Legendary Artist Yusuf/Cat Stevens Talks About Writing His Classic Songs “Peace Train,” “Wild World,” “Moonshadow” And “Father And Son”
With a career now spanning over 50 years, Yusuf/Cat Stevens has long been regarded as one of the great singer/songwriters in pop & rock music history. Known for writing and singing such classic songs as “Peace Train,” “Wild World,” ‘Oh Very Young,” “Moonshadow” and “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” he has blended pop, rock & folk music to create a very unique and soulful style.
In 2014, Yusuf/Cat Stevens was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Now in 2019, he has been selected for induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He will be inducted in a special ceremony on June 13 in New York City.
When he first emerged as an artist in 1967, he was known by the name, Cat Stevens. He released his albums under that name until 1978, when he decided to leave the music business, convert to the Muslim faith, and change his name to Yusuf Islam. At the time, it was a very surprising and unusual move, for a pop artist at the height of his popularity and success, to leave the music business and change his name.
Yusuf Islam then spent the next 28 years away from the music business, and he seldom played music during this period. But in the early 2000s, he began playing guitar again, and rediscovered his love for writing & performing music. It was in 2006 that he returned with his album An Other Cup, which showed that his singing & songwriting remained in prime form.
When he returned to music in 2006, he went by the name of Yusuf. But in more recent years, he has embraced the name Cat Stevens again, and he is now known as Yusuf/Cat Stevens.
Now 70 years old, Yusuf/Cat Stevens was born in London, England, where he learned to play piano at a young age. When he was 15, he began to play guitar and started writing songs. By age 18, he signed with a record label and released his first single (called “I Love My Dog”), and his second single (“Matthew and Son”) became a hit in the U.K.
His debut album, Matthew and Son, was released in March 1967, and not only did it contain his first two singles, but it included his song “Here Comes My Baby,” which was recorded by the rock group The Tremeloes, and became a hit in the U.K., U.S. and Canada. Then in December 1967, he released his second album, New Masters. This album was not a commercial success, but it contained “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” which later became a classic song when both Rod Stewart and Sheryl Crow had cover hits with this song.
Here’s a video of Yusuf/Cat Stevens performing his hit “Peace
Train” in 2015.
In 1969, Yusuf/Cat Stevens contracted tuberculosis and became seriously ill. It took several months to recover, and then he recorded his third album Mona Bone Jakon, which was released in April 1970.
It was in November 1970 when he had a major breakthrough as an artist. He released his acclaimed album Tea for the Tillerman, which helped establish Cat Stevens as one of the leading singer/songwriters of that era. The album includes several songs that remain classics to this day: “Wild World,” “Father and Son,” “Where Do the Children Play?” and “Miles From Nowhere.” Notably in 1988, the pop/reggae band Maxi Priest recorded “Wild World” and it became a worldwide hit.
Then in October 1971, he released another acclaimed album called Teaser and the Firecat. This album contains his most popular song “Peace Train,” plus other classics such as “Moonshadow,” “Morning Has Broken” and “The Wind.”
A year later (in September 1972), he released another strong album, Catch Bull at Four, that contained the hits “Sitting” and “Can’t Keep It In.” The album also featured the ambitious, dramatic song “18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare),” which is one of his most impressive musical pieces, with a lengthy instrumental section.
Over the next five years, Stevens released five more albums: Foreigner (1973), Buddha and the Chocolate Box (1974, which contained the classic hit “Oh Very Young”), Numbers (1975), Izitso (1977), and Back to Earth (1978). Also in 1974, he recorded Sam Cooke’s soul classic “Another Saturday Night,” that became a Top 10 hit.
It was in 1978 that Cat Stevens changed his named to Yusuf Islam and left the music business. Then 28 years later, he returned with his album, An Other Cup. This album featured the excellent uptempo songs “Midday (Avoid City After Dark)” and “Heaven Where True Love Goes,” as well as “In the End,” a powerful, articulate message song that is the equal to some of his best, earlier songs.
Here’s a video of Yusuf/Cat Stevens performing his hit “Wild
World,” at the 2014 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Yusuf/Cat Stevens has also released the albums Roadsinger (2009), Tell ‘Em I’m Gone (2014) and The Laughing Apple (2017). Currently, he is nearly finished recording a new studio album. And notably, he is almost finished writing his autobiographical book, which is due out next year.
We are pleased to do this special Q&A interview with Yusuf/Cat Stevens. He recalls how he got started with music, how he wrote his classic songs, and why he left the music business but returned many years later.
DK: Congratulations on your induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. How does it feel to receive this honor and be recognized for your songwriting?
