Yusuf/Cat Stevens on Songwriting, Spirituality, and Climate Hope
Plenty of songwriters spent the early 1970s looking for some kind of truth, but none of them sang about that quest with as much authentic conviction as Cat Stevens. On songs like “Where Do the Children Play?,” “Miles from Nowhere,” “The Wind,” and “Father and Son,” the London-born artist spoke for a generation that was watching the trusted institutions of the past crumble, leaving big questions in their wake. What’s our place in the universe? Is living a good life compatible with individual happiness? Does getting older necessarily mean growing wiser? He didn’t just ask those questions — he let you hear how badly he needed to know the answers.
Half a century after his artistic peak, young people are once again facing a rapidly shifting world. It’s a good time to check in with the 73-year-old songwriter, who famously converted to Islam after a near-death experience in 1977, changed his name to Yusuf Islam, and renounced secular music for decades before making an unexpected return to the stage in the 21st century. He’s long since reconciled the two halves of his life, giving interview after eloquent interview about some of the more controversial headlines that once dogged him.
Lately, he’s been working with his son on retrospective projects like 2020’s entirely re-recorded Tea for the Tillerman², last year’s Teaser and the Firecat box set, and a new 50th-anniversary LP release of the Harold and Maude soundtrack. “It’s been rejuvenating,” he reflects. “It’s great to go back into that time, that era, and listen again to what you did. It’s slightly distant now; obviously it’s not the kind of music I’m making today. So I admire it probably even more now, because of the distance. We were riding a wave, and it was beautiful.”
Yusuf logged onto Zoom from his home in Dubai in November for a conversation about spirituality, songwriting, what’s next for him — a list that includes finishing his memoir and his first album of new songs since 2017 — and why his search for greater understanding is still ongoing.
“I know for sure there’s only one God, and that’s it,” he says. “Beyond that, there’s a whole lot more to learn, and you never stop thirsting for more knowledge.”
What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you?
I would have to go to the prophetic sources: “Leave that which makes you doubt for that which does not make you doubt.” That’s a great piece of advice. We’re constantly having to choose; we’re creatures of choice, and we try to assert our wills. Sometimes we may have a problem choosing what’s the best. Remove yourself from that which makes you doubt, for that which does not make you doubt — that means you have a calmness about you and you can relax a little bit, rather than having these monkeys jumping around in your head all day.
When you put it that way, it sounds almost easy.
You’re right. It’s not necessarily that easy. Sometimes you have to fight yourself, because your soul or your desire are pulling you one way. In spiritual terms, you have three different identities to your soul. One is the one which is going for everything, trying to grab everything, whatever it wants. The other one is accusing itself of these things, and saying, “I’m watching you.” And the last stage of the soul is contentment with what God wishes. There’s a lot of science to do there with the soul, and I think a lot of people need to learn a bit more.
Do you remember the mindset that produced “The Wind,” which opens Teaser and the Firecat? What was driving that for you?
I’m talking to somebody; I think it’s the divine, but I’m not quite sure, and because I’m not sure, it’s universal. When it comes to the sun, which is part of the lyrics [“I’ve sat upon the setting sun”] — that means that you’re not really part of the physical world anymore. That was my goal: to be able to detach myself from my physical surroundings and material things. I was very earnestly searching. I would visit esoteric bookshops whenever I could, and pick up whatever new pathway to the truth I could find. That was my modus operandi. And I was writing songs at the same time, so all of that was informing what I was writing.
You were thinking about profound subjects at a young age, in your early twenties. What made you look for those answers at that time?
We all have crises happen to us. We have near-death experiences, or what we think are near-death experiences, and that’s enough to make you stand up and wonder: What if I was to drop off this planet today? That door, where does it lead to? Those are massive questions, which all our early ancestors were dealing with on a daily basis. You go back to Greek philosophy, and Aristotle set it all out. He set the curriculum for us all: Who am I?
Do you wish you had found that certainty earlier in your life, or was it necessary to go through the searching before you got there?
Oh, yeah, for sure — I had to go through that. That’s part of the learning process. Mistakes are what makes us, in a way. So no, no, no. I wouldn’t have written all of those great songs — come on! [Laughs.] It was important and it was necessary and it had to be.
What gives you hope about the world today?
I think Greta [Thunberg] is a great sign of hope. I love to see her talking, almost knocking these politicians down with her words. I love it! And it’s a great fulfillment of at least one of my songs, “Oh Very Young.” That song talks about someone like Greta who will not sit down. I’m not sure if she’s the bird of love yet — she’s got more angst. But it’s great to see that there’s movement in the world. People are picking up on things and saying “I don’t want this to go on.” There are rumblings all over the world, and we can see that daily.
When you think back to the music that was around when you were younger, is there anything that still speaks to you now?
R&B was always my home. Classical, as well, but you had to wait for a long time to get to the idea with a classical piece, whereas an R&B song was three minutes. I would go to the blues — things like John Lee Hooker, “Boom, boom, boom, boom,” and all those groovy songs. And then I like the classics. I like Tchaikovsky. I like Beethoven. I love them, in fact. You’re talking about the best pop song ever, that’s got to be Beethoven’s Ninth. That will always move you.
