'It's A Bit Of A Gift': Yusuf Islam On His Break And Return To Music The story is well-known: The former known Cat Stevens became Muslim, changed his name and gave up performing for years. The hiatus gave him a chance to "walk the talk," he tells NPR's Scott Simon.

'It's A Bit Of A Gift': Yusuf Islam On His Break And Return To Music

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Some of the most distinctive music in pop history has been written and performed by Yusuf Islam, back to a time in the 1970s when he went by a different name.


CAT STEVENS: (Singing) Oh, I've been smilin' lately, dreamin' about the world as one. And I believe it could be, someday it's going to come 'cause out on the edge of darkness there rides a peace train.

SIMON: Cat Stevens, of course, who mixed the rhythms of pop with themes of spirituality. He became Muslim, changed his name and gave up performing for a while to concentrate on faith and philanthropy. Now Yusuf Islam is back with a new album.


YUSUF ISLAM: (Singing) Hey, Mr. Goldman, I'm for sale. Hey, Mr. Goldman, please don't turn away. Hey, Mr. Goldman, can't you hear my tummy rumbling?

SIMON: That's "Gold Digger" from his new album "Tell 'Em I'm Gone." Yusuf is making his first U.S. tour since 1976 and Yusuf Islam joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

ISLAM: Pleasure to be here.

SIMON: What's it like to be back out there again?

ISLAM: Well, it's a little bit like revisiting your old school, in some way. You know - well, no it's a great feeling to be welcomed. That's one of the feelings I'm getting, is that everybody's so happy for me to kind of be singing again. And I'm really happy too.

SIMON: Let's hear some of the new music you have on this album. This is the song "I Was Raised In Babylon."


ISLAM: (Singing) I used to serve the empire, on which the sun set never. Oh, now times have turned. We thought our white skins would save us then we got burned.

SIMON: This is a tough song.

ISLAM: Yeah.

SIMON: I'm going to infer the song of an Englishman, who says the world is not turning out the way we thought.

ISLAM: Yeah. The empire, I mean, I take a, kind of a, scan or a view of most civilizations in that song, beginning with Babylon. And, you know, moving through to Egypt and Holy Land and so and then even the kind of Islamic Empire, if you like, and everyone has got something wrong with it. But, you know, the balance of all that power, you know, in one place at one time is very difficult to handle. I mean, obviously, civilization at a certain point kind of falls through the drain hole, you know? It's a historic drain hole.

SIMON: You went into the hospital with tuberculosis, right?

ISLAM: Correct.

SIMON: And it was pretty serious, I gather?

ISLAM: Yeah, I had one sort of year of very exciting life in the pop business and touring with, you know, Jimi Hendrix and doing all the shows, and everything that you would imagine - worked very hard in that initial year. And then I ran myself, you know, into the ground and I think, you know, when you realize your mortality and, you know, you're young and then suddenly, like, bang, you know. You're on your back. And doctors are all around you and they're sticking, you know, big needles into you and you're taking these horse-sized tablets to get better. You realize that life isn't like, you know, the way - quite as rosy as you thought it was going to be. And I think a lot of people who do go through kind of very, you know, shattering life experiences, take another look at themselves. It's a chance, actually, to do that. So it's a bit of a gift, bit of a gift 'cause who knows what'd have happened if I'd have kept on that road, you know?

SIMON: Your friend Jimi Hendrix.

ISLAM: Yeah, exactly, I mean, exactly. So I think I was fortunate.

SIMON: Recommend a song for us on this CD.

ISLAM: Well, I would say - I'd go back to one of the first songs I ever learned on guitar, you know, while I was studying - supposed to be studying - in the art school. I was on the stairs trying to learn Leadbelly's "Take This Hammer," you know? So there's a song called "Tell 'Em I'm Gone."


ISLAM: (Singing) Now, if he asks you was I runnin'. If he asks you was I runnin'. If he asks you was I runnin'. You tell 'em I was flyin'. You tell 'em I was flyin'.

SIMON: I must say, listening to this CD, your voice seems as vibrant as ever. Do you think you may have benefited by taking a few years away from the industry?

ISLAM: Absolutely. I mean, I don't drink. I don't smoke, you know, and I don't do much exercise, but at the same time, I live a very healthy life, you know, and it's definitely helped. And I was interested also when, you know, 'cause I gave music a break for almost 20 years, and one of the reasons for that was that I wasn't sure where it fitted. I didn't see anything, you know, in the Quran saying music is forbidden, nothing like that. But it was all these interpretations and people talking and telling you and warning you, you know, sex, drugs and rock 'n roll and all that stuff, get out. And so, you know, hey I started a family. So there was lots of logic to the steps that I took. But music - when you're making music, somehow you get into - you get into a place where you get inspired, so there is something of inspiration which takes place, which is very valuable to the human being. And I think that that's probably why I made music. I felt inspired.

SIMON: Sounds like you would've missed it for 20 years but...

ISLAM: Yeah, but then, you know, I was singing about where do the children play - hey, guess what? I started a school with a big, big playground. So there you go. I mean, it's kind of like walking the talk. That's what I tried to do and I think that it's not just because other people are watching me. It's because I'm looking at myself. And I'd like to make sure that I conform to my ideals as much as possible, that's all.

SIMON: What do you think music puts into people's lives, or can?

ISLAM: I think, for some people, it's a replacement of maybe sometimes in a spiritual connection with something. You know, someone you admire. Someone you would like to follow because, you know, The Beatles, you know, we were following them. You know, it was pretty religious, you know, in some sense. And then you've got the human side of John Lennon, you know. And there we are when he kind of split from The Beatles and all that stuff. And lives fall apart. And somehow we had bigger hopes. I mean, I was expecting Bob Dylan to become president, you know? I was waiting for that, but he kind of withdrew from that position of responsibility. And hey, guess what? You know, maybe we shouldn't expect too much.

SIMON: Yeah, Bob Dylan for sheriff, I can see. The president, I...

ISLAM: No, no, no, Bob Marley for sheriff.


SIMON: Yusuf Islam. His new album "Tell 'Em I'm Gone" and his U.S. tour begin in December. Thanks so much for being with us.

ISLAM: Oh, I really enjoyed it.


ISLAM: (Singing) You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.

SIMON: B.J. Leiderman wrote our theme music. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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