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Transcript: Yusuf Islam On Morning Becomes Eclectic with Jason Bentley
JB: Next up on MBE, a very special session today, known widely as Cat Stevens and now simply, Yusuf.. Performing songs from his new album "Roadsinger" Yusuf Islam, live on KCRW.
Song: "Welcome Home"
Song: "All Kinds of Roses"
Our guest this morning on KCRW has been on a remarkable journey. Many know him for his former stage persona Cat Stevens. Others know him simply as Yusuf. We are so pleased to welcome the road singer Yusuf Islam. Good morning.
YI: Good morning
JB: How are you?
JB: So "Roadsinger" the new album. This is your second album in the last few years. How does it feel to be performing in front of audiences? How does it feel to be recording again?
YI: Well, it's very refreshing. Obviously, the break gave me a whole lot more space and time to gather a lot more of life's experiences you may say. In a way that's helped build a whole lot of new stories and pictures which now I'm able to sing and write about today, you know, so that's kind of fresh.
JB: A relatively small group enjoyed a concert in Los Angeles recently, and I'm sure a lot of our listeners are wondering if there will be other shows.
YI: Well, because I've got so many other ideas and projects, one of them being a musical -- quite a big project -- my time is kind of slim on touring. But, yeah, I'm interested to do more. I particularly want to go to places I've never been before, like New Zealand. I've seen pictures of it and I think one day I've got to get there. So I would like to do some kind of a world tour. But it would be a hopping tour, with long gaps in between probably.
JB: You know, sitting in the room with you and your band over the last few minutes I can tell there's a real comfort level and friendship there. So it must be a good feeling just to pick right up and play music again.
YI: It is, I'm very grateful to have with me again Alan Davies who's been with me from the beginning.
JB: Yeah, talk about your relationship with him because he really has been your friend and a musician you've worked with for many years.
YI: Well, we met really through our producer, through Paul Samuel Smith. He knew him I think from some recordings he'd done. And he got him to come on the early sessions, which was the first time I was going into the studio again after a long break, and we just kind of hit it off. His kind of guitar picking just complimented my strumming and the way we played together just made it all sound good.
JB: We’re joined by Yusuf on KCRW. Tell us the story of you coming back to music, because I believe your son played a role in you picking up the guitar.
YI: Well, I'd become a Muslim and a lot of people got ideas about what that means but, for me, it's a very clear spiritual path. You start to look at life in a way that you're looking at the end, the outcome, where you're heading to. So, that was an important thing and at one point I asked the religious advisor in the mosque there in London, I said, ‘I'm a singer, is that alright?’ He said, ‘Yeah, it's fine. Continue making records. No problem.’ He kind of gave a hesitation about the performances because at that time I might have been a little slimmer that I am today, a little younger, a little more pin up-y
JB: Oh come on!
YI: He said, well cool it on that side. I understood it as being a green light. But then there were other kind of voices, which were quite strong, virulent, about this issue, saying it's dodgy, it's dangerous, you know sex, drugs, rock and roll all kind of mixed in that picture. I said, ‘You know what? I need a break anyway.’ So, I just put down my guitar -- no, I didn't put it down actually, I sold it for charity -- all my guitars and my pianos, and I just got a life. I just started fresh, began a family. There's a whole story there of course, but coming back to the issue of music …
JB: Was music part of your life throughout that period? For instance, did you listen to your own music in that time?
YI: Not really. I wasn't really interested in what was going on. Don't forget, I hit the ‘80s at that point. I mean the ‘80s meaning the musical scene at that moment. It was probably the best time I could have got out. I don't want to blame anybody, but it went through kind of a lull. What was it? Disco began it, if you like. It just didn't seem to be going anywhere anyways. I wanted to just to, as I said, get a life.
But then of course, later on, I started studying -- of course I'm studying the whole time, I'm learning more and more every day. Gradually, I realized that this whole issue is very much, you know, connected to context, content -- what're you doing, why are you doing it? And so from that point of view, music itself is completely, is perfectly innocent, is perfectly natural. But where you put it and how you convey and what your intentions are decides and colors that, the actual outcome. So you only have to look, for instance, at Islamic Spain. This was like a thousand years ago, whatever. You know, they were introducing music into the culture. They were bringing the guitar from Baghdad to Europe. And Europe hadn't really seen it before. Maybe the Greeks had it early on as a scientific kind of play tool, but it wasn't really a public instrument used for entertaining. And so you can see that there was in the civilization a use of music -- a very healthy use -- and I started realizing, ‘hey you know, I may have a job to do.’ And it was about the time of 9/11. I really hadn't sung "Peace Train" for years. I said this is the time and that was a very important moment.
