Singer-songwriter talks about finding new life, using culture to support moral values and his new single.
November 20, 2008
As Cat Stevens, Yusuf sold over 60 million albums worldwide. At the height of his fame, he converted to Islam, adopted his Muslim name and retired from the music world. He has since devoted himself to educational and philanthropic causes in the Muslim community. He founded a school in his native London and the Small Kindness charity. He also received awards for his work in promoting peace. In '06, Yusuf returned to pop music. His new song, "Boots and Sand," is about his highly-publicized no-fly-list troubles.
Tavis: I’m so pleased to welcome Yusuf to this program. Known earlier to legions of music fans as Cat Stevens, he’s responsible for so much great music, including classic songs like “Peace Train” and “Wild World,” and one of my favorites, “Morning Has Broken.” The two albums I just referenced that feature these and many of his other classics have been reissued now, thank goodness. He also has a new single out featuring Paul McCartney.
The single is called “Boots and Sand,” and next spring he’s set to release a project of all new songs. But first, here now, Yusuf performing his iconic hit, “Peace Train.”
“Yusuf:” (Singing) Peace train sounding louder, glide on the peace train. Come on, peace train. Yes, peace train holy roller, everyone jump up on the peace train. Come on, come on, come on, come on -
Tavis: Honored to have you on the program.
Yusuf: Hey, Tavis.
Tavis: Nice to meet you. Let me start – I’ve been dying to ask you one question above all else, and that is for a guy whose fiber seems to me to be laced with this gift of music, how do you go for 30 years, how do you go for three decades, without doing what it seems to me, as an outsider, at least, what you were born to do?
Yusuf: Well, when I found what I found, what I was looking for, it was so tremendous that I was in a new world, and in that world, to be honest, I’d done all the business, I’d done all the fame, I’d done everything that a guy could want to do at that age – I’d done it. What I hadn’t done was to get a life.
And that needs filling out. As human beings, if we concentrate only on the physical, on the material, on the monetary and whatever else that entails, then you lose something of what you began with in this world, and that, I think, is the human, normal-sized thing where you start to have a connection with your own self. And I think I lost myself somewhere. So I needed to find myself. I needed a long break. And I started a family, so that was important.
Tavis: During that 30-year period, might it not have been possible, or was it not a priority for you to – I hear your point, aside from the money and aside from the fame and all the performances and screaming fans and women and all stuff, I get that, set that aside. You’ve got to go do something for your own spirit; I get that.
But if music is so much a part of who you are, you couldn’t have married those two things, minus the fame and the records and all that stuff?
Yusuf: There was a little bit of a kind of controversy about music. In Islam, the kind of – the stories that I was being told and kind of the interpretation I was being given put a big question mark over it. And the main reason for that is like you just see the obvious things kind of on MTV and whatever else. It tells you that, well, this may not be ideally suited for a person who’s trying to correct himself morally and get on the path. (Laughter)
So I said, “Well, this is more important to me.” And I’d got to that point in my career where you know what? I could have probably written my next contract myself.
Tavis: Indeed you could have, yeah.
Yusuf: So I was in charge of my career, and that is a great gift. And if you’ve got charge of your life, I think I’ve managed to achieve that. That was valuable. I didn’t want to just sell myself down, and I couldn’t start singing about something I didn’t know, because I hadn’t learned it yet.
So if I’m going to be sincere, as I was when I started writing my songs, I was trying to tell everyone how I felt, and then that connected with a lot of people, I’d have to really be sincere about what I sing next. And I can’t do it as a novice, and I needed time.
Tavis: So what did you learn, then, during that time, during that three-decade hiatus away from performing this music that we love from you, what did you learn then? Because obviously, you’ve learned something about how now to marry, how to bridge what you thought was a divide 30 years ago – a divide between your faith and your gift.
Yusuf: Well, it came – this has been a slow development, but my son was probably one of the most important figures in this whole thing, because my son, of course, grows up in my house – we didn’t really have any records but there were records around somewhere, and he was listening to them, and he was just growing in his love of music.
So one day, he buys a guitar. I think my wife helped him purchase it. And then he brings it back into the house, and that was – guess what, me and the guitar again. I’m looking at it one morning when everybody was asleep, and I’m going, come on, come here. (Laughter) And that was the beginning of another lovely relationship with my -
Tavis: Please tell me, put me in this moment. Tell me what happens when the guitar comes to you? Can you place me in that moment? You picked it up.
Yusuf: Yeah, I picked it up, and I just wanted to know whether or not C was still where I left it. (Laughter) So I went “C, F,” and it was becoming – it was all so easy.
Tavis: It came right back to you, didn’t it?
