodgy reception while his eldest, Muhammad (who had his own singer-songwriter career under the name Yoriyos), has played patient go-between. Father and son are at the Dubai villa that has been a family home for the past decade.

Life in the largest, richest city in the United Arab Emirates, says the singer, once communications are established, is pleasant. He’s been up since sunrise.

“I’ve never had palm trees in my life before, so this is really something quite special … the neighbourhood is very nice and the people very friendly and I can go shopping by myself and people don’t bother me.

“I enjoy it so much with the weather and other perks.”

In a chatty London accent, the 69-year-old might sound like any other senior British rock star with a sunny bolthole to retreat to between tours, such as the one bringing him to New Zealand next month for the second time.

The four-show visit is billed as a 50th anniversary, though much of that half century was spent away from music after he converted to Islam in 1977.

In the 1960s. Photo/Getty Images

The “Cat’s Attic” show goes right back, he says, to his first 1966 single I Love My Dog and follows his career in roughly chronological order, with him talking about his life, too.

“It happens that my songs have always somehow been autobiographical, so it’s not difficult for me to do that.”

There is a new album to promote, too. Credited to Yusuf/Cat Stevens, The Laughing Apple sounds – and looks, judging from the storybook artwork he drew himself – like it could have been released during the singer-songwriter’s early 1970s breakthrough period.

That’s because, in a way, it is from back then. It’s the result of a studio reunion with producer Paul Samwell-Smith and guitarist Alun Davies, who worked on most of the albums between 1970 and 1978.

Some Apple songs date back even earlier. He wrote Mighty Peace in 1965 and it was the first composition the young singer-songwriter was ever happy with.

“That was like the first accomplishment in my songwriting book. And listening to that lyric, you’ll hear the whole message of my life is actually encased in that song. It’s strange because I was maybe 16 when I wrote it and you can hear that I’m talking about dreaming about being a child, but hang on … I was one.”

Some of the other tracks on the album are songs that never found a home when he was writing to spec for song publishers to place with other artists (as happened with his First Cut is the Deepest and Here Comes My Baby).

One he’s revived from that batch is the nursery rhyme-inspired Mary and the Little Lamb.

Cat Stevens in 1967. Photo/Getty Images

“In those days, you know, it was like everything was hit orientated, so you needed a good chorus. And that song has a really good chorus. I wrote an extra verse at the end to make it kind of good for the lamb,” he says of the song he started before and finished after he became a vegetarian.

The opening track, Blackness of the Night, originally appeared on Cat Stevens’ 1967 second album, New Masters, a record that largely sank without trace after his initial success with Matthew and Son earlier that year. Its lyrics carry a refugee tale that sounds like it could have been written last week.

“Yeah, absolutely. It’s the perpetual theme of youngsters trying to find a place in this world, which is mostly full of rejection of them, and trying to look for a future in a world that really has become so selfish and self-centred – as we can see in the development of the far-right movement. You know, immigration is human history. It’s the nature of the human being to move to where he can live and breathe in peace without being shot or starved.”

The album suggests that, even if he drops an octave and sounds like Leonard Cohen on Northern Wind (“I had a cold that day”), his voice has aged well.

“I think the voice is the purest vehicle of your spirit because it comes from our heart as well, and when we talk, we talk from the heart, and so I think that keeping a young heart keeps a young mind and will also keep your voice intact”.

And might a healthy lifestyle since 1977 have helped, too? “Well, that’s true.”

The Laughing Apple is the fourth album since he returned to releasing secular music in 2006 with An Other Cup. Its three predecessors were credited to just “Yusuf” but frequently carried cover stickers identifying them as a Cat Stevens record, really.

The new one is officially credited to Yusuf/Cat Stevens. With its reversion to songs he wrote back then and a production clearly referencing his heyday, it would suggest he’s embracing his pre-Islam self. Or that he’s now fine with the old branding, perhaps so old fans can feel comfortable about embracing him – and his new music.

Performing in 1970. Photo/Getty Images

Performing in 1970. Photo/Getty Images

“Um, I don’t think so. I think there’s no conscious effort on my part to make this anything other than what it turned out to be. Part of the nature of recording is that you just feel good singing some songs and you leave others behind. Somehow I got onto my older songs from 1967 … they’re kind of innocent but are clear in their message. It just ended up being part of the 50th, if you like, revival.”

Still, the wider music world has embraced the singer-songwriter anew in recent years. He was finally inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, the year he released Tell ’Em I’m Gone, an album produced by Rick Rubin, who has made a speciality of refurbishing the recording careers of veterans.

