Success came quickly for 18-year-old British singer-songwriter Steven Demetre Georgiou when he began releasing singles under the name Cat Stevens in 1966. His debut single "I Love My Dog" rose to Number 28 on the UK singles chart and follow-up single "Matthew and Son" hit Number Two. But it would be a long three years before Cat Stevens became a household name all over the world, a difficult period marked by overcooked recordings that didn't live up to the music in his mind. "It was all new to me and I had to leave the process of recording to the professionals," he tells Rolling Stone. "I wrote on acoustic guitar and they didn't sound like me. There were layers given to it that weren't mine. I felt alienated from my own music."
By the time that "Father and Son," "Wild World," "Moonshadow" and "Peace Train" hit radio in the early 1970s, this period of Stevens (who now uses the name Yusuf) became a distant memory. But a couple of years ago, Yusuf began going through his 1960s catalog and reflecting on what could have been. "I felt as if some of these songs deserve to be personalized, again, by me," he says. "I wanted to take ownership of them."
He decided to re-record 11 of them for his new album The Laughing Apple, which came out earlier this month. He recorded it in Brussels, Belgium with Paul Samwell-Smith, a founding member of the Yardbirds that also produced his classic 1970 LP Tea For The Tillerman. They reconnected in 2014 when he remixed Yusuf's LP Tell 'Em I'm Gone. "I wanted to work with someone I can trust," says Yusuf. "He captured the spirit of the songs at the very early stages of recording. We had whole museum's worth of analog instruments and could just pop down and choose whatever ones we wanted."
The songs were cut with minimal instrumentation, allowing them to breathe in ways they couldn't back in the 1960s. Guitarist Alun Davies, who recorded with Yusuf on many of his classic 1970s records and had been in his road band since 2006, also plays on the album. "Like Paul, it just seemed natural that Alun should be included," says Yusuf. "I thank God that he was since his natural personality and aura in the studio contributed so much. He didn't even have to play." For Yusuf, the entire process was a fascinating trip back to his earliest days. "It was like going into a trunk of your old toys," he says. "You pull them out and see whether or not these choo-choo trains still goes on the tracks."
Yusuf - who began playing his old music in 2006 after decades out of the pop music world - will promote The Laughing Apple with a long series of dates in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand in November and December. He hopes to book more shows next year. "I was talking today about Asia," he says. "I haven't played Indonesia, China. I want to play places I've never played before." He toured America last year and hopes to return at some point. "I want to come back," he says. "I had such a great reception last time."
He's also already thinking about his next album. "I've got so many tracks in the can," he says. "I just haven't developed them enough. I'm waiting to find the right approach, but Paul and I just spent week at a studio in Stockholm, Sweden. We narrowed down quite a few tracks there. It just depends on what context I want to give to my next album."