Yusuf / Cat Stevens
The folk-rock seeker on songwriting, spirituality, and climate hope
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 means you have a calmness about you, and you can relax a little bit.
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.
You were writing about profound subjects at an early age. What led to a song like “The Wind”?
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. My goal was 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.
Many musicians have written songs about searching for God. You really followed through on that in your life.
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.
Do you wish you had found that certainty earlier in your life, or was it necessary to go through the searching first?
Oh, yeah, for sure, I had to go through that. 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. People are picking up on things and saying “I don’t want this to go on.”
You faced a lot of hostility 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.
What have you learned from the pandemic era?
It’s taught us all that we can change. I feel most sorry for those who were kept in their urban prisons — a onebedroom flat somewhere. That’s scary.
What do you do to relax?
I may do some art, get into Photoshop. I might watch a bit of football. I swim to keep myself fit. I don’t enjoy doing 30 lengths a day, but I do it, and as I do so, I try to remember the names of God, so that keeps me afloat. I’m also writing my autobiography.
How’s that going?
It’s absolutely my whole life. If you want to know about me and Jimi Hendrix, it’s in there. Some friends have read it, and they went, “Oh, my God. I don’t
feel as if I’ve lived!”
What do you remember about Jimi?
We were doing a tour [in the spring of 1967]. It was the first time he lit his guitar on fire. They were screaming at me, saying “There’s a fire onstage!” 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 [ laughs]. We had some good times together, as well. We shared a few puffs, as you would, in that purple haze.
Are you still writing new songs?
Yep. I wrote a new song last week about the climate.
It’s two people, a husband and wife, talking about the old days — a little like “Old Friends,” by Simon and Garfunkel, but as a 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. SIMON VOZICK-LEVINSON
Yusuf recently reissued his 1971 album, ‘Teaser and the Firecat.’