Yusuf Islam, known as Cat Stevens is coming back to New Zealand

By Updated at 2017-04-02 08:34:45 +0000

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Yusuf Islam - better known as Cat Stevens - is coming back to New Zealand.

There might never have been a Cat Stevens if it weren't for Jane Fonda.

The Beatles, the Yardbirds and even the Monkees also had a hand in his creation - though not necessarily in the way you might think.

Now called Yusuf Islam - a name he adopted a year after he became a Muslim in 1977 - Cat Stevens was born Steven Demetre Georgiou in 1948, to a Greek Cypriot father and a Swedish mother living above their family restaurant in London's West End.

In recent years he has undergone another (minor) name change, dropping the surname Islam from his stage persona to become simply 'Yusuf' - a decision made mostly due to the journalistic habit of referring to people by their last names.

"Reading things like, 'Islam says…' worried me," he says on his website.

"It was not appropriate for pop-journalists to write things like, 'Islam's new album'."

As for Cat, that was only supposed to be a temporary thing - a stage name to counter the fact that he couldn't imagine anyone asking for an album by Steven Demetre Georgiou.

"Well, there were the Monkees, there were the Yardbirds, there were the Beatles - and I figured that animals were like, in, you know?" he laughs. "Also, there happened to be films around at the same time like Cat Ballou, What's New Pussycat? - cats were flying at me all over the place. So I just said, this is it.

"It was only temporary until I thought of something better, but it ended up on the record label and it's been stuck there ever since."

It's a strange thing to be interviewing Cat Stevens - hereafter referred to as Yusuf - not least because I'm at first unsure of just what are appropriate subjects to talk to him about.

While he hasn't exactly shied away from interviews since his return to the world of 'secular' music in the mid-2000s, it's hard to shake the sense that Yusuf's Cat Stevens days are somehow off-limits - despite the fact he's been playing old hits like Peace Train and Moonshadow again for years, as he did on his last (and first) visit to New Zealand in 2010.

Maybe it's the way the internationally renowned singer-songwriter - at what could be called the height of his fame - so abruptly quit the music business altogether, converting to Islam, changing his name and releasing one final album as Cat Stevens before auctioning all his guitars for charity and devoting his life to philanthropic causes around the world.

Any concerns I might have had are almost immediately dispelled when I get him on the phone however - Yusuf seems perfectly happy to talk about everything from the weather and Facebook to the inspiration behind Matthew And Son and the reasoning behind his return to music.

In Sydney promoting his upcoming Australian tour - he'll be there from November to December before coming here for three dates in Auckland, New Plymouth and Christchurch - Yusuf comes on the line after a vaguely confusing exchange between myself and his son Yoriyos, who I at first mistook for the man himself (all the while marvelling in my head at his miraculously youthful-sounding voice).

Like his father, the son is a singer-songwriter - Yoriyos is actually another stage name; he was born Muhammad Islam - and is also the person responsible for bringing Yusuf back to the guitar after a quarter-century absence.

It was 2002 when the then-teenage Yoriyos brought a guitar home to their house in Dubai - and late that night when his family was sleeping, Yusuf picked it up and tried out a few chords.

"I didn't have a guitar for many years, because I'd just got ridden of them all," says Yusuf, still sporting a surprisingly distinct London accent. "And then when I got the guitar back I started to play, and at that point, immediately I started to write.

"The first song that I wrote actually hasn't been released yet, but one day it'll come out. It's a very moving song - very moving - and it was kind of like the inspiration came back to me."

Yusuf not only has a knack for moving people with his music - the lyrics to Father And Son rarely fail to bring a tear to my eye - but for me there's always been something about his songs that also seems to make a deeper connection with the listener.

The summer I left school my friends and I absolutely thrashed the 1990 release of The Very Best Of Cat Stevens, listening to it alongside albums by more (at the time) contemporary bands like Sublime and Red Hot Chili Peppers, and I wanted to know if Yusuf had any idea why his songs continue to endure 30, 40 and now even 50 years after they were written?

"I think the spirit of the counter-culture sort of movement that I belonged to, and I contributed to, still stands relevant today to many kids," he reflects.

"Growing up in the world today, it's becoming harder and harder to find your identity I think - because everything is corporate stamps. You've got your Facebook, but even on that you become a trademark yourself - of your own image.

"And people change, so I think I represent someone who went through those changes - it's that I think that resonates maybe."

The changes have continued for Yusuf over the years - these days he even admits that his sudden departure from music might have been a somewhat "radical and over-zealous reaction" to his newfound faith.

And while he acknowledges that there are those in Islam who may disagree with his decision to return to the music that made him famous, his own standpoint seems to have mellowed considerably.

"I think what I'm doing by singing again is kind of bringing people back to the basic human heart of it all - because that's what it's all about," he says. "Unfortunately politics really does a nasty business in separating people. Especially these days, we can see politicians make a whole career out of it - you know, out of making divisions and building walls and all sorts of things.

"So it's great to be able to, in a way, represent a bridge between the cultures that I represent. By the way, recently I wrote a book - a short book - called Why I Still Carry A Guitar, so I'm also trying to explain to the Muslim community, 'Hey, that's why I'm up on stage' - because I think it's a great way to communicate, a great way to unite."

Yusuf Islam plays Auckland, December 13, New Plymouth, December 16, Christchurch, December 19. Tickets on sale April 5.

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