THE SHADOW OF THE CAT

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YUSUF Is­lam has a new book out in the Mid­dle East called Why I Still Carry a Gui­tar: The Spir­i­tual Jour­ney of Cat Stevens to Yusuf. In it he ex­plains his con­ver­sion to Is­lam in 1977 and how that has shaped his life to the present day.

It’s a tome the Dubai-based artist known as Yusuf hopes will be pub­lished world­wide next year, which should help shed some light on the true na­ture of the Cat. Be­ing mis­un­der­stood has been a con­stant in the singer’s life, he says, since he aban­doned his flour­ish­ing ca­reer as a singer­song­writer in the 1970s to con­cen­trate on his faith and di­rect his ef­forts to­wards hu­man­i­tar­ian is­sues.

To that end to­day Yusuf, who has been en­joy­ing a mu­sic re­nais­sance dur­ing the past eight years, main­tains a page on his web­site called “Chi­nese Whiskers”, on which he elu­ci­dates, some­times in great de­tail, those is­sues where he feels his be­liefs and mo­ti­va­tions have been mis­in­ter­preted or mis­rep­re­sented in the me­dia since 1978. One can click on “Didn’t He Support Ha­mas?”, for ex­am­ple, and get his ex­press de­nial first hand; or se­lect “What About 9/11 and ter­ror­ism?” for an equally stout re­but­tal of any such sym­pa­thies. Those more in­ter­ested in his mu­si­cal opin­ions can opt for “Does Pop Mu­sic Make Sense to Him Any More?” and “Does Yusuf Feel He Can Help the World by Get­ting His Mes­sage Across Through Mu­sic?”

You can sense that same frus­tra­tion, al­beit tinged with hu­mour, on Edit­ing Floor Blues from his sur­pris­ingly bluesy new al­bum Tell ’Em I’m Gone, which is re­leased on Oc­to­ber 31. On it Yusuf sings of his youth grow­ing up in London’s West End, but also about what hap­pened later “when the word came down” and “when the truth was buried on the edit­ing room floor”.

“It’s a take on my ex­pe­ri­ence with the me­dia,” he says, mis­chie­vously ques­tion­ing whether this in­for­ma­tion will ap­pear cor­rectly in this news­pa­per. “It’s about be­ing mis­un­der­stood of­ten­times. Not al­ways on pur­pose, but in the mid­dle of what is said and what is heard and what is con­veyed there is a whole lot of space there for peo­ple to get it wrong, not al­ways in­ten­tion­ally. It’s what I call Chi­nese whiskers. I love hav­ing a laugh about it.”

Pub­lic­ity for this new al­bum, his first since 2009’s Road­singer, bills him as Cat Stevens/ Yusuf. It is clear from talk­ing to him and from the con­tent of the record that he in­hab­its both of those iden­ti­ties. While orig­i­nal tracks such as I was Raised in Baby­lon and Cat and the Dog Trap have a philo­soph­i­cal bent, largely Tell ’Em I’m Gone is a jour­ney back to Cat Stevens’s mu­si­cal roots, to that pe­riod in the early 60s when he was find­ing his way, look­ing for a niche in the blos­som­ing pop, rock and blues scene in London. The al­bum in­cludes a hand­ful of cover ver­sions, in­clud­ing Jimmy Reed’s Big Boss Man, Pro­col Harum’s The Devil Came From Kansas and Edgar Win­ter’s Dy­ing to Live. The blues agenda is un­der­pinned by the pres­ence of guests in­clud­ing har­mon­ica player Charlie Mus­sel­white, gui­tarist Richard Thomp­son and the Malian desert blues out­fit Ti­nari­wen.

Shap­ing the sounds on Tell ’Em I’m Gone is renowned Amer­i­can pro­ducer Rick Ru­bin, whose re­cent cred­its in­clude Lady Gaga, Ed Sheeran and our own An­gus and Ju­lia Stone. Yusuf says he turned to Ru­bin be­cause he wasn’t en­tirely happy with his own pro­duc­tion of Road­singer.

“I was look­ing for a lit­tle bit of an up­grade on my pro­duc­tion,” he says. “My last record I pro­duced and I think I re­alised that I needed some­one to help me out a lit­tle bit. Rick has al­ways been an in­cred­i­ble force. As a pro­ducer he is one of the best. He re­ally ac­com­mo­dated my ideas and he put to­gether a great team of mu­si­cians that gave a sound to the al­bum.”

