The Nine Lives of Cat Stevens: Yusuf Islam Embraces His Musical Past on 'The Laughing Apple'

For any who've longed for the preternaturally wise acoustic troubadour of yore, the music envelopes like a hug from a long lost friend

Photo: Francois Berthier

It's not quite fair to call The Laughing Apple a comeback album. Since 2006, the artist who beguiled listeners in the '70s as the spiritually curious Cat Stevens has released three discs under the mononym Yusuf—short for Yusuf Islam, his chosen moniker after adopting the Islamic faith in 1977. These works were his first foray into Western music after shunning the industry in the wake of his religious conversion, during which time he sold his guitars and focused instead on charity work and theological study. Fans were grateful for any new output following the decades of silence, but Yusuf's initial trio of albums were a cautious, occasionally frosty reconciliation with the superstar he never truly wanted to be. On The Laughing Apple, he fully embraces his musical legacy at last. For any who've longed for the preternaturally wise acoustic troubadour of yore, the music envelopes like a hug from a long-lost friend—one who's been away for quite a long time and has a lot to share.

Tellingly, the album is credited to "Yusuf/Cat Stevens," marking the first time his famous alter ego has appeared on a new release since 1978's Back to Earth. Much like the hybrid billing, The Laughing Apple builds a bridge between the old and new. The majority of its 11 tracks are rerecorded songs from his initial musical incarnation as a teenage pop star in the mid-'60s, including four titles taken from his 1967 sophomore album, New Masters. While these early offerings suffered from overwrought orchestration, the new versions feature stripped down arrangements reminiscent of his best-known material. That's no accident; The Laughing Apple reunites Yusuf with producer Paul Samwell-Smith and guitar foil Alun Davies, both of whom were regular collaborators during his '70s heyday.

In a fitting nod to the 50th anniversary of his recording debut, he includes "Mighty Peace," the first song he ever wrote. Few artists would dare put their very earliest compositions alongside their most recent, for fear of underscoring their crude creative beginnings. But Yusuf's musical sophistication, to say nothing of his lyrical depth, has been present from the start. The song holds its own among contemporary tracks like "See What Love Did to Me," and "Don't Blame Them"—the latter of which urges listeners to exchange bigotry for empathy. It's a potent message in a time of travel bans and increasingly violent protests.

Yusuf's spiritual journey has made him a target of such blame. He converted to Islam on the eve of 1979's Iranian Revolution, an event which transformed a matter of personal faith into an apparent political issue. Vaulted into the limelight as one of the most famous Muslims in the Western world, the singer/songwriter suddenly found himself as the unofficial spokesperson of a religion that most in his homeland knew nothing about. The role occasionally brought controversy, but over time Yusuf has evolved into one of the foremost ambassadors of peace on the planet. In addition to his philanthropy—including the founding of several dozen Muslim schools in the U.K.—the 69-year-old has returned to music to help spread his message.

Yusuf spoke with PEOPLE about his new album, peace efforts, how far he's come and how far he has to go.


What was behind your decision to revisit some of your earlier songs?

I've got a bag full of songs I've been writing over the years—probably about 20 or 30—but when I started playing some of the early songs again with my guitar, I realized how badly they were recorded in the beginning. I thought I could right this wrong by going back in and recording them the way I feel it today. That, of course, brings a whole new life to the song. There were some gems in there, in my sixties albums, which I really had fun rerecording.

Has the meaning changed for you on any of these songs?

They're still very relevant, like "Blackness of the Night." You could have written that today about the refugee problem and about orphans left on the shores of a foreign country. They don't quite know where they fit in and they've lost their homes and their families. That kind of song is still relevant. And then you've got "Northern Wind (Death of Billy the Kid)," which I think is very, very appropriate thinking about today. Even though it seems to be talking about the story of the gunslinger, it's actually an anti-gun song. It's the story of the sidekick who traveled with Billy the Kid and wanted to hang up his holster and go back home and live an ordinary life again without a threat of guns crowding his life. It's quite an important song, I'd say.

Music - Cat Stevens - 1967
PA Images/Getty

When you first began writing songs, did you have a specific message you wanted to get across, or a goal in mind?

