It’s the comeback no one ever expected. November sees the return to the world stage of the artist known internationally as Cat Stevens, more than a quarter-century after his last commercial recording.
The global release of Yusuf’s album “An Other Cup” marks the latest stage in the musical and spiritual journey of the British singer/songwriter, born Steven Georgiou some 59 years ago. As Cat Stevens, he enjoyed his first success in the 1960s with such self-penned U.K. chart hits as “I Love My Dog” (1966) and “Matthew & Son” (1967) on the Deram label. Stevens hung out with the Beatles and toured with Jimi Hendrix, but was struck down with tuberculosis in early 1968 at the height of his success.
After hospitalization and convalescence, Stevens re-emerged in 1970 a changed man. Gone was the brash young pop star and in his place, newly signed to the Island label (A&M in the United States), emerged a sensitive, introspective singer/songwriter whose albums “Tea for the Tillerman” (1970), “Teaser and the Firecat” (1971), “Catch Bull at Four” (1972) and “Foreigner” (1973) went on to sell millions internationally.
But an even bigger change came in 1978, when he became a Muslim. He changed his name to Yusuf Islam, sold his guitars and turned away from his fans to become a pillar of the British Muslim community, donating the royalties from his old records to fund Muslim schools and Islamic charities.
Now, finally, comes “An Other Cup,” the artist’s first album since 1978’s “Back to Earth.” The name may have changed but the singer’s gentle voice remains reassuringly familiar, his melodic gifts are intact, and his lyrical insight seems undimmed. In a rare interview, Yusuf talked to Billboard in London to explain what brought about the return of the Cat.
How does it feel to be talking about a new album for the first time in 28 years?
Going into the studio was like going back to a second home for me. What I wasn’t quite prepared for was the commercial and business side, which has grown incredibly corporate and made it more difficult to maintain your balance as an artist. But I’ve been through it before and I can cope.
Did you ever think you would make a record again?
Music had been one of the most important things in my life and I’d done it as Cat Stevens. But as Yusuf, this was a challenge. I never really planned it, but [“Cup” co-producer] Rick Nowels set me going. I’d done a live thing for Mandela’s AIDS charity in South Africa, so he knew I was moving towards musical expression again. We met and ended up in a studio and I pulled out an old song and it felt so good-my voice was still there. We did one track and then he rang and asked if I wanted to do some more. It was very organic.
Were you nervous about returning?
The last place I wanted to return to was the music business. But it’s the people and the cause that matter and right now there’s an important need, which is bridge-building. I wanted to support the cause of humanity, because that’s what I always sang about.
Music can be healing, and with my history and my knowledge of both sides of what looks like a gigantic divide in the world, I feel I can point a way forward to our common humanity again. It’s a big step for me but it’s a natural step. I don’t feel at all irked by the responsibility-I feel inspired.
How did you set up the record deal?
I paid for making the record myself, so I was the captain of my own destiny. The album is on Ya, which is my label, via Polydor in the U.K. [and internationally] and Atlantic in the U.S. They won the day when it came to the deal because what they put up was good for Ya. I was almost able to write my own contract.
Why is the record being released under the name Yusuf rather than Yusuf Islam?
Because “Islam” doesn’t have to be sloganized. The second name is like the official tag, but you call a friend by their first name. It’s more intimate, and to me that’s the message of this record.
Why also put “the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens” on the sleeve?
That’s the tag with which most people are familiar; for recognition purposes I’m not averse to that. For a lot of people, it reminds them of something they want to hold on to. That name is part of my history and a lot of the things I dreamt about as Cat Stevens have come true as Yusuf Islam.
How long was it since you had played a guitar?
Many years. I was never convinced that the Koran prohibited music, but I abstained from musical instruments to keep my balance and avoid any conflict. I’d got rid of them all.
But there’s a nice irony, because I wrote a song called “Father & Son” [in 1970] about the son running off to do his own thing. Now the story is about my son coming back and bringing a guitar into the house. A couple of years ago, one morning after prayers, his guitar was lying around. I picked it up and my fingers knew exactly where to go. I’d written some words and when I put them to music, it moved me and I realized I could have another job to do. Things just grew from there.
How strongly did your faith affect the new songs?
I think purposefulness and a feeling that we have a direction is probably the message of the album. One song, “Whispers From a Spiritual Garden,” sets to music a poem called “Universal Love” by the 13th century Islamic Sufi poet Rumi. I read him even before I read the Koran-at one point I never went anywhere without my book of Rumi’s poems.
When we come to the message of Islam, the root of the word itself comes from peace. Many people on all sides-and some Muslims particularly-have gone extremely far from that basic understanding, and I have a role to play in helping to remind people of the gift of this wonderful religion, which has been politicized and used for other purposes.
In retrospect, do you regret the long years away from music?
No way, because I had to get a life and get off my high horse and join the human race. I’d been a pop star since my teens. When you’re in that privileged position of being rich and famous you can lose touch with reality.
Also, I had another agenda to fulfill; I had to learn my faith and look after my family, and I had to make priorities. But now I’ve done it all and there’s a little space for me to fill in the universe of music again.