JB: Yusuf joins us live on Morning Becomes Eclectic
YI: This is a nice song -- reminds me of the old days.
Song: "Don't Be Shy"
JB: We're joined by Yusuf on KCRW. Your son is a musician, yes?
YI: He is.
JB: Do you write and perform with him?
YI: No, he's his own man and he wants to do it his way. But I've helped him a little on his first album. His name is Yoriyos and that's interesting too, because Yoriyos is the Greek pronunciation of my father's name which is Georgio. In English, we say Georgio. So he took my father's name which is really cool. But now he's got a band called Noxshi and he kind of prefers it, you know -- he kind of did the solo thing then he got a band together, he surrounded himself with good musicians. He's on the road now. We hope to be playing together too, very soon.
JB: That would be wonderful.
JB: How has the time away from the stage helped you appreciate certain songs? Because I'm feeling that -- and you've mentioned in performance -- that maybe the beginning of an idea is something you're carrying on, you're picking up on now. There's this appreciation for these older songs. Is that true now?
YI: Absolutely true. I mean it's amazing how much more meaningful some of the songs have become. I mean at some point I break down and cry when I start singing some of these things.
JB: Why is that do you think?
YI: It's emotional. I don't know.
JB: These things take time, I guess.
YI: The foresights that happen in the weird unseen world of music -- it's like things come to you and later you realize what they are and how important they are, and so some of the words, ‘back up on the mended road, ‘touching the wheel of change.’ Wheel of change is a big idea, you know. Change in itself is what life is all about and, if anything, that's what my life's been about… developing. On my latest album I have a song called "Be What You Must." I took it from a German philosopher. Who wrote, "To be what you must, you must give up what you are." That's a profound statement.
YI: Yeah change, it has a lot to do with change. And we work well when we're changing, when we're thinking, when we're not just repeating something we did yesterday. I think that's what a lot of life is about -- should be.
JB: We're joined by Yusuf on KCRW. Let's hear some music from the album Roadsinger, and we'll return with more conversation with Yusuf live.
Song: "Thinking Bout' You" YI: This is an old song that I kind of connect with for some reason more now than I did a while ago. It's from one of my early albums. It's from "Mona Bona Jakon." It's called "Maybe You're Right."
Song: "Maybe You're Right"
JB- Yusuf joins us live on Morning Becomes Eclectic. On your last record “An Other Cup” you did a cover, a notable cover of the Animals "Don't Let Me be Misunderstood." Do you feel or do you worry that you are misunderstood?
YI- Yes, from the very beginning - even going back to the very early days when I was a pop singer, a little teeny-bopper - I noticed what happened. The process was, I would have an interview and suddenly they would be putting in different things which I never said or I never did. And I said ‘Wow, is this the game, is this it?’ So, I started playing along with it. But from day 1, in a way, the media has the ability to drum up stories to create an image or life style that you're not, you know. Then people have to match up to that and they do -- like the Stones. There's a rebel group! Now, if they had been written about like the Beach Boys they might have turned out different. Who knows. But they took this angle and the press heightened it and it became more intense and the Stones became the Stones.
So, I think that I -- Cat Stevens -- had a certain persona in the beginning and I wanted to drop that as fast as I could. And an opportunity came when I contracted tuberculosis when I was 19 and I was only about 1 year in the business and I had my hits and suddenly I was on my back in the hospital. But that gave me a chance to make that break and then I thought ‘Who am I?’ And I started reading some mystical books, Buddhist books, and started looking within me. Then I started growing a beard and I suddenly realized that I could wear what I want. I don't have to wear like velvet suits and be like Carnaby Street, my previous image. I can wear my jeans and be me. And so I changed my persona and that was great. I kept the name, you know. Then some people discovered me in the States. And they said ‘Oohh who's this Cat with this album called "Mona Bona Jakon.’ Then came "T For the Tillerman." I had a whole new life you know, and that was great. But the thing is that we go through these changes and then I needed to change again because there was a point that I saw myself becoming a replica of my own image. And for God's sake I was not there I hadn't reached my goal. I needed help and I got it. I got some divine help just to help me on that way.
