Yusuf/Cat Stevens On Reinventing 'Tea For The Tillerman,' 50 Years Later: 'I Wanted to Take the Halo Off'

Yusuf/Cat Stevens
Rhys Fagan

Yusuf/Cat Stevens

The legendary singer-songwriter talks about reimagining his 1970 album and how he's been unlocking creativity during the pandemic.

In 1970, Yusuf—then still known as Cat Stevens— released Tea for the Tillerman, a gorgeously melodic collection of songs that looked at the world through a prism of wisdom and spirituality that belied the British artist’s youth.

The multi-platinum album, which included the classic “Wild World,” as well as “Where Do the Children Play” and “Father and Son,” catapulted the 22-year old musician to global stardom and helped define the singer/songwriter era.

On Sept. 18, UMe will release Tea for the Tillerman 2, Yusuf/Cat Stevens' reimagining of the 11 songs filtered through 50 years of life experiences. Recorded in the south of France last summer with the original album’s producer, Paul Samwell-Smith, the reinvention upends many of the familiar arrangements, while staying blessedly true to the mission of the album—to explore life and oneself fearlessly.

Today (May 28), UMe released first single, “Where Do the Children Play,” the album’s opening track. With the world in turmoil, the song has lost none of its poignancy—and, in fact seems more relevant than ever— as it questions how we protect children in the face of rampant urban sprawl, poverty, pollution and climate change. A stop-motion video, directed by Chris Hopewell (Radiohead’s “Burn the Witch), comes out next week.

Yusuf/Cat Stevens talked to Billboard from his home in Dubai, where he has been sheltering in place during the pandemic about recording the original album and revisiting a work loved by millions. The initial plan included playing the album from start to finish on tour, but that is on hold until it is safe to play live in front of an audience again. “Let's hope that we can continue with that next year,” he says.

How did you come up with the idea to revisit the album for its 50th anniversary?

It's a lot to do with my son. He inspires me in many ways to do things and to get out there. This challenge was one I couldn’t refuse because it’s my record, but not only that, it set such a standard for so many people as far as my music is concerned, I thought, “C’mon.” Not that I’m going to try to beat it or compete with it, but at least make it relevant to me today so the people can hear me singing it all over, but with some very interesting and new novel arrangements on some of the songs at least. …If you do a masterpiece, people always want to see you do it again. That's another reason why I’m doing it because I'm satisfying that part of the curiosity of people to see how would I approach it today.

Tea for the Tillerman was your fourth album. You’d broken somewhat in the U.K. but not in the States. What were your expectations for it?

The expectations were almost prophesied by Chris Blackwell. We were standing [in] the Island Records office in London, near Portobello Road. And he turned to me after hearing it—he almost couldn’t recover after he heard this for the first time—and he said to me these immortal words: “You don't know how big you're going to be.” I was a little bit shocked, but he obviously knew something I didn't. So my expectations were, “Oh, you know, I'm progressing.” I've gotten to the point where I was able to do what I wanted to do and so I was extremely happy to just to be there doing that. I had total freedom. My expectations were certainly not more than to have a successful record, but it went much bigger than that.

There’s so much wisdom on the album for someone so young but by then, you’d already had some disenchantment with your career and, more significantly, nearly died from tuberculosis. At 71, do you look back at your 22-year old self and think, “I was an old soul already?”

Everybody carries a DNA destiny. Not just DNA, it's much more than that. It's our spirit. It's not just a physical thing, it’s something that we carry with us. Who was guiding me, it was unseen, but I always felt there was a presence in my life. That I wasn't the only one making things happen. There was something else going on. We're all kind of made for our purpose and our destiny in this world and I just felt that when I started looking up at the sky from very early on, one of my biggest questions was where does the sky end? It was a metaphysical question I had from a young age. And that’s been my task and my mission: to go explore the universe to find out where it's leading to.

When you decided to go back into this body of work, did you discover anything about some of the songs that you didn't realize the first time?

