Yusuf/Cat Stevens: On Spirituality and Re-Imagining ‘Tea for the Tillerman’ for its 50th Anniversary (The Interview)


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Tea For The Tillerman was the album that established Yusuf/Cat Stevens as a superstar in the United States.

From there, with albums including Teaser and The Firecat, Catch Bull At Four, Foreigner, Buddha and The Chocolate Box, the singer/songwriter racked up a series of platinum albums and sold-out tours, cementing his place in music history.

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Tea For The Tillerman, Stevens has revisited that seminal record for Tea for the Tillerman², a marvel of reinvention, a crafty reconfiguration of classics such as “Wild World,” “Where Do The Children Play,” “Sad Lisa, “Longer Boats,” Miles From Nowhere,” “On The Road To Find Out,” “Hard Headed Woman” and the title track.

(Click here to pick up Tea for the Tillerman² from our Rock Cellar Store).

Enjoy an interview with Yusuf/Cat Stevens below.

Rock Cellar: Spirituality has always infused your work.

Yusuf/Cat Stevens: It wouldn’t be difficult to decipher my spiritual ambitions through listening to my lyrics.

So therefore I think people would have already had a premonition that I was on my way somewhere, though it wasn’t quite clear where we were going, with (songs like) “On the Road To Find Out.” “In the end I’ll know but on the way I’ll wonder … ” So I was still in this phase of wondering.

On “Peace Train,” I never explicitly said where I thought it would end up. Interestingly, the word ‘Islam’ itself is a derivative of the word peace in Arabic, which is salam. So there were hints in my songs, and I was a man of change. I loved trying out new ideas, thinking and pondering this world from different angles, and I suppose that all began for me back when I had my first crisis in life with getting tuberculosis.

After an initial year of success and flashbulbs and adoring fans my seat was vacant and I was in bed thinking about this world whizzing by me and where I was going. It was my first brush with death. That made me think more seriously.

At that point I started reading books about the self like The Secret Path by Dr. Paul Brunton. It’s a very interesting book for anyone who’s of western mind looking for a place of peace within his life. For me it was a revelation.

Rock Cellar: Did your spiritual beliefs help you deal with the initial onset of your phenomenal success?

Yusuf/Cat Stevens: For sure. My first period of success was an inoculation (laughs) towards preparing me for the next phase of exposure to fame and fortune.

I was on a secret mission, perhaps not everybody could see it, but through my words they can kind find my story and my longings and yearnings for peace and enlightenment. My albums illustrated that also. For instance, the title Catch Bull At Four was taken from a kind of ten-stage enlightenment process from Zen Buddhism. And my music evolved to the point, I suppose.

I tried many different styles as well. I mean Foreigner was one stage, it was me saying, “look, you can’t nail me down (laughs), I don’t want to be nailed down in this particular style or format or package or box, I want to be free, and say it from another part of my soul.”

Rock Cellar: Bring us back to the moment when you first picked up the guitar again decades later after you put it down. What did it feel like the first time you strummed the first chord?

Yusuf/Cat Stevens: Well, it was like coming home again. It was so easy because I found the chords exactly where I left them (laughs) and I immediately wanted to write something and I did so there was like a flood of inspiration that came over me. I was all alone there at that point, no one listening, just me.

Rock Cellar: Do you remember the first song you played, let me see if I remember how to do this again?

Yusuf/Cat Stevens: I can’t to be honest but I think the chord of F might have been the most difficult one to just reconfigure. The F-chord is slightly more difficult than a C, for instance. So I probably would have gone with “Father & Son” because that’s a very simple one to do, it’s a simple one to play.

Rock Cellar: Well, speaking of “Father & Son,” what was the impetus to revisit the Tea For The Tillerman album with Tea for the Tillerman² and re-imagine the songs with a new approach and new direction?

Yusuf/Cat Stevens: Well, it was kind of logical in a way because the fiftieth anniversary of its release was coming up.

So we’re now in 2020 and my son and I were discussing ideas. He came up with the idea of perhaps recording the whole thing again. He probably wasn’t serious but I said, “Yeah, that’s a really great idea.”

Because the album is so iconic and I felt a little bit intimidated by its success over the years, to revisit it meant I could make it mine again; I could reclaim the narrative and make it life-sized again, if you know what I mean.