Who do you see as your musical peers? In the beginning you were frequently compared to people like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.
In musical terms, in that genre, I would definitely see myself in that group. But it’s what follows after that. What happened next? That’s important. We’re all in the game of survival; we all want to make sure we get through this. I’ve taken a few interesting turnings in my life, and those I think have benefited me. I haven’t gambled, but I’ve risked. Doing things other than what was expected. I think that’s paid off.
Many musicians have written songs about searching for God. Something that fascinates people about your career is that you really followed through on that in your life.
Yeah. I mean, Little Richard left music. He said it was the devil’s stuff. Then he came back again. But yeah — I did strive, not only lyrically, but mentally, spiritually, to attain the ideals of my songs.
Little Richard spent many years moving back and forth between music and the church. You’ve followed a bit more of a straight line, haven’t you?
That’s true. There was a time when I rejected everything. You can read John Lennon’s own words, saying the Beatles were nothing. We all go through that when we find something else. But yes, there is a consistency, I think, and I’m very grateful to God for the consistency in my life.
I wrote about it, in a song called “Sitting” [from 1972’s Catch Bull at Four]. I said, “I’m not making love to anyone’s wishes/Only for that light I see/’Cause when I’m dead and lowered low in my grave/That’s gonna be the only thing that’s left of me.” Holding onto that truth is what’s helped me survive.
You faced a lot of hostility from the world when you first told people about your faith. Do you think the world has gotten any better at understanding Islam since then?
Well, we’ve got a Muslim mayor in London, so that’s not bad. That’s at least progress in one direction. … It’s important to give the right job to the right person. But when it comes to spiritual things, that’s where we get a little bit confused. A lot of people want to claim that they’ve got the truth and it’s exclusive. That’s the problem.
What’s the best part of success, and what’s the worst part of being a successful musician?
Success is incredibly unstable. It’s ever moving somewhere else. You can’t really chase it; if you do, you may fail totally. In order to be successful, you’ve got to be true to yourself and what you believe. You’re not going to be another Elvis, so be who you are, and don’t scramble to grab what other people have got.
The past two years have been a time of reflection for many people. What have you learned from the pandemic era, if anything?
It’s taught us all that we can change. We can do things differently. We’ve learned that we can live on less. The problem is that the economic machines want things to stay the way they are. They’ve got to find new ways of making money out of this new reality. So you have to be aware.
It’s put a big strain on a lot of people, and I feel most sorry for those who were kept in their urban prisons — a one-bedroom flat somewhere. That’s scary. The freedom that we’ve been given, it should make us value that freedom more.
What do you do for fun, to relax?
I may do some art. I may get into Photoshop and do some things. I like all the artwork I’ve been putting together for the Teaser and the Firecat box set, and before that Tillerman. My son’s got me lined up for Catch Bull next. I really do enjoy it. I might watch a bit of football. Competition, I like my team to win.
I swim, mainly, for my physical needs and to keep myself fit. I don’t enjoy doing 30 lengths a day, but I do it, because I think it’s important. And as I do so, I try to remember the names of God, so that keeps me afloat.
By the way, I’m also writing my autobiography. That hopefully will come out [in 2022], as well.
Does the memoir cover your whole life?
Oh, yeah, it’s absolutely my whole life. If you want to know about me and Jimi Hendrix, it’s in there. It’s terrific. Some friends have read it, and they went, “Oh, my God, I don’t feel as if I’ve lived!” Because I’ve done so many things, and I’m grateful for being given the chance to do that. It’s everything.
Without giving away too much from the book, what do you remember about Jimi?
It was the early days. We were doing a tour [in the spring of 1967]: Englebert Humperdinck, Walker Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, and me, Cat Stevens. It was the first time he lit his guitar on fire. They were screaming at me, saying “There’s a fire on stage!” I was too scared in my dressing room, thinking about how I’m going to approach my set, to even bother about going down there and having a look. [Laughs.] We had some good times together, as well. We got quite close. Closer than the other artists on the tour. We shared some times together, and a few puffs, as you would, in that purple haze.
Are you still writing new songs?
Yep. In fact we’ve got a whole album in the can, ready to go. It was just the Tea for the Tillerman 50th that knocked that back. I think it’s good — it’s enabled me to look at a couple of songs and say, “Well, I might do a better mix on that one.” So we’ve got an album more or less ready now to come out. All new songs. I wrote a new song last week! Sometimes you do things, you don’t really know what you’re doing, and suddenly it develops into a song. It feels like a gift coming to you out of nowhere. It’s beautiful, the feeling of writing a song.
What kind of songs are they?
This recent one is about the climate. It’s two people, a husband and wife, talking about the old days, and how the world used to be in their time. A little like “Old Friends,” by Simon & Garfunkel, but as an up-to-date climate reflection. The songs are always going to be, in some way, leaning toward idealism and morality — and the problems that get in the way.