Sodajerker presents… Yusuf/Cat Stevens
In a recent episode Simon and Brian chat with a true musical icon… the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens
Yusuf was born Steven Demetre Georgiou in London in 1948. Growing up in the city’s West End, he was in the heart of the city’s theatre district and a stone’s throw from Denmark Street, London’s equivalent of Tin Pan Alley. He received his first guitar aged 15 and began writing his own songs. Having changed his name to Cat Stevens, he signed his first publishing deal in 1965 and put out two albums in 1967 alone, Matthew & Son and New Masters. it was following the release of the latter that he was struck down by tuberculosis. During his lengthy convalescence he experienced something of a spiritual and professional awakening and elected to adopt a more stripped-down folk rock approach. This proved to be a masterstroke and the series of albums that followed, including Mona Bone Jakon, Tea For The Tillerman and 1971’s Teaser And The Firecat, propelled him to stardom.
In 1977 Stevens surprised his fans and the wider music world by converting to Islam and changing his name to Yusuf. He returned to music in the late nineties with a series of educational albums aimed at Muslim children, but it wasn’t until 2006 and his An Other Cup album that he would fully embrace his singer-songwriter guise. That record and it’s follow up, 2009’s Roadsinger proved that his years out of action had done nothing to diminish his musical gifts.
This year, the 50th anniversary of his debut album, Yusuf released The Laughing Apple. It’s a collection of new songs and reworked versions of old favourites that provided Simon and Brian with the ultimate excuse to have a chat with the great man…
Your fans will recognise some of the titles on The Laughing Apple…
“Definitely those that have been with me from the 60s. Some of them have been put out on my website as singles and the message we’ve been getting back from the fans is really great. They love it because it goes back to the simplicity of my compositions and my songs and the way I wanted to hear them originally and the way I wrote them, which was usually with a guitar. Not with a big band or brass, saxophone, timpani or things like that. That’s how they were interpreted by the arranger in the sixties, so this has now become much more puristic.”
We noticed that Grandsons is an update on I’ve Got A Thing About Seeing My Grandson Grow Old, does that mean that songs aren’t necessarily fixed in your mind and can change as things change in your life?
“Yeah for sure. I’ve got artistic license to do what I want. I can crib as much as I want. I’ve done it in the past also, there was a piece of music which I wrote for Foreigner Suite and a lot of people loved the ending, a little piano piece. I developed it and I turned it into a new song for An Other Cup, one of the first albums I came back with. The song was called Heaven/Where True Love Goes. I can do these things, it’s my music.”
You’ve revisited some songs from the past that weren’t quite finished, Mary And The Little Lamb and Mighty Peace were two that you’d had for a long time…
“That’s right, Mighty Peace was actually the first time I felt I’d written a song, the first complete song that I felt I’d written, even though I only had one verse… And it’s somewhere in the misty past, it was there and I always remembered it with affection. Then I was speaking with a friend of mine called Peter. We used to play guitar together, he taught me a few picking tricks and we used to go to Les Cousins together. When I was speaking to my friend Peter he said, ‘Oh that song, don’t you remember it?’ and I said, ‘What one?’ He said, ‘Mighty Peace’ and I said, ‘Oh yeah, I’d forgotten that,’ and then he sang me the verse! So that’s how I began to reclaim that song and finish it. Peter gave me the little key to that song again and it was great to finish it. Mary And The Little Lamb, that’s another one of those demos that I was writing and giving to my publisher and nobody wanted to sing it, nobody was interested at that time. So I thought: ‘Ooh, it’s still got a great little chorus.’ I wanted to finish it and I just put this little happy ending towards it and it came out great.”
Does that mean you’ve got notebooks of lyrics and all that stuff?
“Most of them are old demos. I’ve got these black acetate demos which we’ve had transferred onto digital. I’ve got some tapes that I have not even bothered with, it’s going to be a treasure house of riffs and ideas when I was meandering endlessly into a microphone and taping it all. I’ve got that from the 60s, I just haven’t got time to go back into it and do it.”
Are we right in thinking that when you first started out there was a piano in the house? Was that where you first started to pick out chords?
“True, exactly. It was like one-finger-style piano. Mum used to play a little bit like that and she knew some lullabies from Sweden. I think the Swedish genre of lullabies kind of influenced me to a great extent. I remember when I ended up singing Morning Has Broken, I found that the entry for that song was to think about my mother’s voice and the way in which she sang. We had this piano and I wrote my first song on there, but it wasn’t really a song. It was terrible. I don’t want to think about it.”