Yusuf: And not only that, because I’d been writing, and I’d been writing words and melodies and so on. So I said, “Let’s try that song I’ve been writing on the – wow.” It was like the first time that I picked up – it was what I did with “Morning Has Broken.” I didn’t write “Morning Has Broken,” but I picked up a hymn book, and I’ve got this top line – it’s just a top line – and I said, “Ooh, that sounds good. I’m going to put these chords to it.”
And so when I put those chords to “Morning Has Broken,” it went “Ahh,” and just blushed, and I went, “This is fantastic.” That’s kind of what happened when I started picking up the guitar again with my melodies and those things I’ve been writing.
Tavis: Since you mentioned “Morning Has Broken,” all these year later, when, and if you have occasion to hear that song in a variety of places, I suspect, what do you hear when you hear that song now? What do you think? Does that song mean the same thing to you now that it did then?
Yusuf: Yeah, I love that song because it was universal. It’s just the touch of God’s creation on our spirit when we see it, and we see it in this purity and this wonder, and that’s every morning, we get that. Some people don’t wake up to that. They see the world as a dark place and so it’s the kind of thing that everybody can relate to, even though originally it was written with another title.
Originally it was a Gaelic song called “The Child in the Cradle,” meaning Jesus. But someone else took it and made it more generic, and that’s why I picked it up.
Tavis: That’s amazing. Not that this matters to you, but I grew up in a little, small church, and every time I hear “Morning Has Broken,” my mind goes back to this little church I grew up in where we used to sing a song called “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” and the lyric is that “Morning by morning, new mercies I see.”
So every morning we get these new mercies, and morning has broken every time we get a chance to see another day.
Yusuf: Exactly, and people just take it for granted. They open their eyes, and they’ve got another life given to them, and yet people just don’t know how to spend it sometimes.
Tavis: Another chance to get it right, that’s the way I see every day.
Tavis: We’ve been talking about your faith, and I want to go a little further than that, if I can. Tell me about your faith journey, and I ask you this because there’s so many people who, as we sit and have this conversation now, are on, right now, a journey, trying to – as you said earlier, trying to find themselves, trying to find their faith, trying to find meaning. Tell me more, as must as you’re comfortable telling me, about the journey that you were on to finding Islam as your faith.
Yusuf: Well, I wasn’t looking for any particular name, or I didn’t know what the name of it was, but for me, this journey was to do with finding out principally what’s going to happen after I die. That is a big question. And there’s a lot of people giving a lot of confused messages which we receive in the world today, with religion, with science, all telling us kind of slightly different variations – sometimes nothing at all.
It’s just like we’re all dust, and we disappear. So I don’t know why they don’t throw bodies in the dustbin if they really believe that, but that’s not the case. We know there’s something very, very important about the human spirit, and that’s the thing which I think is one of those things a lot of people understand it; some people don’t, but it’s perpetual. It’s not one of those things that just disappears. You’re going to take it with you to the next world.
So in other words, I’ve got to find out what’s going to happen to me in the next world, and am I prepared? I think that was the main motivation for me. And I never studied Islam; I studied Buddhism, through the I Ching thing, I was into astrology and numerology, I wrote an album about it.
I was an organic person living, trying to live a purist’s life in a very corrupt context as a pop star – I wouldn’t say totally corrupt. (Laughter) And I was just looking for the truth. And I kept that journey going until one day somebody turned me on – it was actually my brother who gave me a copy of the Qur’an. And he wasn’t a Muslim.
And I had a stigma about Muslims because I was already – these are the Turks, and my father’s Greek. But I said, “This book’s not going to hurt me,” and I don’t like to be told what I can’t read. And I don’t want to be told you shouldn’t know this. The point is we’ve got to be free enough to break through some of the prejudices we grow up with naturally.
So I started to read the Qur’an, and God almighty, there was the name of God, there was the names of all the prophets – Abraham, Jesus, Moses, Noah. I said, “What is this – how come – you mean Muslims believe in this?” So it was a mind-blower for me, and I thought, “How come it’s been such a secret?”
And there we get to today’s predicament, whereby we have cultural borders, sometimes cultural walls, which we don’t see through. Now things have changed. There’s an amazing turnabout in the world today, even though it’s come through disasters and horrendous events, yet it’s making humanity look again, a bit further beyond their own borders as they begin to recognize someone else’s existence, very much like their own.
Tavis: And yet there is, as you well know, being a Muslim, there is still this stigma that so many people have, so many Americans, to be frank about it, have, about persons who share your faith.
Yusuf: Yeah, that’s right. Even Obama had a difficult job – he can’t get rid of his middle name.
Tavis: Yeah, Obama got around it.
Yusuf: He got around it, but because he’s a communicator, and there aren’t that many good communicators, I’m afraid, on the Muslim side. And oftentimes, the media’s got to be responsible for making it quite difficult to distinguish between fiction and fact.
