With an evocative acoustic sound and lyrics that simultaneously soothed and begged introspection, 2019 Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Yusuf/Cat Stevens soared into the hearts of the masses in the early ‘70s with a succession of enduring hits including “Wild World,” “Father and Son,” “Moonshadow,” “Morning Has Broken” and “Peace Train.”
As his musical star was rising, so too was his desire to connect more deeply with his spirituality — a path that led him to Islam. His 1978 album Back to Earth would be his last commercial music release for decades. He changed his name to Yusuf Islam and disappeared from public life for more than a decade.
In a wide-ranging conversation, the artist shares with Billboard his musical roots, the reason he retreated from the public and the reason he returned, and the musical direction of his new album, due in 2020.
When I think about how young you were when you wrote some of your biggest songs, you seem to have possessed a wisdom beyond your years. Where did that come from?
I think we should mention that there was a previous career before the “Moon Shadow,” “Wild World,” “Father and Son” era. There was another era where I was trying to enter into songwriting and making hit records. I was a pop star, but that wasn’t my first intention. I was brought up in London in the middle of the West End, which is very comparable to Broadway. So if you’ve got someone living on Broadway, you know what that means. It means you’re surrounded by incredible music but not necessarily pop music. But the storytelling, and the great composers like Gershwin and Bernstein. And so my first inspiration really came from musicals, and if you look at my early career, my first songs were kind of jerky, cameo life experiences I would just imagine and then write a song about. There are certainly songs I’ve written that I never fully understood myself how I got there. I have this ability to write about things which I imagine.
Did you have a favorite musical?
West Side Story was absolutely it for me, and if you listen to my early songs, you’ll hear that kind of jagged staccato. I already had a Greek cultural upbringing from my father’s side so there was all that going on, too. But Bernstein was definitely my model. And, of course, I was also listening to my sister’s record collection, which included Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Bach, so I had a pretty classical musical background and upbringing.
What precipitated the segue to your second musical act?
Well, that really is connected to what happened next. After my first little zoom into the heavens as a pop star, I came crashing back down to earth very soon with a disease called tuberculosis. That was really life-changing for me, having gone through that incredible adoration and being in the spotlight, and then suddenly I was thrust into a hospital bed and isolated, alone, and I had a lot of thinking to do. My spiritual quest began at that time in earnest. I was about 19 at the time, I had my first hit record at age 18 and by 19 I’d had it. It was over. At that point, I thought I was dying, and I thought the doctors were not telling me. So I had to quickly read up on as many spiritual books as I could. I had one very important book, it’s a Buddhist book called The Secret Path, and that opened me up to the great questions about existence and that’s where my wisdom, probably, where my thoughts began to take shape and my questions became defined.
And then, miraculously, you recovered…
When I came home, I never stopped. I continued on my quest searching spiritually for my home, you may say, and while that was happening, I began writing again and this time I was determined not to let the business, and the sounds that were prevalent at the time, affect me. I wanted to sound like me, like my demos and the original ideas in my head, and that’s how I began to develop my sound, which was mainly acoustic and very, very personal.
Let’s talk about some of your signature songs. Shall we start with “Wild World”?
“Wild World” was really my parting song with my girlfriend Patti D'Arbanville. We’d had some great times together, but I started recording and she was doing her modeling and it just became like two different worlds. And because I’d had such an experience of almost falling off the planet, I knew there were a lot of dangers out there so it was kind of me talking to myself about the second career I was about to embark on and also talking to her about her career. We’d basically split at that point, and that was the ode to our parting.
That song still continues to pop up in so many movies and television shows. I loved its use in the U.K. series Skins, and of course it’s meaningful to so many on a personal level.
It’s a mother’s song too, I would think, it’s very appropriate for a mother, also. Watching kids walk out the door is not an easy thing.
“Morning Has Broken” was originally a hymn, but you really made it your own.
I picked it up from the hymnbook one time when I was searching for ideas. It was quite a traditional song sung in the church, and I just did my own arrangement. I fell in love with the melody and the words, and people think it’s mine
Can you share with us the story behind “First Cut Is The Deepest”?
That was one which, again, it was partly telling the story of a breakup between me and one of my first loves, really, and that was a very strong sentiment. What I wanted to do there was… I loved R&B. As well as listening to musicals I was also going down to clubs and listening to the latest R&B records coming over from across the Atlantic. I loved Otis Redding and I tried to write a song for Otis Redding and that is how “First Cut Is the Deepest” came about. It’s very much a soulful tune. My guitar playing wasn’t that clever in those days, so you hear those three little notes, which is pretty basic, but it begins the whole song and it’s a signature tune.
And of course there’s “Peace Train,” an anthem for a generation.