Yusuf, born Steven Deme­tre Ge­or­giou to a Greek fa­ther and Swedish mother in 1948, grew up in the bustling streets of London’s the­atre dis­trict and got his ear­li­est mu­sic ed­u­ca­tion stand­ing on the rooftop of the fam­ily home above their restau­rant lis­ten­ing to the show tunes drift­ing across the night sky. Later, in his teens and early 20s, his skills as a song­writer and per­former be­gan to de­velop in lo­cal cof­fee houses. After be­ing dis­cov­ered in the mid-60s, hits such as I Love My Dog, Matthew and Son and I’m Gonna Get Me a Gun, melo­dra­matic pop songs all, gave him his first wave of suc­cess.

The tone of the al­bum is de­signed de­lib­er­ately to re­flect that phase of his mu­si­cal de­vel­op­ment, not least the pres­ence of the blues, which had such a pro­found in­flu­ence on artists such as the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Yard­birds and many more.

“That’s the in­ten­tion,” Yusuf says. “Be­ing a fan of 60s R&B and be­ing there at that time … there was al­ways some­thing new and al­ways a turn that we didn’t ex­pect. That’s partly been lost to some de­gree in the blur of tech­nol­ogy and pro­duc­tion that we have to­day, not that ev­ery­thing works that way. Back then ev­ery­thing worked.”

Pro­col Harum has sig­nif­i­cance to him be­cause the band’s drum­mer BJ Wilson, also a ses­sion player, per­formed on some of Stevens’s early hits. “That’s when I was hang­ing out with Hen­drix and those kinds of peo­ple,” Yusuf drops non­cha­lantly. “They are one of my fav- ourite all-time bands. Sud­denly in comes Whiter Shade of Pale and it’s huge. But I loved that band be­cause they were so in­no­va­tive. There was a lot of blues if you lis­ten to (singer-key­boards player) Gary Brooker, so there’s a kind of home­com­ing for me in that song.”

The blues groove base to another cover, the smoul­der­ing read­ing of the clas­sic You are My Sun­shine, owes a debt to another of Yusuf’s mu­sic he­roes and in­spi­ra­tions, Ray Charles. “He played the blues that we all love,” he says.

Mu­si­cally there’s lit­tle trace on Tell ’Em I’m Gone of the 70s Cat Stevens, the singer-song­writer who be­came a world phe­nom­e­non with al­bums Tea for the Tiller­man, Teaser and the Fire­cat and Catch Bull at Four, but there are nods to the themes of peace and love that were preva­lent in that phase of his ca­reer.

The open­ing I was Raised in Baby­lon is about “look­ing back at civil­i­sa­tions”, he says. “It’s an in­ter­est­ing sub­ject. Every­body be­lieves that the civil­i­sa­tion they are liv­ing in is the best. It’s not re­ally much dif­fer­ent in some ways to pre­vi­ous civil­i­sa­tions. There are great de­vel­op­ments and in­ven­tions, and then sud­denly it all goes wrong. The plug of his­tory gets pulled. And then every­body starts fall­ing down the drain. I was read­ing that one of the last things to dis­ap­pear in a civil­i­sa­tion is mu­sic. I’m try­ing to bring a bit more civil­i­sa­tion back into the mu­sic business.”

Yusuf’s last ven­ture in Aus­tralia was the mu­si­cal Moon­shadow, a story of his life in song that re­ceived mixed reviews.

“It’s a be­gin­ning,” he says, “be­cause no mat­ter how much you write it and you do it, it ends up on stage, and that’s the only place you re­ally learn about what you’ve got. I found the ex­pe­ri­ence in­valu­able. From that I’ve learned so much.”

Yusuf will be do­ing that with his al­bum and on tour. He be­gins a Euro­pean tour next month that will be fol­lowed by an ex­ten­sive jaunt around the US. He’s hop­ing to come to Aus­tralia too, but no dates have been set. “We’d love to bring it to Aus­tralia,” he says. “I have re­la­tions in Aus­tralia so I al­ways feel very at home there.”

Yusuf says his al­bum is about set­ting the soul free. He has been able to set free his in­ner gui­tar hero to some de­gree on Tell ’Em I’m Gone as well. He plays more elec­tric gui­tar on the al­bum than he has done on any record pre­vi­ously.

“I’m play­ing rhythm with a heavy drive,” he says. “Not quite the Who level but get­ting close.” That com­ment also takes him back to those glory days of Cat Stevens, again with good hu­mour at­tached. “I was once a support act for the Who,” he re­calls. “They were one of the first bands with a real punk at­ti­tude.” That’s not some­thing one might think he would warm to, but with Tell ’Em I’m Gone he comes closer to it than at any point in his ca­reer.

Re­nais­sance man: Yusuf Is­lam

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