Sometimes they’ll pick somebody as a demonstration of a fact, and you can’t take an individual and brand a whole faith because of that one person. You’ve got to look much wider than that.
Tavis: I wonder, though, if you were concerned, since you mentioned Mr. Obama, President-elect Obama, I wonder if you were concerned, as a person who practices the Muslim faith, that even with the attempt by his campaign to say that he was not a Muslim, to say that he is, in fact, a Christian, I wonder whether or not you were concerned about – I want to phrase this the right way – the potential blow-back on the Muslim faith, because the point is “I am not a Muslim. I am a Christian.”
And to Mr. Obama’s credit, every time he said that, he would also add, “There’s nothing wrong with being a Muslim. I’m not denigrating the Muslim faith. I just happen to be a Christian.” But in that – as I kept reading that controversy, I kept getting concerned about whether or not persons of the Muslim faith thought that there was still this effort to make their faith, Islam, less than in the name of Christianity.
Yusuf: A lot of Muslims look at the United States and they say it’s a Christian country, so there shouldn’t be a problem about having a Christian president. And in fact a lot of – I would say in the Middle East particularly, they were astounded at what happened – amazed. Because here was the first, if you like, Bill Clinton president being elected, and it gave a real mirror to the rest of the world.
Not just the Middle East – Europe and everywhere. And it’s a fantastic thing. And even through all the prejudices, including his name, and the hint that oh, he was an Arab or something, he came through that because of his ability to communicate, and that’s the vital key, I think.
Tavis: As one who lives outside of these borders, is it your sense – you can shed some light on this that I haven’t seen – is it your sense that in your part of the world and parts of the world that you travel in – Dubai and other places – that he is going to be given a chance to make a new American case?
Yusuf: I think there’s incredible hope for that worldwide. It’s a lot of weight on one man’s shoulders – may God give him strength. He’s certainly not the messiah, but he’s got a very important role to play in history right now, and he could do something.
Tavis: You have, I suspect, a bit more than most people to say about the world we live in today because you had some difficulty a few years ago, 2004, to be exact, trying to -
Yusuf: Oh, really?
Tavis: (Laughter) “Oh, really,” he says.
Yusuf: I’ve got a bad memory.
Tavis: Well, I remember awfully well. I remember waking up and turning on the news and seeing this story about your plane being diverted and the difficulty you had getting into the country. So tell me and those who may not have heard the story or who remember it, what actually happened in 2004.
Yusuf: Well, I was on a trip – honestly, I was on a trip to Nashville, and I had a session set up, waiting for me. Musicians in the studio, and Dolly Parton was going to welcome me as well – it’s Nashville.
And I’m on my way to make my album – first album, like, for something – two decades. And then I noticed that the plane was going somewhere. Anyway, we end up, seven FBI soldiers, big guys, come on board, saying, “Your name Yusuf Islam?” I’m saying, “Yes.” (Laughter) They say, “Do you mind coming with me?” I said, “No, no, no, no.” And I was with my daughter.
And we went off, and that’s where the whole saga started. And it was like being thrust into the middle of a kind of a film plot, and I wasn’t told who I was supposed to be and what I should do next, but then I was led, asked questions, and they kept on repeating, “Is your – do you spell it Y-O-U-S?” I said, “No, I don’t, I spell it Y-U-S-U-F.” They said, “You sure you don’t spell it Y-O-U?” (Laughter) I said, “No, I spell it Y.”
I said, “Must be a name thing.” And then overnight, I slept there, they gave me a nice hotel somewhere. I woke up, and I woke up with the same thing you did, and I was watching, seeing my face on television, saying, “This guy’s being shifted out of the -” I said, “My god, what’s going on?” I was shocked. I was in shock. And best way to deal with that is just say, “God help me,” and then I got back to London.
And I’ve taken that experience and I’ve contextualized it in a song, so now I’ve written a song called “Boots and Sand,” which kind of explains -
Tavis: That’s the Paul McCartney thing, the collaboration.
Yusuf: That’s right, that’s right. And it kind of tells you the story as a joke, because that’s what it ended up to be.
Tavis: I even love the poster.
Yusuf: Oh, you’ve got that?
Tavis: You got a copy of this, Jonathan? I love this thing.
Yusuf: There’s no FBI around, are there? (Laughter)
Tavis: Wanted. (Laughter) I love that. So the back story to your unfortunate drama and dilemma was that there was a person on a terrorist list whose name was also -
Yusuf: Yeah, it could be. There are other rumors, but again, it’s one of those things that was never, ever explained. And so I said, “Don’t worry, as long as I’m here, there’s no problem.”
Tavis: So you’re very calm about it. Were you as calm then?
