Cat Stevens makes comeback
NEW YORK: The singer-songwriter Yusuf enjoys the reaction he gets driving through London in his '60s-vintage VW Kombi van which is custom-painted with artwork from his days as the artist known as Cat Stevens - including images depicting such huge hits as "Peace Train" and "Moonshadow." "Every time we rode that thing across town we'd get this amazing buzz. People would just look at it and smile and that's the kind of message I'm sending out with my music," said Yusuf, now 60.
The VW van is prominently displayed on the gray-bearded Yusuf's new CD "roadsinger (to warm you through the night)," symbolising his desire to embrace his Cat Stevens legacy. He is picking up where he left off 30 years ago when he became a Muslim, changed his name to Yusuf Islam and walked away from the "Catmania" of pop stardom.
Yusuf, who prefers to use only his first name to foster a more intimate relationship with listeners, now feels he can square his Muslim beliefs with a return to the introspective folk-tale and storytelling songs that made Cat Stevens one of the most popular artists of the 1970s, with career sales of more than 60 million albums.
"I wanted to prove that there's music in this Muslim," Yusuf said by telephone from his headquarters in London, near one of the Islamic schools he founded as part of his charity work using royalties from his Cat Stevens recordings.
"I think Muslims should work a little bit harder at making people a bit more at ease and to create an atmosphere of happiness, which is what we need. I think that's what this record does, that's what my music used to do and it still does," he said, a few days before heading to Los Angeles for his first West Coast performance in 33 years, mixing tunes from the new album with past hits like "Wild World" and "Father and Son." After his singer-songwriter son, Yoriyos (Muhammad Islam), inspired him to pick up the guitar again, Yusuf tested the waters with the 2006 comeback album "An Other Cup," his first collection of pop songs in 28 years. That record mixed Eastern and Western influences, using new technologies and overdubbing that sometimes overshadowed his voice and guitar.
On "roadsinger," Yusuf says he's returned to the "very stripped-down musical approach" - with minimal overdubbing - that he adopted for his introspective 1970 folk-rock album "Mona Bone Jakon" and the breakthrough "Tea for the Tillerman" after he had nearly succumbed to tuberculosis.
"A lot of people were very complimentary about `An Other Cup' and they were extremely surprised that I still sound like me," he said. "The only other point they made was that they wished there were more of the bare guitar-style songs which I used to do in the `Tea for the Tillerman' days." Yusuf had a further epiphany on a flight to the U.S. when he listened to an inflight music channel featuring the L.A. vibe of the 1970s with singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Carole King, James Taylor and Jackson Browne.
"I realised that I was so much a part of that sound and perhaps it wouldn't be a sin if I just got back to doing some of that kind of style again," he said with a laugh. "I've come back to a very simple approach to songwriting and recording." Yusuf says the album's opening song, "Welcome Home," symbolises his return to what he does well. The darker "The Rain" - about Noah and the flood - was reworked from a song on a '60s demo tape.
The gentle piano melody of "Sitting" (from 1972's "Catch Bull at Four" album) introduces a new song featuring a phrase by the 13th century German theologian Meister Eckhart, "To be what you must/ You must give up what you are," that Yusuf says sums up his own spiritual journey.
Yusuf also deals with the prejudice he's encountered as a Muslim.
"The Roadsinger" tells of a troubadour who's treated like a stranger on returning to his hometown but then finds "the path to heaven ... in the desert sand" of a foreign country. The singer now spends part of each year in Dubai, which he describes as "a modern Muslim country with a futuristic approach." A father of five, Yusuf says he was "quite horrified" at some newspaper headlines about him. In 1989, he says, British media misinterpreted his remarks in a lecture as supporting the Iranian fatwa condemning author Salman Rushdie. In 2005, he won libel damages from two British papers after they falsely claimed he supported terrorism.
"I couldn't recognise myself, and so it's no wonder that no one else could either," said Yusuf, whose charitable organisation Small Kindness helps children in the Balkans, Iraq, Darfur and Indonesia.
"That's why again, it's so important that I've come back to singing what I feel and people can get much closer to me that way than by reading the headlines." "Boots and Sand," a bonus track on the CD sold through iTunes and Best Buy, with backup vocals by Dolly Parton, Paul McCartney and Allison Krauss, takes a lighthearted look at the 2004 incident when he was denied entry into the United States because his name was similar to one on a U.S. government "no-fly list." Three of the songs on "roadsinger" - "World O' Darkness," "This Glass World," and the instrumental "Shamsia" - were written for "Moonshadow," a musical about a boy's journey from a world of perpetual night to a world of light, that Yusuf hopes will open on London's West End next year. The score also includes such older songs as "Father and Son," "On the Road to Find Out" and "The First Cut Is the Deepest." The musical takes Yusuf back full circle to his pre-Cat Stevens days when the child born as Steven Demetre Georgiou heard music coming from West End theaters near his parents' Moulin Rouge restaurant.
"Musicals were my first love and then came the Beatles," said Yusuf. "It's amazing that after all this time, after having written so many songs and lived so much of my life, now having the opportunity to put all that into a musical is quite a miracle." He started relating again to his past songs in 2000 when he was asked to help produce a boxed set of his work. Then he gradually began performing his old songs again, at first for benefits, such as an a cappella version of "Peace Train" he did as a message of unity for the post-9/11 Concert for New York City in October 2001.
"That whole process ... kind of helped me realise that perhaps my legacy should not be totally forgotten ... that I had contributed something and it was worth revisiting." But Yusuf has no misgivings about leaving pop music for so many years. "I don't really regret not having been involved in the music business because I think I made my exit at an appropriate time ...
and if you look at what was happening musically at that time, it was probably the right time to go," he said.
"But there are more interesting things happening today with the advent of the Internet. ... A lot of people my age as well as youngsters appreciate this style of music because I've always written from the heart and I've always written what I believe to be true so that's got to be valid."