Reflections: Yusuf/Cat Stevens Reclaims His Name
When he was a teenager, Muhammad Islam took a risk and smuggled a guitar into his family home in Dubai. At first, Islam, who goes by Yoriyos, kept the instrument hidden from his father, Yusuf Islam—an observant Muslim whose faith complicated his feelings toward secular music—but, around 2002, Yoriyos decided to hand his dad the instrument. And, instead of punishing his son, the simple gesture ignited something in the elder Islam, best known to the Western music world as Cat Stevens—and set Yusuf on a course that led to one of the most unexpected comebacks in pop-music history, as well as his first-ever Grammy nomination for the 2017 LP, The Laughing Apple.
“This is the fourth in a new series of recordings beginning in 2006,” Yusuf says of The Laughing Apple, the first album to use the Cat Stevens name since 1978. (The record is technically credited to Yusuf / Cat Stevens.) “My last album [2014’s Tell ‘Em I’m Gone] was an exploration into my love of the blues and R&B, and the environment I grew up in—London, the clubs and the things that affected me.”
The Laughing Apple is a natural follow-up to that roots-inspired set, a full-circle return to some of Yusuf’s early landmarks on the 50th anniversary of his breakthrough, Matthew & Son. For the sessions, Yusuf reunited with producer Paul Samwell-Smith and guitarist Alun Davies, both veterans of some of his most storied 1970s sessions, and revisited songs from his 1967 sophomore release, New Masters: “Blackness of the Night,” “Northern Wind (Death of Billy the Kid),” “I’m So Sleepy” and “The Laughing Apple.” He also rerecorded and modified “Grandsons,” which previously appeared on a 2000 hits compilation as “I’ve Got a Thing About Seeing My Grandson Grow Old,” and finished “You Can Do (Whatever),” a number originally intended for the 1971 black comedy cult classic, Harold and Maude. Lyrically, the songs are just as relevant today as they were during the height of The Age Of Aquarius.
“I didn’t have to change one word—it’s still extremely dark,” he says, noting that he was never happy with producer Mike Hurst’s heavy-handed approach and always hoped to strip away the lush arrangements that marred the original records. “[Matt] was totally in love with Pet Sounds and created a layer that drowned out the songs. But Paul had a knack for capturing the spirit of the song without intervening too much. When you get together with likeminded musicians and artists, you create something for that moment. I was able to play my own guitar and reclaim those songs.”
Yusuf paired those refreshed catalog cuts with a number of newer compositions like “Don’t Blame Them,” “Mighty Peace,” “Mary and the Little Lamb,” “You Can Do (Whatever),” “See What Love Did to Me” and “Olive Hill.” Despite being written decades apart, the tunes fit snuggly together; he lightly embellished the “family of songs” with rootsy flourishes and Indian string influences. The overall goal was to create the homey feeling of folk musicians passing around songs and ideas.
“Everyone needs a seat at the table, and the new songs were perfect for this banquet,” he says. “I’ve had these melodies in my head since 2006—the spark of the ideas of the lyrics gave me the solution. I live in Dubai and hear a lot of that kind of lively music. You are not really in control—waiting for the moment, you get carried along. [The songs touch on people] fighting for their own survival; the world is a not very welcome place.”
Cat Stevens famously left the popular music world in 1978 after converting to Islam following a near-death experience. He’d later admit that he’d tired of his life as a celebrity entertainer. For many years, he shied away from recording altogether, and the religious and educational recordings he released in the 1990s and 2000s—like the children’s’ collection A Is for Allah—featured only vocals and some percussion. Encouraged by his children, he started inching back into the spotlight, recording a new version of “Peace Train” in 2003 and releasing the mainstream full lengths An Other Cup and Roadsinger in 2006 and 2009, respectively. As religious tensions increased following the September 11 attacks, Yusuf started to see his music as a positive way to act as an ambassador for his faith; after studying the Quran with his spiritual guide and speaking with members of his Muslim community, he started to see his music as an important tool in spreading peace. However, there were some bumps along the way—in 2004, Yusuf was denied entry to the US “on the grounds of national security” after airline officials mistakenly spotted his name on a watch list.
“Most of the problems we have start with someone not reading something right, not getting the whole picture,” he says. “People rely on hearsay. A song like ‘Don’t Blame Them,’ which I lifted from Beethoven, is very appropriate because it deals with prejudice.”
He eventually started performing, too, and was able return to the US for a string of 2014 appearances that included a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction and a well-publicized December outing that bypassed New York because of the city’s policy against paperless ticketing; he loosened up his restriction in time for 2016’s “A Cat’s Attic Tour,” a borderline theatrical performance that featured an onstage recreation of his childhood home and props representing the various eras of his life.
“I got the concept of the attic, and that enabled me to build my world in chronological order,” he says. “The audience was able to hear my humor a little during the in-between moments. They got to know me more; it exposed my character.”
The tour’s unique, biographical format and storyteller feel has inspired Yusuf to look even deeper into his history. The now 69-year-old singer hopes to make a musical based off his life and has been actively working on an official autobiography.
“That process does help you sweep out the cobwebs,” he says. “One of the amazing things is that I look at the charts and see what was happing. I want to document these moments and introduce these interesting characters around me.” He pauses and adds, “And introduce a different, less serious side of me.”
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.