THE SHADOW OF THE CAT
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