In the 1970s, there were few singer-songwriters more beloved than Cat Stevens. A lot has changed since his landmark album Tea for the Tillerman. For one, he’s a grandfather. For two, he’s not even Cat Stevens anymore: He’s gone by Yusuf Islam, or simply Yusuf, since his conversion to the Muslim faith later that decade.
This year, the artist is looking back: A new release called Tea for the Tillerman 2 features re-recorded versions of “Wild World,” “Where Do the Children Play?” and every other song from his now-50-year-old masterpiece. Yusuf joined NPR’s Rachel Martin to talk about revisiting that period in his career and the decision to return to pop music after years away. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.
Rachel Martin: The new version of “Wild World” that appears on Tea for the Tillerman 2 is almost unrecognizable. That isn’t the case with a lot of these — you just sang them as they were in their original form — but this one is so different. It is also a song that has been covered by so many other artists. Was that part of why you wanted to do something so divergent with this?
Yusuf Islam: Well, I mean, on reflection, I might have made a mistake [laughs]. It may not be the best version that I could have done. I’ve been playing around for some time with my [digital piano] — I got one of these Yamaha Clavinova things. You can press a button and just get any genre that you want: you know, world music, Star Wars, classical. And I pressed this button called “ragtime.”
When I did ragtime, I started playing these chords and they just kind of fell into place. I was doing this and that, I’ve got no lyrics whatsoever, so I started singing the lyrics to “Wild World” — and I went, “Wow! That sounds great!” I mean, I enjoyed it. And when you get to my stage of, let’s say, proficiency and musicianship, everybody says, “Oh yes, this is a good idea.” So we did it.
It totally works! I thought it was very cool. It’s just not at all … if you have the original in your head, it’s a totally different experience.
That’s true, it makes another song of it.
Other than “Wild World,” which song on the album changed the most?
I think “On the Road to Find Out” is a pretty good example of the departure. Particularly, it brought out of me my love of blues, and especially kind of African and desert blues, if you like.
The lyrics, whatever way you sing them, they’re going to stand out. I seem to be asking myself these questions about the meaning of life quite early on, about where I’m headed. Who was I? I was always in that space. And because of that, I think I really started studying the question of metaphysics and that never stopped. I just kept on looking for answers.
I mean, there are quite a few songs from that period of your career that reflect that yearning. How did that manifest in your own life? I mean, were you unsettled by asking those questions, or did it feel right?
I was pretty unsettled, because I really wanted to keep moving — I wasn’t satisfied with where I was. With songs like “On the Road to Find Out,” you can see my life has been, more or less, a play out with those lyrics. The very end, I talk about, you know, “Pick up a good book.” I was very very careful to say a good book, not the good book, in case people would say, “Oh, the Bible! He’s one of us!” I’ve studied all these different spiritual paths. Who was to know, at that point, that I was going to pick up the Quran? Which changed my whole view of life, if you like. Well, I wouldn’t say it changed it — it clarified it. It re-centered me.
That kind of song is slightly prophetic, you may say — in quotation marks, small “p.” But that’s amazing. When you pick up, as a songwriter, these things, you don’t plan them. You are driven by something within you. Something is calling you, and sometimes you hear it. It’s pretty miraculous, to be honest.
After you converted to Islam, you stepped away from pop music for a couple of decades. May I ask how and when you knew that it was time to come back?
I had lots of people throughout that period telling me, “Make some more music, please, for us.” Not just my old fans, but just people in general, including Muslims. You know, I went through so many changes in the beginning [after converting]. You don’t know the rules and things and what to do; you’re in a state of educating yourself. I got rid of my guitars, because …
You got rid of them?
Yeah, I sold them for charity. I got rid of it all because I felt I was being weighed down with an image of me that I was no longer willing to serve. I just sort of thought, “Hey — I found out who I was, what I want to do, and I’m going to get down to doing it.” The songs were predicting a change in my life. When the change came, I didn’t have to keep on singing songs, you know? That’s kind of logical.
Anyway, there was a point when the Bosnian War was taking place — and it was a big, big shock, because this was Europe and we were seeing a genocide right on our doorstep. This was quite frightening. But I was involved in relief and delivering aid to these people, and when I got there, I found that they were singing these songs. I mean, these songs lifted their spirit at this time when it was so dark. I think it was that that made me realize that music has a very important part to play in the shaping of our dreams and the shaping of what we want for tomorrow. What we want for today.