I found my “Hard Headed Woman” and that was a pretty great discovery. I could actually write about her and sing directly to her. That’s my wife. So there you go. It’s thrown a completely new light on the song and I changed the lyrics to make sure it does, that people understand.

The most radical arrangement is on “Wild World,” which you reinvented to sound like something Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill would have done. It almost takes you to a cabaret in Berlin. How did that interpretation come about?

How that happened was kind of a trick. What happens is you can get in front of the Yamaha Clavinova and there are all these buttons and you can go anywhere. You can go to hip hop, rock, ‘60s, classic, world and I just hit ragtime. There was a chord sequence and I started singing “Wild World” to it. It started happening all at once and I thought, ‘This is great!’ I enjoyed reinventing the song, as you said, with that Berlin-esque sound. I also grew up in the time when I was still hearing some of the strains of that music coming out the radio.

You could take an approach to that song, “It’s so pristine and you've got to be so reverent to it.” No, let's do something else. Let’s just have fun and do something new. I wanted to take the halo off.

You turned “On The Road To Find Out” into a bluesy stomp. It’s a little bit tougher than the original.

Yeah. I needed to get inspired. I don't want to just repeat. We wanted to do things differently. I've been listening to Muddy Waters and if you take a song like “Catfish Blues,” his guitar sound on that is just out of this world. So gritty. I wanted something like that. I’ve been working in the studio with Tinariwen. I love the desert blues. I just went back to the roots. That’s where the blues came from. They came from Africa. It was great to be able to reinvent the song and I could sing it in a new dimension with my experience and maturity today.

The obvious one to ask about is “Father and Son.” Fifty years down the road, you’re now the father as opposed to the son who has to go away. What was your approach on that one?

That one kind of created itself. I’m obviously the father. It’s much easier for me to sing in that tone and that scale. I think it was, again, my son's idea, to why not use your original voice from 1970. We dug around and found this incredible recording from the Troubadour in 1970. We isolated the voice and that’s what we used for the son’s part. That’s the making of “Father and Son 2020.”

What was it like reuniting with the album’s original producer Paul Samwell-Smith and guitarist Alun Davis to create the new version?

It was great. Paul has got into the mode now where he knows he can criticize me, but he has be very careful about how he does it. (laughs). I've trained Paul a little bit and he trained me because I know the kind of thing he likes so I won’t waste my time there, I'll get straight onto it. We get on so well together. Hand in glove. It’s a perfect relationship and I love the man.

You also updated the cover art you painted for the original. The Tillerman is now in a space suit and one of the children is holding a smart phone. Is that the world now?

Yeah. It’s much darker. Who knows? In the future with all this pollution, we may need to walk around in space suits. It's like one one of those Sci-fi possibilities. No, Tillerman represents also a constant. There’s that little spot for humanity to exist, to sit down, have a cup of tea and forget about everything else.

When Tea for the Tillerman first came out, the U.S. was greatly divided by the Vietnam War. Now we're even more divided in the U.S. and in much of the world. How do you feel this music can bring us together?

When some people have lost the spiritual link to their lives, music can play an important part. So from that point of view, I think that the sentiments from the album are incredibly important to us today. It shows that there are human beings still around. That's important.

Especially in the middle of a pandemic. Has this time unlocked any creativity in you?

I have been very busy with writing. I'm finalizing my autobiography. I’m trying to fill in the gap for so many people who almost have a mythological view of me so I'm trying to clarify who I am and how it happened. I’ve been illustrating [the book] as well. It’s probably going to be out the end of next year.

This album could introduce you to a new generation of fans. What do you want them to get out of it?

I think like what I got out of the album: It was something which propelled me in my journey, in my life. Once you define what the road is — and the road is to find out—in other words, explore life. That's the whole meaning of the album: Explore yourself and explore life and realizing, you know what, it is a wild world. We have to live in it, but try to find that place of peace within it that you can make your home.

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