The Yusuf/Cat Stevens commemorative jaunt started in the US last year where at various shows he was joined on stage for grunge-influenced duets by Chris Cornell (on Wild World) and Eddie Vedder (Father and Son). In Nashville, Jack White made a stage cameo (Where Do the Children Play) after the pair had earlier gone into White’s Third Man Records studio to cut new live versions of Cat Stevens’ first two singles, I Love My Dog and Matthew and Son, straight to vinyl.

“It was one of those crazy moments where you go back into the analogue world. That was good fun.”

When he first wrote and sang those songs, Stevens was an aspiring teenage pop star who looked like he shared tailors with Austin Powers. He hadn’t long taken on the Cat Stevens stage moniker, having been born Steven Demetre Georgiou (Greek-Cypriot father, Swedish mother) and grown up in London’s West End.

In 1968, a serious bout of tuberculosis and a long convalescence induced a spiritual “wake-up call”. He emerged in 1970-71 as a beardy folk-pop troubadour. The handsome hippy was soon headed to an eventual 60 million album sales. Some of his songs borrowed from Christianity (Jesus, Morning Has Broken) and Buddhism (Moonshadow).

After his initial breakthrough, his albums eventually grew more ambitious and less hit-laden. Out went the acoustic singalongs and in came grand lyrical concepts and synthesizers – occasionally played or programmed by Bruce Lynch, the New Zealand bassist who featured on four Stevens albums and two world tours while wife Suzanne Lynch (nee Donaldson) sang backing vocals.

Stevens got another wake-up call when he nearly drowned when swimming off Malibu in 1975.

“I found my faith in the ocean. I rediscovered it again because, as they say, you never find a disbeliever on a sinking ship. And that’s just so true.”

In 1989, after his conversion to Islam. Photo/Getty Images

Having been given a copy of the Koran by this brother, Stevens converted to Islam in 1977, adopting the name Yusuf Islam a year later. He turned his back on secular music, married, raised a family, set up Islamic schools in London part-funded by his ongoing royalties, and in 2000 founded humanitarian charity Small Kindness.

From the mid-1990s, he started releasing Muslim spiritual and children’s albums, such as 2000’s A is for Allah.

Talking of whom, there was that business with Salman Rushdie in 1989. A controversy erupted about his supposed verbal support of the fatwa against the author for his Satanic Verses.

What he did or didn’t say still fuels columnists and radio hosts when the Cat Stevens name pops up in the media. It still exercises trolls in the comments sections of his old videos on YouTube, too.

He’s talked about it many times since and it’s hard to know what light can be shone on it as time runs out on a 20-minute interview.

His official website offers a frequently asked questions section with replies to queries such as “Yusuf Islam Wants to See Salman Rushdie Burnt, Right?” and “Did Cat Stevens Say, ‘Kill Rushdie!’?”

The answer to the latter concludes: “Sad too that no matter how many times I’ve repeatedly tried to explain my true position, journalists inevitably bring up this subject again and again; as if it was the only memorable thing I was reported to have done in my almost 60 years living on this planet (yawn).”

Being one of the world’s best-known Muslims has had other downsides. In 2004, he was refused entry to the US and his commercial flight from London to New York was diverted to land elsewhere, after his name – or one similar – appeared on a no-fly list. The UK’s Sun and Sunday Times weighed in with claims he supported terrorism. He sued and the papers quickly settled out of court and apologised. The damages went to victims of the Asian tsunami.

Between the near-drowning in the 1970s and the Department of Homeland Security in the 2000s, it seems the US has long been a risky proposition for him.

“You know what? Even before, way way way back, growing up in Britain, you never saw policemen with guns. So one of the first things I remember when I went over there was I was just shocked to see a gun so close on the belts of these policemen standing on the corner.

“That was the impression I had of America and I didn’t like to stay too long. In Los Angeles I always felt, ‘Hang on, the earthquake’s about to happen. We are right on the fault line here.’ There was always some danger.

“But, you know, I go there. I don’t have a problem, a little bit of extra patting down as I travel. Anyway, I don’t mind – I had that when I first came to Australia.”

Well, here in New Zealand, there might be a problem if you bring in any apples, laughing or otherwise.

“Well, that’s perfect. I’ve got to tell you New Zealand has such a wonderful reputation for its cleanliness and when I was there last time I’d never breathed such pure air as I did in the mountains near Christchurch. It was delightful. It was really delightful.”

Yusuf/Cat Stevens plays Spark Arena, Auckland, December 13 & 14; TSB Bowl of Brooklands, December 16; Horncastle Arena, Christchurch, December 19.

This article was first published in the November 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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