He's been Cat Stevens. He's been Yusuf Islam. Now, the musician known as Yusuf returns with a soulful sound that harks back to his beginnings.
On the road
Despite selling more than 60 million albums since the late 1960s, Yusuf says that his main ambition has lain unfulfilled for several decades. "Since I started making music, I've been on a diversion. I originally wanted to write musicals," he explains, before touching on the characters and narratives that exist in some of his most famous tunes. "What happened instead was that I started having hits with all these songs, because I was the only one who could sing them."
His plans now look likely to come to fruition. Moonshadow, which will include some of Cat Stevens' best-loved songs, is finally in preproduction and set to make its debut in London's West End next year. In the meantime, though, the multi-platinum selling singer has a new album out, Roadsinger (To Warm You Through the Night). It is the follow-up to 2006's comeback record An Other Cup, the compilation of western pop that ended the artist's 28-year break from the limelight.
He has just played his first concert in Los Angeles for 33 years and made a number of high-profile US chat show appearances. More than most other artists, his story is marked by a series of important milestones that influence the next phase of his life and work. The youngest of three children, Steven Demetre Georgiou was born in 1948 to Greek Cypriot and Swedish parents. The family ran the Moulin Rouge Cafe in the heart of London's West End and lived in a flat upstairs. It overlooked Shaftesbury Avenue's Prince's Theatre, which became the home of West Side Story and other era-defining productions in the 1960s. The affects of being surrounded by music, arts and culture were not lost on the young man.
"I'd grown up in a very quirky area of London," he says. "It enabled me to create musical stories in my own world and write them." His journey to becoming a pop star was quicker than for many other hopefuls. He signed a publishing deal at just 18 years old and recorded a series of demos, including The First Cut is the Deepest, performing under the new name of Cat Stevens. Within a year he had come to epitomise swinging London and was being touted as one of British music's brightest hopefuls. Performing alongside artists like Jimi Hendrix, Stevens had a string of successful singles and scored a number two hit with his 1966 song Matthew and Son.
But before long the singer became frustrated by a lack of control in the studio. His sales also began to suffer, with his second album failing to chart. Around the time that the hippy-themed musical Hair opened, his disillusionment with the phenomenon had grown to crisis point. But when the singer was struck down with tuberculosis, it was not just his career that was under threat. "I went through my first career very rapidly and burnt out quickly. I was rushed to hospital with TB," he says. "Suddenly I was out of the limelight and faced with the possibility of kicking the bucket at the age of 19.
"That was when I started re-evaluating my life and thinking about things deeply. I wanted to work out who I was and where I was going. I wanted to look at spirituality outside of the confines of my upbringing." He also claims that his personality began to develop beyond the pop star persona for which he had become known. He set about writing new songs that were intended to be used in a musical, called Revolussia.
"The basic script was about the Russian Revolution. I was working with a guy called Nigel Hawthorne [one of the stars of the British TV programme Yes Minister]. Of course, while I was doing it I was writing all these songs, including Father and Son." The song, perhaps the most well-know of any of his material, caught the attention of Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records. Signing to the legendary label in 1970, Stevens was promised total artistic freedom. The years that followed became the artist's most successful period, yielding albums like Mona Bone Jakon, Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat.
Although he found huge commercial success and became Island's biggest selling artist, the singer claims that he began to feel unsatisfied with life. Then, on his 28th birthday, his brother gave him a copy of the Quran. He was captivated by the teachings of Islam and firmly embraced the faith. It was a move that would transform his life and his career. "I was reaching the grand old age of 28 and I hadn't yet found what I was looking for," he says. "Then I was confronted with something that I had never expected. It was the first time I put my head into anything to do with Islam and as I began to read the Quran, I couldn't believe that I'd missed it all my life."
After embracing the religion, the singer put his career on hold, preferring to start a family and study his newfound faith. He also became involved in educational causes within the Muslim community in the years that followed, gaining a reputation as a philanthropist. By the mid-Nineties, he found his voice in another form of music and began releasing albums of traditional Islamic music. Almost 30 years went by before his son Mohammed brought a guitar into the house, something that he credits as one of the things that rekindled his interest in pop music. But the singer also felt that in today's increasingly interconnected world, he could perform an important task: building bridges between cultures. As one of the western world's most famous converts to Islam, he has a set of perspectives that few others possess.
"There are a lot of reasons why I came back to music. One of the strong ones is that it's a way that we can bridge some of these gaps between the peoples of the world," he says. "All people respond to something beautiful. That's what music can be. The message has also got to be something that can enlighten people and help them through their path in life." But to understand Yusuf's return to music, one must first understand his departure from it. The singer embraced Islam in 1977 at the height of his fame. He was reassured by an imam (who had never heard of Cat Stevens) that he could continue to be both a singer and a Muslim. However, he was warned to exercise caution when performing. "I was still a young man," says the singer. "He thought I might be on stage jiving or shaking my hips. But I never did that. I just sat on a stool, shaking from side to side a little bit."
Then he began hearing other voices in the community which were less accepting of pop music. They believed it was inextricably linked to excess and fast living. "For some reason, I also started getting a lot of backlash from the media," he says. "I started getting some feelings of animosity. I reacted against that and decided that I needed a break." The singer released Back To Earth in 1978, before being allowed to step back from recording by hislabel, despite a contractual obligation to deliver two more records.
Twenty-eight years later, the release of An Other Cup kick-started his third (or was it fourth?) career. Of his latest offering, Roadsinger, he says: "This one was different. I was listening to some of the comments about the last album and lots of people were pining for the softer acoustic sound that I used to make." With its rich textures and soulful feel, Roadsinger harks back to the artist's most successful and musically satisfying period. "This one definitely has some of the elements of Tillerman," he says. "In fact, my son helped me put the running order together, which he based on [that album]."
Among other similarities, both records end with songs of around a minute and a half in length. Yusuf also says that, despite a perfectionist streak, he has enjoyed the return to playing live. "I'm a bit of a bossy boots and always want everything to be right and it's never completely right," he says. "But when you get on stage, you interlock with the audience and if they want you to sound good, you end up giving them the performance they want. I did that in LA recently and it was one of the best performances I'd ever given. It was wonderful."
With the latest album receiving strong reviews and a successful return to the live circuit underway, Yusuf once again looks too busy to fulfill his dream of writing a musical. However, the artist says that preparations for Moonshadow are well under way. The production has been in a state of flux for some years, but is finally edging towards life. There have now been several workshops with actors, script changes and songwriting sessions.
"A set designer, costumes and lighting are all coming on board," he says. "We were hoping to launch it this year, but because of theatre availability, it might end up being next year. "One of my dreams is to bring it to Dubai, because that's where I had the idea for Moonshadow. It's also a great spiritual journey and people from all around the world will relate to it in their own way." Although his faith taught him a great deal about the Middle East, he had never lived in a Muslim country until 2000, when he made Dubai his semi-permanent home.
"I liked it because there was so much of what I would normally expect, as well as being a place where East meets West in a cultural sense," he says. "The first time I was there I stayed for almost a year." The singer's daughter, son-in-law and two of his grandchildren now also call the emirate home. "That makes it very special to me," he say. "I also have enough space and time [in Dubai]. I don't have the problem of people on my doorstep all the time and ringing me and bothering me with all the different jobs to do. That leaves me with time to think."
Roadsinger (To Warm You Through the Night) is out now on EMI Music Arabia.