Cat Stevens, also known as Yusuf (Islam), had recently returned from a South American tour when he learned he was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “How prepared can you be for something like that to happen?” he says. “I wasn’t very prepared. But since it’s happened, it kind of tickled me quite a lot. It’s great to know there are people out there who appreciated my work. It’s great.”
We spoke with the songwriter about the honor, his future touring and recording plans, his return to secular pop music after many years away from the scene and his thoughts on his fellow inductees.
Is this something you thought would ever happen in your career?
I wasn’t really thinking about it. There was always this mention about being nominated and the first time it didn’t happen. I thought it was going to go on ad infinitum.
What does the honor mean to you?
Anything in the music business that’s not actually music is something else. It’s a competition, a great big competition. And that’s fine. It’s just not the reason I got into music. That’s not the reason I write songs. It is a compliment when people have got nothing else to give you, they give you an award or an honor. In that respect, it’s very much appreciated. But for me, the whole activity of music is its own reward.
You’re going to to the ceremony, right?
That’s the plan. Hopefully I’ll make it.
Are you going to perform?
It’s still another world at the moment for me. I’m not sure yet what the ceremony quite is and who is going to give me the honor, but we’ll see how it goes.
Did you ever imagine that you’d stand on the same stage as Kiss?
They’re a good looking group, I must admit. I’m not sure that I can compete.
The term rock & roll is pretty loose. Do you consider the music you make to the be rock & roll?
Not quite. That’s why I’m almost surprised by this award. But then again, it’s all kind of within the genre of things that changed the world. Rock & roll certainly did that.
Do you see yourself as a rock star?
Not at the particular moment, no. I’m an elder, experienced songwriter who’s been through the rock glamor period and come out standing.
Peter Gabriel is also getting inducted. He’s a friend of yours, right?
Yeah. He’s one of the first ones that coaxed me into coming back onstage, back in 2003 when there was a concert in honor of Nelson Mandela. The proceeds were going to AIDS victims in South Africa. That was the first time I got back onstage after over a decade. I sang “Wild World.” He’s a great guy, a great friend and a fantastic musician.
You’re being inducted the same night as Nirvana.
All I can say about that is “Nevermind. . .” Obviously, they’re a great force of a new rejectionist approach to the business and to the industry. They made their noise, and they made a great noise. They also happen to be my son’s favorite band.
Is he going to go with you to the ceremony?
Probably. I don’t know you could keep him away.
You just wrapped up a South African tour. Are you going to tour the States next year?
We may do some special events. I’m not sure.
Are you working on a new album right now?
Yeah, I am. Absolutely. It’s taken time because for a long time I was involved with putting together a musical of my music in Australia, so that kind of diverted me away from the album for about a year.
Do you have any regrets about taking so many years off from making pop music?
No, not really. That’s because music is not just a business. It’s a lifestyle. What I was actually seeking most of my life was actually a better life. And that’s reflected a lot in my own songs. And therefore when I found something that got me onto a higher level of living, and perhaps personal satisfaction, then I didn’t miss anything. The only thing was, when I did break away, I did miss the personal connection to the ones who still liked me and believed in me. But I had to get my own life.
So you no longer see a conflict between creating pop music and your faith?
No. I’ve done serious studies on that. I’ve found, to the contrary, if you go back through history, you’ll find that the guitar was introduced to Europe by Islamic Spain back in the Andalucian years. There’s all sorts of historical facts about that I discovered. Therefore, it’s not foreign at all when you look back at the culture and the long history of music in Islam and Muslim musicians.
I guess for a while you were unsure about that though.
Yeah, that’s true.
These ceremonies tend to wrap up with a big all-star jam. It’s hard to imagine you jamming with Kiss though.
Jamming has never been a favorite pastime of mine. When I write, I write constructively with all the kind of resources that I have in my creative imaginings. And sometimes, on the spur of the moment, you can do something special. But I just don’t see myself holding hands with the lead singer of Kiss, that’s all.
You’re being inducted as “Cat Stevens.” Does it bother you people still call you that?
To be quite frank, it’s me. That’s how a lot of people know me. I just came back from Chile and everybody called me Cat. I’m not bothered by that. They also respect me and my life choices and my personal decisions, and that’s up to me.