Thursday, May 07, 2009
Yusuf Islam's The road less travelled
In a rare occassion, during my Yusuf Islam days, I took his son for a spin in Dubai. It was like meeting the Cat Stevens in his early years. His uncanny resemblance (Father and Son...) as well as keen interest in music and song writing, a kind of surreal indeed.
If you were going to pitch Yusuf Islam’s story to a film producer they’d probably say your script is too far-fetched.
Born above a café in London, Islam went on to become one of the biggest British pop stars of the ’60s as Cat Stevens, before reinventing himself in the ’70s as a modern folk troubadour and finding true global success.
Then he gave it all up, converted to Islam and vanished from music for the best part of 30 years, making only fleeting appearances in between devoting his efforts to charity and education in the Muslim community.
Return to form
Prompted by his son bringing a guitar home one day and rediscovering a yearning to play the instrument, Yusuf returned in 2006 with the album An Other Cup. It was warmly received by fans eager to hear more music from the man responsible for classics such as Moonshadow, Father And Son, Wild World and The First Cut Is The Deepest.
“I didn’t know if I was going to carry on making music again after An Other Cup,” he explains. “Since that album I wrote a bunch of songs, and the result of that is evident in this new one,” he adds, referring to Roadsinger, which released on Monday. The new album is a joyful collection of songs that hark back to his classic 1970s records. But for Yusuf, it’s also part of realising a lifelong ambition to write a musical.
“A musical was the first thing I wanted to do, so I got together with Nigel Hawthorne and we were writing a story based on the story of Nicholas and Alexandra, with the Russian Revolution in the background.
“Father And Son is actually one of the songs that came from the musical.” Yusuf, or Cat Stevens as he was then known, took a selection of new songs to Chris Blackwell at Island Records and suggested a musical.
Blackwell, however, was convinced they could be hit records – and he was right. But Yusuf wasn’t entirely comfortable with his position, and when his brother David handed him a copy of the Quran on his 28th birthday, he found what he’d been looking for all along.
“I knew a little of the religion in the early ’70s, but totally discounted it,” he says. “I didn’t think there was anything Islam could offer me, but it wasn’t until someone gave me a copy of the Book that I really understood.”
His conversion and subsequent withdrawal from popular culture was met with suspicion, with many fans feeling alienated or even let down.
“It did upset some people, but I had to get away from that image – it was an image I’d built too,” he says.
“If you didn't like my music before, by becoming a Muslim I certainly didn’t make any extra friends,” he says.
Yusuf’s first-hand experience of prejudice fills up Roadsinger, and while it’s clearly personal, the songs have universal appeal.
He doesn’t preach about his faith, in person or on the record, and if you didn’t know he was a devout Muslim, you might not be able to tell from listening to his latest album.
“The title song has a kind of warning about prejudice. People are too quick to judge somebody because they don’t quite look as if they fit in their particular environment, and how that makes us question them,” he says.
“In that particular song, there’s a beautiful little moment where a child, who has no inhibitions, peeps out and sees this man singing, likes his song and just sends a little message to him by drawing a heart on the window pane for him to see.
“That’s a message about how we perhaps need to revisit our innocence and look again at the world with a bit more of a child’s eye. It’s not a new thing, that’s often what my songs have done. Take Moonshadow, for instance,” he says of his 1971 song about clinging on to hope in any situation.
“Sometimes you’ll find treasure in the most unlikely place.”
By Andy Welch, PA