And also, the songs don’t seem to die. I mean, they’re so relative to the way the world is at the moment, the threats that we’re facing, like “Where Do The Children Play?” became obviously a song to sing again. Even though I have lots of other tracks and have been recording new songs, we held everything up for this because it just seemed so important.

Rock Cellar: In approaching the Tea for the Tillerman² record, were there songs on the album where you thought, “I wish we had done this” or “it would have been interesting to take this approach to ‘Hard Headed Woman’ or ‘Sad Lisa'”?

Yusuf/Cat Stevens: Not really. I think they’re all pretty perfect in the way that they were originally recorded and I had to overcome that hurdle by introducing new genres and grooves I’m fond of, like R&B. You know, the way I think about R&B is a little more traditional with artists like Otis Redding or going back to Muddy Waters. You know, I’m just thinking back into the blues.

And so I’ve kind of revisited a lot of the songs with my love of blues and R&B. Some songs like “Longer Boats” have turned out quite uniquely different. You know, certainly not the acoustic sort of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sort of approach, which I had at one time where I did all the harmonies.

Rock Cellar: One of the highlights of the Tea for the Tillerman² album is the aforementioned “Father & Son,” which is such a beautiful affecting song that that really impacts generation after generation when they get turned onto it. There’s such a wise old soul sense in that song. Did you always feel like you were an old soul?

Yusuf/Cat Stevens: Well, let’s say living in the middle of the West End of London, this was the epicenter of life and nightlife and I learned a lot growing up in that area. So you tend to advance in your experience without necessarily being so old. So yes, maybe I was.

But more importantly, I’d just been through a very traumatic experience of contracting tuberculosis and being hospitalized, maybe only weeks away from death, so that also definitely spills on your consciousness and your understanding and knowledge of what life means when you’re trying to hold on to it. And then, you know, I got very deep, I suppose a lot of my development of myself and my music happened in that kind of period of convalescence after my illness.

But, and this is one of the interesting things, is when I came back to the house and started writing and writing, I had the idea of writing a musical. And I got together with a scriptwriter, actually, he was an actor/scriptwriter called Nigel Hawthorne. Nigel Hawthorne and I got together to write this musical about the Russian Revolution. It had kind of a background of Nicholas and Alexandra and for that, as a songwriter, you enter into a whole new kind of world where you take on the characters that you’re singing and performing the song.

And so I had these two opposing kind of views. One was the father who lived on the land, a peasant whose family had all grown up for generations on that land. But the son had heard about the revolution and he just couldn’t hold himself back, he wanted to join the march. And so you can see that from that point of view, he was projecting himself into the role and that becomes easier as a songwriter. That’s how you do it.

I mean, it’s a skill but somehow I always loved musicals and so I was always able to write some kind of story in my songs and you can probably hear that even going back to the ’60s. I had lots of little adventures throughout my songwriting career.

Rock Cellar: On the new Tea for the Tillerman², you pulled off a very nifty trick where you didn’t have to draft in someone else to play the son. There’s a little time travel involved.

Yusuf/Cat Stevens: Yeah, and this is the paradox of paradoxes because if you analyze it, the guy that sings the young son’s part is 50 years older than the father. So you work that out. (laughs) But it was great because what we found in the archives was pristine kind of recording from the Troubadour, the week of the Troubadour, which I played a couple of times. I think this was the first time. There were only a few mics and only about four tracks were needed, for me, my guitar and Alun (Davies) and his guitar, and that was it. And so we were able to separate the voice very clearly and make it fit and use that 1970 live vocal recording as the son’s voice, which is a great idea and another one of my son’s great ideas.

Rock Cellar: When your father first heard the song, what did he think?

Yusuf/Cat Stevens: I’m not sure that he listened much to my music, to be honest. (laughs) I was deeply respectful of my father. He was from Cyprus. He’d been a man of the world. I mean, he was already a voyager, you know, he left Cyprus, he’d been to Egypt and lived there and finally took a boat to the USA. So he lived in the USA and then came via Europe back and settled in London.

So I mean he knew what it was like to leave home. He probably would have recognized the son in the song (laughs) more than the father, possibly. So that song wasn’t necessarily about our relationship, because we had a great relationship and he always gave me enough space to find out for myself what it’s all about.

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