JB- It's been written that you had a near death experience swimming in the ocean off of Malibu not far from here. Is that true or is it folklore?
YI- That's true. That's absolutely true. In fact the guy's house that I was at was Jerry Moss, he was at that gig that we recently did. And he didn't know, nobody knew what was happening out there in the ocean at that moment. But God did. (laughing) And I called out to God at that moment. I was in some kind of terrible current and I couldn't get back to shore. And I called out to God and I can't even remember whether it was loud or soft or what it was but he knew and he sent a little wave. And that wave was enough to get me back to shore. I was back, I was alive and I was thanking God.
JB- Is it possible to lead a religious life in a secular music world?
YI: We are aesthetic creatures, we like things which are beautiful. Sound has an amazing ability to brighten up the inner size of our existence. For some, I don't know for some strange, mystical reason, we can go in so many directions with music. I think it's also powerful in the way it brings us together because when you have a lot of people listening to the same music at the same time, you're together. You're creating unity amongst the hearts. And that's beautiful, it's really beautiful. Whereas if you're playing football, I'm going to be against a whole other crowd - or if it's soccer or whatever you call it -- then we're divided, whereas music does something else. It's amazing. So I think that unity is part of the spiritual path. It's having people live together, be together, without friction, without conflict and that's got to be a good goal.
JB: We're joined by Yusuf on KCRW. Do you feel a certain responsibility to be a bridge to understanding Islam for the West or for America? Do you feel that responsibility?
YI: Yeah, I feel it more perhaps now than I did because I, for instance, used to look at Islam as a no-no. It shouldn't interest me, it didn't interest me, because my father was Greek-Cypriot and therefore we had a natural enmity against anything Turkish. And Turkish and Muslim it all goes together. So I had a big block about Islam, but I broke that block or the block was broken when I was given the Koran. Here it wasn't a matter of reading a headline about what Muslims are doing or what is happening in the world blah blah blah -- this was the pure direct fountain of the source of Islamic knowledge straight there and I was given it. And when I came to it I suddenly realized that ‘Wow, this looks like a crossroads between Christianity, Judaism and this looks like the Abrahamic faith,’ which is actually one of the terms, the names of Islam - the religion of Abraham. And I was so surprised discovering this I went off on my own private little discovery. And when I finally accepted Islam as my faith, then I kind of made a bit of news about it but I thought this is a private thing. But then of course what is thrust upon you at that moment is suddenly the Iranian Revolution broke out about a year later. Everyone was talking about Islam and I became a kind of focus point. People wanted to ask me things and I wasn't prepared. So I had to go through a whole kind of learning curve. But it's important that I am who I am because I can act as a bridge and I think that I am pretty well placed to be that as a looking glass, if you like, through which the West can see Islam and Islam can see the West.
JB- Let’s talk for a moment about your charity work and Small Kindness your work in the community. Can you speak on that?
YI- I have always tried to be a bit charitable. Since I started earning money I've felt obligated to use some of that for charity. Even in the old days I was probably, after Danny Kaye, the first U.N. Ambassador for Peace and for UNICEF. I've always been interested in charity and when I became a Muslim of course then it becomes obligatory. Actually, charity is something that is not voluntary anymore, you've got to do it. I started to get involved and I realized that I wanted to help a lot of people and there were so many catastrophes in the world -- where do you start. I am now concentrating mainly on an area which has been so damaged by war and conflicts - the Balkans. We are very heavily maintaining education programs and orphans programs in that area. When the tsunami hit, then we had to do something for that area too. So, when an occasion comes up I try to help. We have a charity called "Small Kindness." I call it "Small Kindness" because I don't need it to get big because I know when you get too big you get all of these administrative costs and it starts to be like 80% on that side and 20% gets to the people. So we try to keep it small.
JB- The album is Roadsinger and do I just want to thank you so much for stopping by, for spending time with KCRW. Yusuf, thank you.
YI- Thank you very much.
YI: Here's a little song, already turned into a folktale, a legend. It's called "Boots and Sand."
Song: "Boots and Sand"