This [new] album gives very good insight into my original goal because it actually contains the first song I ever wrote, called "Mighty Peace." The seeds of my dreams began with the dream of peace. In this environment, everything is clashing. You have to survive and drown out the noise. So I think that song lays out my path very clearly. But also, because I grew up in the middle of the West End, which is Theater Land here in London, I was influenced by narratives and musicals. I used to go an awful lot. Hair was playing up the road from us and I saw it so many times. Then around the corner there was Drury Lane with My Fair Lady. West Side Story was perhaps one of the most powerful for me. So I pitched narratives into my songs. They have a kind of beginning, middle and end—it's a three-act thing.

As far as your writing process, do you hear the song completed in your head in one piece, or do you workshop it through?

I don't plan what the song is going to be, but I like it to somehow surprise me. If I'm surprised and excited, then I've got a feeling whoever hears the song will be excited like I am. I trick myself as I start writing by haphazardly trying something different along the way. It might be a rhythm, it might be a chord, it might be a word. When that happens I know I've hit it and I've got something special. A lot of what we're hearing today is quite repetitious. [laughs] Not all of it! Some of it is very original, and I've always looked out for the original.

On The Laughing Apple you began working with producer Paul Samwell-Smith for the first time in nearly 40 years. What was it like making music with him again?

It was great. He's an artist in his own right. Obviously he's got a great history with the beginning of British rock as the bassplayer in the Yardbirds. He's got a great history himself, but as a producer he's brilliant at understatement. The first time I understood that was when he played for me Van Morrison's Astral Weeks and Joni Mitchell. That set the tone for what we wanted our records to sound like.

There was such a huge shift between your '60s pop work like Matthew and Son and the sparse acoustic work to come in the early '70s. Can you talk about that transition?

Initially, I was an artist who relied on other musicians to play my music because my producer set it up that way. That's how it began and that's how it continued for a long time until I finally got frustrated because I didn't feel as though people were getting the songs as they should be getting them. And then came the opportunity when I got very sick. I was taken away and removed from the pop world and thrown in hospital. At that point, I had all the time in the world to gather my thoughts and find out what I was doing wrong. The main goal I set for myself was to take control of my own art and not to give it over to someone else to interpret. And that meant playing my own music—playing guitar, and learning to play almost every instrument that I wanted in order to capture the song that I heard in my head.

Cat Stevens Performs In Copenhagen 1974
Jorgen Angel/Redferns

You mentioned "Mighty Peace," one of your first songs, which is remarkable when you think how sophisticated the lyrics are. So many themes you'd touch on in your later work were already present this early. Who inspired you as a lyricist when you first started writing?

[Bob] Dylan obviously had a big effect, but if you look at the blues—the blues are all rooted in real life stories. When you listen to the catalog from Lead Belly, it's a whole genre and a narrative of what people were going through on the ground in the most terrible situations. So there's a realism which I started to try to capture in my lyrics, which weren't to do with completing a lyric for the sake of the song. The lyric had to make sense and the story had to be told.

Looking at this album [The Laughing Apple], another song I really like is "Don't Blame Them." I borrowed the melody from Beethoven's Piano Sonata. The theme of that song is extremely important because it deals with one of the great ailments, unfortunately, which has reared its head again: prejudice. It's all to do with allowing others to think for you and not find the truth out for yourself.

You're one of the foremost peace advocates in the world, but not everyone has the same audience and platform that you do. What do you believe to be the most important thing an individual can do to promote peace in this world in times like these?

I've thought about this, and you can consider the Peace Train as the symbol. We'd love to see a physical Peace Train arriving on our street and carrying us away into the land of happiness and peace and harmony, but that may not happen. One of the last tours I did was called Peace Train: Late Again. What I realized was that the Peace Train is a metaphor for one's own life. We begin the journey with our parents and as we go along other people get on the train. We don't quite know where we're going to get off, but while we're in this world, it's our job to make our tracks as straight and as true as possible. I think even though the truth is hard sometimes, it's a thing which will save you in the end.

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