“Peace Train” came out of the Vietnam era and the affect that had on our generation, as well as the Cold War, which was looming above us. We realized, “Hey, we all want to live; we don’t want to be blown into smithereens. We want this planet to go on." So peace became a rallying call for many of us in the ‘60s. One time I had started touring and I was on a train going up north in the U.K. and it suddenly struck me I had this rhythm going from the sound of the wheels and I came up with this idea of “Peace Train.” I was playing around with the chords, which are very Greek in basic nature. I used these two notes, first and third, and the melody came out from there. It’s very simple, again, but one of my most profound songs and one that still breezes through the hearts of many people and the hopes we have today.
Your music has always had the ability to unite people. Were you aware of that as you were creating it, and how have you come to think about your role as a songwriter in uniting people as you’ve gotten older?
I left music for a while because I wanted to get on with living. I’d been consumed by the music business from a very young age. From the moment I heard the Beatles I was in it, I wanted to be there and wanted to be part of it. And then finally when I found what I was looking for, that spiritual home if you like, I decided to get on with life. Get married, have kids, and I got involved with so many things. Charities, education, etc. And there were some doubts in my mind as to whether there was real validity to this supposition that music can fix our problems. But in the end, what I realized was the human being has incredible potential and our aspirations go beyond the material. You can’t define happiness. You know when it hits you what it is. And music somehow has the ability to make you happy, it has the ability to makes you sad, too, but even in that moment there’s a connection with others you get through music. We empathize and that’s a very human characteristic. If we don’t have empathy, we’re not really human. There’s so much music can do in terms of linking up emotions and aspirations together into a unity which we wouldn’t otherwise have. We’re sitting on the Tube, nobody’s talking, we’re all separate. But somehow when you’re listening to music, you’re united in that moment, in another place, which is not necessarily in this world.
You stepped away for a long time and there were a lot of stories circulating about your whereabouts. Were you aware of them? If you don’t mind sharing, I’d love to hear about your decision and if/how you were able to disassociate yourself from your life as a pop star.
I was slightly oblivious because I was so happy about what I’d found. And I thought I’d left enough clues about where I was that if people wanted to find me, or to reach me or reach the place I’d reached. I thought, if someone was really serious, they would listen to my music and realize, this is the trail he took. And then make your own trail and follow it to a point, and you may want to go further—up to you. But there’s nothing like being in front of your audience. The connection you get there is unlike any other. It’s a real harmony of souls, and what I realized is that I’ve got another job to do, to come back. Because everything’s looking so bad and so negative, and I realized I needed to reconfirm to people the principles of life I’ve always believed in and my songs have always seemed to reflect.
It sounds like a combination of you wanting to reconnect with fans, and the sense that your fans maybe needed some more Cat Stevens?
Yeah. There are two kinds of stories in this world. Those about leaving home, and those about coming back. That’s what it’s all about. And coming back is very important. Especially when you think about, you’ve made a home in so many people’s hearts, and you definitely don’t want to leave them without your presence, without at least keeping the fireplace going and keeping everybody content with whatever you were giving them. I was giving something, I stopped giving it, and I realized I had to continue. To make sure people got healed, and I got healed.
What was it like returning to the public eye and ear? It had been such a long time, did the connectivity come back immediately?
Absolutely. It instinctively was as natural as once you learn how to swim, you know how to swim, so there wasn’t any difficulty there. And things were made much easier because now we were living in the digital age, so there were much less technical problems, so that was a bit of a joy. I missed the ‘80s—which, actually, I don’t think I missed too much—but I felt that we had such a great time, when I bowed out in the ‘80s it was the optimum time for me to do so. But coming back, I was so ready. It was a piece of cake.
Did you already have a lot of new material in your head?
It was a flood of creativity. The great thing is when you do give yourself space to live and experience life and taste things again and get hurt, maybe, and feel the joy, you’ve also got a lot more time and experience in your life to write about. So I found it was very easy and I had a lot more to say. I mean, yeah, I was a hungry artist, and so I’m not so hungry anymore, but I have some wisdom and philosophies I’ve picked up along the way which I think are more important than the just doing this as a career without any real thought. I think there’s a real purpose to what I’ve tried to do. I hope so anyway.
Your songs have been covered by so many artists. Do you have a favorite?
I like Rod Stewart’s “First Cut Is the Deepest” very much. I think he did the best job there, and he made it his own as well. Jimmy Cliff did “Wild World,” which I produced, by the way, and I really do like that version.
Your most recent album The Laughing Apple came out in 2017. Are you working on any new projects?
We have the prospect of my memoir being finalized and published, I think it will be next year, and we’re also working on another album, which has been more or less recorded and we’re in the mixing stage. I’m really fond of this album. Laughing Apple is a very acoustic album and this is quite a classic album. It’s even got a section of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake because his music inspired me, and that particular movement inspired me and I wrote a song based on it and I thought, “Why not pay tribute to the one who inspired me?” It will be out for sure next year, and we might release a couple of songs before the end of this year.