Yusuf: I was, yeah. (Unintelligible)
Tavis: You didn’t hate what America had become because of what happened to you trying to get to a recording session?
Yusuf: No, because – well, I thought – I figured, well, I’m not going to do my record in America, number one. (Laughter)
Tavis: That was clear.
Yusuf: And number two, the officers there wanted my autograph, and I said, “That’s the real face of America.” As far as I was concerned, these are real people, and their orders were coming through the wire. And you wouldn’t know who’s sending that information, but these are the real people.
Tavis: But that’s got to be weird and funny at the same time – you’re being yanked off a plane with your daughter because they think you’re a terrorist, and while they’re interrogating you they’re also, on the sly, asking you for your autograph.
Yusuf: Yeah, it’s cool. (Laughter)
Tavis: Only in America, as we say. Tell me about the – we’re talking about “Boots and Sand,” tell me about the record that you’re working on of new material coming out next year.
Yusuf: Yeah, well, this is my second album, if you like, starting over again, and it’s been a response, in a way, to my first album. My first album after being away from the studio so long, suddenly I found all these great technical toys I could work with, and it’s a digital world and I could do anything. So I kind of tried everything with the last album, and it was probably a bit overproduced.
So this one goes a little bit more to the core of what I used to do best, which was like me and the song and the guitar, and a lot of it is very close to the skin, very personal.
Tavis: Back to that album that you were referencing a moment ago, the one you did a couple decades out after not doing music, and you find yourself in the studio with all this new stuff, these new toys to play with, do you think now that was a mistake? Do you think you got away from – if I could put it this way – the stripped-down nature of what we’ve come to appreciate you for?
Yusuf: Yeah, I think even before I made “Tea for the Tillerman,” which was my iconic, if you like, album, I had to go through another era, another kind of stage, and that was about – back in ’67 I did these albums with, like, brass and strings and big arrangements. I had to do that to get to the next stage. So sometimes you’ve got to do something, put your foot somewhere, in order to get to the next point.
I think I had to do that, but I love that – people love that album, but they wanted something more. And that’s what I tried to give them with this album.
Tavis: You mentioned “Tea for the Tillerman,” and you mentioned correctly that it is the iconic work that you are, I think, known for. “Teaser and the Firecat,” a lot of stuff, but “Tea for the Tillerman,” no doubt about it. What do you make of this record now, all these years later?
Yusuf: Well, it’s great to have – people still love it and it’s part of people’s lives, and it represents the amazing journey and a portion of the journey that I’d just begun, and with a very honest and very sincere and minimalist sort of approach to music and getting rid of all that baggage and being very honest, and being up front.
And I think more than some artists, perhaps I exposed myself. I didn’t mind. I’m dressed, but you know what I’m saying. (Laughter) I did it in such a way as to open my heart, lay my heart out.
Tavis: You don’t regret that, looking back on it, though?
Yusuf: No, I think that’s so important, because that’s what lasts, I think, and that’s why I’m still here today.
Tavis: Now to the point about why it’s still here today, connecting this to your earlier point about albums that sometimes can get over-produced, are our ears ready, can our ears accept that kind of honesty in lyrical content today? We live in a world where stuff is so produced and is so overproduced, can the simplicity, the minimalist approach to just giving you some good music with some good lyrics, can that still work today?
Yusuf: Oh, I think for sure. And things do go round in cycles, and it happens to be that I – I happen to be at that point again where people are listening more closely. As you say, there’s a lot of that other stuff around, and there is a need for the alternative, and if you look at what also the Muslim community, they wouldn’t expect me to do anything other than that, and it’d be very important that they also understand that there’s something of real value, and a lot of people now are starting to understand how much we have to use culture to support our moral values as well. And this has got to be part of art, and the purpose of art.
Tavis: Finally, then, given what you’ve just said, are you hopeful about that prospect?
Yusuf: Always, eternally. Yeah.
Tavis: Eternally hopeful.
Tavis: Even with all the evidence that suggests that there’s reason to be concerned about the world we live in?
Yusuf: No, I’m one of those old-fashioned people who believe in happy endings, and that’s where I want to be and where I think every person that goes to any cinema or theater – yeah, you can give them some kind of avant-garde piece of art, but in the end, they want to smile, they want to be happy. Sometimes they want to cry at the same time, but it’s happiness that everybody’s seeking.
Tavis: Well, here’s to happy endings. What a great place to end a conversation. Two projects now that you have to have that are in re-release now, some of his best stuff – “Tea for the Tillerman” and “Teaser and the Firecat” and just a little while from now, some brand new material from Yusuf, formerly known as Cat Stevens. What an honor to have you on the program.
Yusuf: Thank you.
Tavis: Delighted to meet you.
Yusuf: Thank you.
Tavis: Thank you so much.
Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm