Cat Stevens interview exclusive
If you got the chance to interview Yusuf Islam what would you ask him? Maybe you’d want to know about his life as Cat Stevens, the artist who in the 1970s sold millions of albums and was without doubt one of the biggest artists on the planet? Or maybe you’d question why he turned his back on stardom, converted to Islam, sold all his guitars, and began a completely new life that seemed totally at odds with everything that had gone before?
Then again, perhaps you are a Muslim and it’s only Yusuf Islam the charity worker that you have ever known, via his educational spoken-word CDs and his faith schools. You might be more interested in why he is once again touring as Cat Stevens and now seems comfortable with his old life – or should that be his old, old life?
The point being, he has many different personas and people hold strong opinions about them. I’ve had plenty of time to consider all those viewpoints.
It’s taken five years to pin Yusuf down to an interview – mainly because he is constantly juggling all these aforementioned commitments. But now, finally, the timing is right. It’s Ramadan and, in the spirit of the Holy Month, he has just released a song “He Was Alone” to highlight the plight of refugees in Europe. It’s a subject he feels passionate about, so he wants to talk.
There was a lot to discuss, which we did over two interviews in Dubai, where he has a home. Further insights came from trips to meet his team at their music studios and even from shadowing him for a day of press interviews in London. His book, Why I Still Carry A Guitar (WISCAG) also helped set the record straight.
It’s been a lengthy journey, though of course not half as far as the road he’s travelled. So let’s start at the beginning…
Well I hit the rowdy road / And many kinds I met there – “On The Road To Find out”, Tea For The Tillerman, 1970
His name was Steven Demetre Georgiou, son of a Cypriot father and Swedish mother, raised in a flat above the family restaurant in London’s West End district. The year of his birth, 1948, meant his adolescence coincided with the explosion of youth culture in the 1960s. Britain’s capital city was the epicentre for music, theatre, art, fashion, youth, rebellion and profound social change – and all of it was a stone’s throw from his doorstep.
“I’d run from home from school and sneak into these strange warehouses where they’d be building the scenery for shows, and in and out of picture houses and theatres,” he says today, all these years later. “It was so free spirited and open. I didn’t have to choose my identity or be anything. I could be anyone.”
He describes the music, and the now legendary bands he saw at the 100 Club near his home as, “a continuous and ecstatic joy ride for those who experienced it. There was constantly some new discovery; it was like we were finding life on Mars. The songs were coming at you, one after the other, everyone of them a masterpiece.”
He’s regaling me with these stories over lunch at a low-key Chinese restaurant near his home in Dubai. His son, Yoriyos, who helps run their business and charitable ventures, is sitting with us and they’re both unfailingly polite, both to myself and the staff. No one recognises him, though most people here – the Filipino waiters, Chinese chefs and Arabic diners – would know at least some of his songs, even if they don’t spot the writer in their midst.
I’d wondered how happy he’d be talking about his distant past, but he seems to be at a place in life where he’s happy to look back with gratitude at the memories – especially when I ask him if the whole “Swinging Sixties” could really have been that good? “Ah, it was great,” he responds with the laugh of someone who knows what the rest of us missed.
Between mouthfuls of food, he talks about how his early attempts to play the guitar and the songs he learned to write with it. In 1966 he changed his name to Cat Stevens, got a record deal and wrote his first hits including “I Love My Dog”, and “Matthew and Son”, the title song from his debut album that went to number two in the UK. Over the next two years he had a run of hits, and played with everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Englebert Humperdinck.
One thing you couldn’t do, even then, was pin him down to a genre or scene. “There was this record store across the road and they were always ahead of everyone else with their stock,” he remembers. “You’d hear a Scott Joplin song and be like, ‘Wow what’s that?’ Music was everywhere and I was picking up all kinds of tones, tastes and delicacies. Spanish, Russian choral or Armenian or electronic... I listened to everything.”
For this reason he felt more comfortable as a solo artist, and his eclectic tastes reflected a restless nature (it’s perhaps no coincidence that he was on the same record label as a young David Bowie). So although he loved what was going on around him, Yusuf also describes himself as more of an outsider, and his lyrics went way beyond the usual boy-meets-girl scenario. “You want to be with the most beautiful girl in the world, who loves you just for who you are,” he says wistfully, “but I didn’t know who I was, so, how could anybody do that?”
It was obvious, even in those first songs, that his search was about more than romantic love. He was asking some pretty big questions of himself – and about life in general.
I wish I could tell, I wish I could tell / What makes a heaven what makes a hell – “I Wish, I Wish”, Mona Bone Jakon, 1970
There would soon be plenty of time to stop and think about the bigger picture. Stevens’ hedonistic “joy-ride” was stopped in its tracks when tuberculosis almost killed him in 1969. He went from being a teenage pop star with the world at his feet, to facing a year-long recuperation from the disease.
So while the Sixties roared on, and bands like The Who could blithely proclaim, as only the young can, that they hoped they would die before getting old, Stevens was suddenly confronted with death as a very real possibility. Lying in a hospital bed in the countryside away from London, he thought deeply about his religious background – he’d been to a Catholic school – and also began exploring Buddhism and meditation. “It was a stop sign that made me reassess everything,” he says when I ask how big an impact the illness had on his life. “It also re-emphasised something I’d always had within me, which was the search for peace, where you’ve found a place in this universe which is right for you. And that goes along with finding out more about your own identity.”
Many people naturally want to understand how an iconic long-haired hippy pop star that sang and embodied their dreams ended up a muslim, prostrating in prayer five times a day and abandoning drinks, parties, adoration and applause - Yusuf Islam, WISCAG
As well as taking stock of his life over those long months alone, Stevens wrote dozens of new songs. They were simpler guitar-orientated pieces that he describes as being “full of spiritual enquiries, openness and childlike honesty” and they were perfect for the early 1970s market, where singer-songwriters dominated the charts. Backed by the legendary Island Records boss Chris Blackwell, the album Mona Bone Jakon was released in 1970 followed six months later by the record that would make him a worldwide star, Tea For The Tillerman, which included “Father and Son”, “Wild World”, “Where do the Children Play?” and “Hard Headed Woman”. Blackwell described it as “the best album we’ve ever released” which was high praise considering he managed some of the most critically acclaimed artists of the era. Teaser And The Firecat came next, with “Peace Train”, “Morning Has Broken”, and “Moonshadow” all becoming instant classics.
But all the resulting wealth and adoration couldn’t quieten the questions that nagged at Stevens. “Looking back into my albums, a person would see quite clearly that within me was a fluttering soul that could not settle down,” he writes in WISCAG. “I was still restless and empty inside.”
On this boat called ‘near and far’ / To be what you must, you must give up what you are – “To Be What You Must”, Roadsinger, 2009
It took another near-death experience for Stevens to find his true spiritual path. He was in America, swimming one morning in the ocean, off Malibu Beach, and didn’t realise until it was too late that a strong current was carrying him away from land. In WISCAG he describes what happened next: “I realised there was no other way and called out, praying from the depths of my sinking heart, ‘Oh God, if You save me I’ll work for You.’ At that moment a gentle wave pushed me forward and I was able to swim back. That was my moment of truth.”
What he didn’t yet know was that Islam would be that path to God. It was his brother, David, who bought him a Qu’ran, knowing that his younger sibling was interested in spiritual books. Stevens read it over the course of a year, but it wasn’t until he got to the story of Joseph (or Yusuf in Arabic), that something resonated like nothing had ever done before. He knew what he needed to do.
In 1977 Cat Stevens walked into London Central Mosque in Regent’s Park to declare his belief and enter the Ummah – the nation of faith. He has never knowingly missed a prayer since then. Quickly realising that he couldn’t reconcile his new life with the music business, he put out one last record, Back To Earth, as Cat Stevens, before taking the name Yusuf Islam on July 4, 1978, and starting again.
I would have been an utter hypocrite if I discovered what I did and then walked away from it. That would’ve been a betrayal of everything I’ve ever stood for
It cannot be emphasised what a totally new experience this was for Stevens. This was before world events brought Islam into focus, and the religion was still relatively unknown in the West. He’d had never even met a Muslim until the first day he became one. As Yusuf, he would soon marry a Muslim girl, Fauzia Mubarak Ali, start a family (he has five children and seven grandchildren), grow out his beard, adopt a more Islamic style of dressing and donate his guitars to charity. He also decided which of his songs were haram or halal, keeping the royalties only from the latter category, then threw himself into learning Arabic and starting charitable and education ventures. I ask how he coped with such a profound transition and he shrugs his shoulders. “Once you’ve decided to jump in the water, there’s not much else to do apart from learn how to swim,” he replies.
Today, in the Chinese restaurant in Dubai, his beard is trim and he’s dressed in the western clothes he re-adopted a long time ago now. His clothes are modest and age-appropriate, though the vintage aviator sunglasses and stylish jacket are subtle hints that the pop star of yesteryear has not completely left the building.
Discussing the move away from his old life he says he doesn’t regret any of it, apart from the confusion it caused to his genuine fans. Yet he’s adamant that there was no choice. His music had always been about finding truth and he couldn’t live a lie once he’d found his path. “I’ve never really had a profession other than expressing myself, and I would never want to misspend that responsibility. That’s why I walked away from the music business,” he says, deadly serious for a moment. “What I was looking for wasn’t just a mirage, it was true. I meant it. And I would have been an utter hypocrite if I discovered what I did and then walked away from it. That would’ve been a betrayal of everything I’ve ever stood for.”
You know I used to weave my words into confusion / So I hope you’ll understand me when I’m through – “Dying to Live”, Tell ’Em I’m Gone, 2014
Yusuf says he loved this period in his life, discovering a new community, starting a family, learning about himself and his religion. But the world was changing. One year after converting, the Iranian Revolution sent shockwaves around the world and Yusuf laments how Muslims in the West felt like they suddenly had to choose sides. Almost overnight, a benign disinterest about Islam turned into something darker and more immediate. “A wall was being built around us;” he writes in WISCAG. “We were thrown into the shadows of a long dark night.”
One disaster followed another: the Iran-Iraq war, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the abandonment of the Palestinians, famines, floods and earthquakes, the Bosnian war, 9/11... The list of calamities goes on, brutal and dark and it would have profound implications for Muslims in general and Yusuf personally.
People calling me Cat Stevens? That's OK. It's just a hashtag
Because Westerners didn’t know much about Islam, Yusuf found himself becoming a de-facto spokesperson for a religion he was only just discovering. In the long run this would be a useful platform for sharing knowledge and ideas, but it would cause huge problems in the early years, when he was still finding his way. This came to a head in 1989 when he was asked to explain his position regarding the fatwa by the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran on Salman Rushdie after the publication of his inflammatory novel, The Satanic Verses.
Yusuf says his responses to the barrage of questions about whether he supported the fatwa were deliberately twisted – especially in one painful encounter with a QC in a live television debate. And when he did release a statement regarding his position, certain lines were taken out of context from the message he was trying to convey. The episode cast a long shadow, though his position has long been clear, as he re-iterates in WISCAG. “The truth of the matter is that I never agreed with the fatwa, in fact, I firmly believe it went against the basic injunction in Islam which forbids the taking of life without just right – lawfully – part of due process in maintaining law and order within society. Never did I say ‘kill Rushdie’ or believe that Muslims were morally or duty bound to take the law into their own hands.”
For that reason, it seems pointless today to rake over old ground again. There will always be critics who choose to rely on YouTube snippets, rather than read his considered responses. It seems more appropriate to ask how the position he was in – straddling Islam and the Western world – made him feel in general. “I think I was affected by the people around me,” he says of those years living and working with his Muslim brethren in north London. “A lot of them had left their countries, just trying to save their skins, and weren’t being accepted. And then you can’t help but be affected by the catastrophes happening in the rest of the world; it was all pretty dark. There wasn’t much for many Muslims to smile about and that must have rubbed off on me.”
The world is still a difficult, messy place in which to live, but Yusuf’s outward manner is very different today. Although he still wants to talk about the problems of inequality and injustice, in general he just seems a lot looser than perhaps he once would have been. When I ask him what changed his perspective he says what many parents or grandparents would understand: that having children lightened him up again. “You can’t be that serious. Well, maybe at the beginning, but then you’ve got to learn how to be a father and learn to ease off, because freedom, I think, is God given, so you have to respect the fact that everybody has to get through this learning curve on their own, with a bit of help guidance and advice, but in the end everybody’s doing it on their own.”
Being a spokesperson for his faith is a burden he also seems more willing or able to shoulder these days. Although he is quick to point out that he doesn’t have the answers – “I am not seeking or asking anyone to follow me, or my various conclusions, but only to look within themselves at the signs of the eternal truth,” – is how he describes it in WISCAG, he’ll happily discuss Islam’s proud history as a culturally progressive force, a fact he thinks has been deliberately downgraded in the West. He’ll quote Rumi’s beautiful mystic poetry and reemphasise time and time again the peaceful, inclusive nature of his religion. Basically, he seems more secure with the path he is on , the wisdom he’s gained over the decades and the opportunities his music and faith have given him to help others.
I have dreamt of an open world / Borderless and wide / Where the people move from place to place/ And nobody’s taking sides – “Maybe there’s a World”, An other Cup, 2006
To many people, Yusuf will always be remembered for being the pop star who became a Muslim. But what will arguably be a far bigger legacy, albeit one that has often gone under the radar, is what he has done with that platform. A key tenet of Islam is charity – zakat – and he was very active from the beginning in this regard. As well as founding the first British Muslim government-funded schools in London he started his own charity, Small Kindness and the Yusuf Islam Foundation. For many years this, along with education, was his fulltime occupation.
Yusuf is animated when he talks of how compassion can literally be a game-changer for humanity. “The only way to communicate, share and expand is through human contact with those who don’t have as much as others, which brings you back to the great rules of life,” he says. There is a saying in Islam, “Love For Your Brother What You Love For Yourself”. Jesus said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you”. And this runs all the way through to the Declaration of Human Rights, which is about good neighbourliness. Well, hey, where did that go?
Parts of Europe are locking the doors, due to that lethal disease of prejudice, and a lot of it goes back to education. So charity and education are always going to be the main areas of work that I love to be engaged in.”
For this reason he refuses to bow to cynicism or despair, even having just returned from a refugee camp in Turkey. “There is a lot of injustice in the world,” he says, “but there’s also an optimism that’s like the ocean. It renews itself if you just stop interfering with nature.”
It’s also the reason he’s doing this interview with Esquire – to raise awareness for his beautiful new song “He Was Alone” aimed at raising awareness of the refugees – particularly the children – desperately trying to survive the journey to Europe.
In all the emotive discussions about refugees, it’s an overlooked fact that an astonishing 10,000 children have gone missing since the Syrian crisis began, according to the EU’s criminal intelligence agency.
“One of the biggest crimes today is reductionism,” Yusuf says of his inspiration for the song. “We talk about ‘millions of people’ as if it’s just a figure... we’ve lost the human contact.” The moving video for “He Was Alone” focuses on the story of an actual refugee, a twelve-year-old boy, and his journey from Syria to Turkey. It was due to be played in front of world leaders and other influencers at the end of May at a UN-backed World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul; men and women who have the power to shape policy in Europe.
This is the power that music has given him – the ability to share, communicate and inspire through music. Which brings us to the $64 million question: why did he come to pick up the guitar again, 25 years after renouncing it as being incompatible with his faith?
Then a stranger sang / The voice like the wind / Then the hails began to sing / Welcome in – “Welcome Home”, Roadsinger, 2009
For many years Yusuf erred on the side of caution regarding the role of music in Islam. He did not play or sing, on the advice that it was probably incompatible with his faith. This viewpoint gradually softened over the decades as he learned of the less restrictive view of many other scholars. “Islam does not forbid what is good and meaningful in art and music,” he writes in WISCAG. “It simply does not sanction what is vile, mindless or vain”. To that end, he set up Mountain of Light in 1994, a charitable organisation and studio dedicated to promoting Islam. His spoken word album, released in 1995, The Life of the Last Prophet, was a worldwide hit in many Muslim countries, which showed that he still had an ability to connect to audiences.
“The Little Ones” was his response to the war in Bosnia, and it led to an album I Have No Cannons That Roar in 1998, though he wasn’t actually playing on any of these compositions. A is for Allah followed in 2000, which led to more educational CDs. In 2001 he opened an office and then a studio in Dubai to produce more children’s songs.
In 2002 Yusuf finally picked up the guitar again, after Yoriyos brought one to their house in Dubai. This would once have been a cause for consternation, but instead of scolding his son he did something else. One morning, when everyone else was sleeping, he picked up the guitar and placed his fingers on the fretboard. He quickly found a C and D chord, thought for a while and then remembered the correct voicing for F. And there he sat, playing as a beginner, the guitar full of possibilities. From this moment the music began to flow again and has yet to stop, which he thinks is because “it was like going back to having nothing to lose... It’s back to when you were a kid.”
Another series of marker points led him back to writing and performing on a permanent basis. He wrote “Indian Ocean” for victims of the 2004 tsunami and went to Indonesia to distribute aid. And, in what was perhaps the perfect example of his more humorous side reasserting itself, he turned the very troubling experience of being refused entry to the US in 2004, thanks to the FBI mistakenly placing him on a no-fly list, into a song that poked fun at the ordeal. “Boots & Sand” was catchy, subversive and funny, with Dolly Parton and Paul McCartney, who are both fans, proving backing vocals, and Bob Dylan’s son, Jesse, directing the video.
He released his first full album in almost 30 years, An Other Cup in 2006, followed by Roadsinger (2009) and Tell ’Em I’m Gone (2014), and also wrote a musical, Moonshadow. He’s also just finished another album, this time with his old producer Paul Samwell-Smith and guitarist Alun Davies who worked on his most famous early material. This one revisits some early material, including “Mighty Peace” and “Northern Wind (The Death of Billy the Kid)”, of which he is especially proud, as well as some standards and new compositions. He’s clearly delighted to be back with his old comrades, rediscovering the unique magic and longevity of those songs.
This brings us to a big question I’d asked myself about Yusuf Islam: How do you explain the enduring power of his music? (I should confess to a longstanding interest in this regard. I’m speaking now as a journalist who has had a sideline playing music in bars for the past 20 years, and I can report that the likes of “Wild World”, “Father and Son” and “First Cut is the Deepest” have always been among the most requested songs – and not from any one demographic either. This has often led me to wonder why some songs just never lose their hold on people.)
In an anonymous-looking Turkish restaurant near Satwa,the setting for our second interview, the man who wrote these classics humbly sips his tea and thinks about the question. “It’s got to be a reflection of people’s own experiences or their emotions,” he eventually says. “A song can feel like it was written for you, and it’s wonderful to be able to reflect things that they perhaps couldn’t explain in any other way.” Ask how he managed to capture those emotions, he puts down his cup and pauses again. “When you ask me today who wrote those songs then I have to really ponder, because I don’t know.”
Like many other artists, he says that most of his best-known work almost seemed to write itself. “In the early days you’re not really thinking about it, you’re in the middle of everything. But on reflection it must be a bit like when a scientist unravels some mystery, DNA or whatever, and he’s discovered what was already there and he’s, like, ‘Wow, I’m the first to see it!’. And when you write music you’re the first one to hear it. So you’re very lucky... But it doesn’t mean you wrote it.”
I tell him about a phrase I’d heard a couple of days before, “music is the sound of feelings” and how I immediately associated it with his songs. “Well, music is the straightest way to get to the heart, and the heart is where our conscience lives,” he agrees. “And it can be manipulated sometimes or used for titillation, like a lot of music today, or it can strike another chord that makes you stop and think.”
He jokes that, back in the day, he regretted the fact that other people’s music made an audience dance, whereas his songs made them sit down and ponder, but now he realises that is a good thing. And to return to the purpose behind his new release “He Was Alone”, that is a powerful tool. “It’s an example of how music has enabled me to get back to social commentary, you know, back to protest,” he says.
And here’s where we get to the most fascinating part of the story: the idea that Yusuf’s whole journey has been moving and changing so that he can get back to where he started.
Life is like a maze of doors and they all open from the side you’re on / Just keep on pushing as hard as you can / And you’re going to wind up where you started from – “Sitting”, Catch A Bull At Four, 1972
The more I looked at the journey of Yusuf Islam in the months, years, leading up to our meetings, the more it became clear that the question most people ask of him, or rather Cat Stevens – namely, why did he change? – is the wrong way of looking at his story. Study anything he has ever written and you realise that the journey has been about staying true to an ideal he formed at a very young age, rather than breaking away from it.
There are countless clues or markers that point to the direction he was travelling in, even if we could not know it at the time. Yusuf has been thinking about this a lot lately, as he’s working on an autobiography, and says the process of rediscovering his origins has taught him a lot about where he is today. For instance, the region his father’s family hailed from, Cyprus, was once part of the Golden Crescent of the Muslim world.
“...And so you think, Oh, maybe I am from the Middle East after all,” he says with a laugh. “It’s great to make these discoveries. You re-establish this context and life becomes this clear road again. It’s a really interesting process. I recommend it to anyone, no matter what kind of life you’ve had.”
He also discovered that the small town in Sweden, near Gävle, where his mother came from, was also the birthplace of Joe Hill, who went on to become a labour activist and songwriter in America at the start of the 20th Century. He’d later be sung about by many of the folk singers of the early 1960s who inspired a young Cat Stevens.
Yusuf’s book will also include wonderful vignettes such as Jimi Hendrix squirting a water pistol at him from behind the curtains while he was singing “I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun”. The two were on tour together when Hendrix first burst on to the scene and he laughs again at the memories. “I should have done the same to him when he lit his guitar on fire,” he laughs.
One of the most revealing clues to his future journey, as revealed in the book, is that the first proper song he ever wrote was called “Mighty Peace”, which basically delineated his path from the very beginning. He’s re-recorded it for the next album, in recognition of the place he was at both then and now.
I ask if he agrees with this assessment of his career going full circle to answer the questions he’d posed in his songs at the beginning. “I’ve always carried the feeling that somehow there is a plan for me,” he affirms. “Discovering Islam was one of the big discoveries of that plan, because I had written so many songs that almost described where I was going, but in more generic terms. And then when I dropped the guitar that also felt right at the time.”
Recently he got a kick out of discovering Ziryab, an 8th Century Muslim poet and musician who introduced the oud to Spain (which later led to the invention of the guitar) and also brought the influences of North African music with him to Europe. The knowledge that this must have been part of the musical journey that led to the blues and rock and roll is not lost on Yusuf.
Everything in the journey, it would seem, turns out to have happened for a reason.
So on, and on I go / The seconds tick the time out / So much left to know, and I’m on the road to find out – “On the Road To Find Out”, Tea For The Tillerman, 1970
Today when he releases new music, Yusuf Islam tends to just use the moniker “Yusuf” on the promotional material. It’s shorter, snappier and has fewer connotations for the more wary among his western audience about where he is coming from. But he also doesn’t mind putting Cat Stevens somewhere on an album cover or tour poster if it helps identify him to his audience.
Some people still struggle with this not very complicated dualism. I sat in the BBC studios in London a couple of years ago while the Radio 2 DJ, Simon Mayo, spent the first few minutes of the interview trying to establish Yusuf’s proper title. The conversation went something like this:
What should I call you?
Well, my name’s Yusuf Islam
But some people still call you Cat Stevens...
That’s fine too
Which do you prefer?
Well, my name’s Yusuf
Whatever you’re comfortable with...
And so it went. But this was a revealing, if a little torturous, conversation. People want to know what box Steven Demetre Georgiou / Cat Stevens / Yusuf Islam fits into. But in truth, how many of us do fit into one mould? “Well, some of us are dads; we’re brothers, sisters, friends; we have names and nicknames,” he says when I remind him of the encounter in London.
“Cat was a very appropriate name at the time; it was part of my independent personality, but then Yusuf was the key to me because I loved the name Joseph.” His last record says “Yusuf” on the cover, and in smaller letters on a sticker, “Cat Stevens”. “That’s okay,” he shrugs. “It’s just a hashtag.”
He’s telling me this over a very late lunch, shortly before leaving for dinner with one of his daughters. He’s patiently endured a photoshoot on a hot May afternoon in Satwa, and now we’re cooling off indoors along with Yoriyos. It’s our last interview before Yusuf goes back to Europe to launch “He Was Alone”, so it seems appropriate to finish by asking about his legacy. He thinks first, choosing his words carefully, perhaps mindful, as always, of the need for humility in his answer.
Or maybe he’s just too busy to have thought about it yet.
“I hope the messages of my songs will continue to be relevant, which they seem to be today, so that’s important,” he replies. Then we talk about the faith schools he helped established in London, of which he’s clearly proud. “We’ve had a breakthrough where Muslims get equal treatment in the UK, at least in education.” He also discusses the unity of thought and belief that he found in Islam and hopes this will be more widely publicised in future. Amid the gloom of recent times there are reasons to be optimistic. London just elected a Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, who has promised to work for everyone. “We need more of it,” Yusuf says.
Finally, he wants his audience to understand why he left the guitar and why he eventually picked it up again – because he had to stay true to the ideals he’d always sung about. “It’s about commitment. I never sold out to anything other than God. The only one worthy of true commitment.”
But right now he has more immediate concerns other than thinking about legacies. His daughter phones to remind him that they have a dinner date, and from the sound of their conversation she wants to know why he is already in a restaurant. He assures her that, no, he hasn’t spoiled his appetite, tells her he’ll be there shortly and then apologises to me that he has to leave.
As we wait for the bill, watching the waiters prepare for the evening crowd, I ask what he learned from helping out at his father’s restaurant all those years ago back in London. “That you should always tip the hard-working staff,” he laughs.
So we leave some change and make our way outside into the rush hour. Yusuf offers me a ride home as he’s going in my direction, and he wants me to hear a freshly done mix of “Northern Wind” that he seems thrilled with.
I’m happy to report that it feels like a quantum leap for his sound. It’s like everything you’d hope for from a latter-day Cat Stevens song, thanks to its poignant story and a beautiful, rich production. But best of all there is the voice. Thanks to suffering from a cold in the studio, Yusuf dropped the melody by an octave and his vocals seem to have acquired a new gravitas that helps convey his message. As we drive I hear the wisdom of a 50-year search for meaning; the sound of an artist deep into his journey. It is, in my opinion, one of the best things he has ever recorded and an emphatic case for everything he has ever done or said.
For our sakes, thank goodness he went away to find himself and his faith – and then came back to share the fruits of those labours. Although for him, of course, he never really went away. He just got closer to where he was always heading.