Beyond the household, you were in the heart of a very musical district…
“Oh yeah. We were just on the edge of Tin Pan Alley. Opposite us was The Shaftesbury Theatre. One of my all-time favourite musicals resided in that theatre for a long time, called King Kong. Not many people know about King Kong but it was about a boxer in South Africa, it was an all black, all South African cast and the music was so powerful. We were in the middle of this thing. Oxford Street, The 100 Club, Tiles, The Marquee and Les Cousins. Then in our little part of the road, because my dad had a caff on New Oxford Street, in moves Dick James’ Northern Songs just down the road and Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate Records. Across the road from us was this fantastic specialised folk, blues, jazz record shop, you could find anything there. I first discovered Scott Joplin because they played it…”
It’s hard to conceive of having all that on your doorstep…
“So true, we were really lucky. I got myself a guitar that I’d brought from Selmer’s on Charing Cross Road and it wasn’t very good, but it was enough for me to break my fingers on.”
Can you trace a connection between the music you make and the music you heard in that environment?
“The idea of telling stories or communicating a narrative was definitely part of the influence of living amongst all those musicals and the theatres. West Side Story was probably the biggest thing in my life and so I saw life from many different perspectives. The fact that I was part-Greek Cypriot, part-Swedish, living in London and going to a Roman Catholic school, things joined together to make me appreciate a lot of different cultures, somehow in the middle of London. That did definitely inform my approach to music.”
We’ve heard you talk about being in hospital in the late sixties and how that led to your spiritual awakening. How did that impact on your songwriting?
“I’d already grown very disgruntled with the approach of Decca and the whole establishment of the music business, plus the production of my songs was never the way I wanted to hear it. The last song I did record with Mike Hurst, who was my original producer, I said, ‘I want to play my own guitar on this one.’ It was called Where Are You? And it’s actually one of my favourite songs. It’s got strings on it but they’re very gentle and subtle. I was at the edge of really wanting to jump and do something original which sounded like me.
“Then the illness happened and I realised: ‘I’ve got nothing to lose anymore. I want to be me and I want my songs to reflect what’s within me and I want it to sound like that.’ I started writing a lot of songs and I went back to my red room, the environment where I wrote most of my classic songs, just above the café on New Oxford Street and I was just inspired to write so many different songs for the next period. Then I met Chris Blackwell. Chris heard Father And Son he fell over and he introduced me to Paul Samwell-Smith and that all worked out as being my next career with Island Records.”
Is there anything you can tell us about writing The First Cut Is The Deepest?
“That was actually one of my early attempts at Percy Sledge’s When A Man Loves A Woman, it was something like that which I wanted to write. I think he also influenced A Whiter Shade Of Pale, if you listen to that you’ll get the resemblance. I wanted to write something like that, a blues song … The theme of the song is kind of obvious, it’s when you’re young and you have your first love and that doesn’t work out. So it’s a perennial love theme. The words just came and it was quite profound really. Somebody said to me, ‘Do you really believe that the first cut is the deepest?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I do.’
It’s a very succinct way of expressing that idea, isn’t it?
“When you’re young you see things very clearly. There are no veils over your eyes and you say it as it is.”
Did you start with that lovely opening thing on the guitar?
“It’s quite simple isn’t it? I thought that was kind of obvious and probably my early attempts at trying to do some picking. But it was very suitable and it just worked out.”
Was the title something that you had in mind before you started?
“That’s a good question but I could not answer it. I don’t remember, because when you’re in the process of writing you might start with a word or you might have a word on your mind and it might come to the surface. It’s usually a mood. I would think that the song would have begun with the picking, the chords at the beginning, and then I would have hummed something and then I would have come to work out what are the words. I’d mumble something probably into the microphone and then play it back and go, ‘Oh that sounds like First Cut Is the Deepest.’ Something would catch my attention or I would use some of the mumbling and I’d find out what it meant and then I’d write it. Somehow you’re in this state of mystic communication, there’s something that’s going on and you’re listening to it yourself, so that’s part of the process.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have more than 100 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo, Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Paul Simon, Ben Watt, Justin Currie, Willy Russell, Lamont Dozier, Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall, Dan Gillespie Sells and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the 40-minute interview with Yusuf – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.