Yusuf/Cat Stevens: Well it’s great…considering I didn’t do very well at school, that means I’m adding to my collection of awards (laughs). I appreciate the honor, and I think this award is definitely something special.
DK: Going back to your early days, I read that you learned to play piano at a young age and then you began to play guitar. So when you were young, what inspired you to start writing songs and being an artist?
Yusuf/Cat Stevens: We had a little baby grand piano in our living room. It was way too big for our living room, but it was a present that my father got from my sister. And at first, nobody really bothered to play it. My mother sometimes played a piano song here and there, but that was it.
Then along came the Beatles, and that changed everything. What happened was, I got myself a guitar…a really cheap one, but it was good enough. And I started trying to play and learning the chords, like where you put your fingers and all that. That was hard, and playing other people’s songs was even harder. So it was just a fast track for me to say…Okay, I’ll just write my own songs (laughs). In a way, that was it…it was just kind of a necessity. In order to play something, I needed to make it up myself.
Then with the piano, I could transpose my great knowledge of three-note chords onto the piano. And I went, “Hey, now I can play piano!” (laughs). So what I did was transpose my knowledge of chords from the guitar to the piano, and that’s how I began to learn piano.
Here’s a video of Yusuf/Cat Stevens performing his song “Father
and Son” in 2015.
DK: You were just 18 when your first album Matthew and Son was released. What was it like to write and record your first album, and have it be successful?
Yusuf/Cat Stevens: Well to be honest with you, I thought it was taking an awful long time for me to make it (laughs). At that age, you expect everything to happen like yesterday (laughs). So therefore, I was quite expecting it in a way…I was just waiting for the world to sort of catch up with me. But of course, I wasn’t ready for it at all, because then you enter into a new world, a world which is not necessarily dominated by the aesthetic love of music. It’s now a business, and you have to work very hard to maintain it. You get a position, you get a hit, and then you have to maintain that position.
Part of it was fun obviously, to be in the ‘60s and to be traveling around…playing with Jimi Hendrix, the Small Faces, or whoever was having a hit at the time. But it was also rather laborious in some sense, having to do shows…three shows a night. It was very tiring and exhausting, and it really drained me. I became quite sick after the first year of you know, the inoculation of success…I’d had it. And then I had to enter the hospital with TB (tuberculosis), and recoup and recover.
DK: A few years later, you had a big breakthrough with your album, Tea for the Tillerman, which has several classic songs. First, can you talk about how you wrote “Father and Son”?
Yusuf/Cat Stevens: It was kind of a real, accidental moment of fortuitous destiny. After I recovered from my sickness, I began to realize that I had to take more control over my music, over my life and my direction, and my health obviously. Anyway, I went back to one of my first great ambitions…to become a composer of musicals. Because I lived in the West End (of London), I was very influenced by what was going on in the theaters around me, like West Side Story or Porgy and Bess.
Then I had this idea—I met this manager…he was going to help me, to see if we could get this musical put together. And we had an idea about doing [a musical about] the Russian Revolution, would you believe? So I worked with a script writer and we began to develop this script. And the basic song was…coming out of a scene of a peasant farmer and his son, when the Revolution had begun. The son didn’t want to stay on the farm anymore; he wanted to join the Revolution. And so “Father and Son” is the story about the father, and the son wanting to leave to join the great movement out there.
Here’s a video of Yusuf/Cat Stevens performing his song “Where
Do The Children Play?” in 2015.
DK: Another classic song on Tea for the Tillerman was “Wild World.” What inspired you to write this song?
Yusuf/Cat Stevens: “Wild World” was sort of a semi-obituary to my love affair with somebody, and it wasn’t very acrimonious…just simply stating a fact. We were both going in two different directions. But I’d had the taste of the hard life, and I’d already become sick because of it. Therefore, I was sending out a warning signal that even though things may look great…you have a lot of fancy clothes and whatever else you want out of life. But don’t forget there’s dangers, too. My message was to her, but also probably to myself, because I was now entering into a new phase of success.
And perhaps the other thing about that song was this—it was the era where albums were becoming more important. Whereas my early career was all based on hit singles and everything. But now, when everybody loved [“Wild World”} and said “this is a great single,” I thought…No, this is kind of commercial. I was not really looking to go back into the hit single business again. So I gave the song to Jimmy Cliff, who was on the same label as me. I produced it for him and he had the hit. Then later, I regretted it and recorded it myself.
DK: On your next album Teaser and the Firecat, you had the beautiful song “Moonshadow.” Can you tell the story about how you wrote “Moonshadow”?
Yusuf/Cat Stevens: “Moonshadow” was a result of my discovery quite late in life, of my own moonshadow. I’d lived in cities my whole life, and because there were street lamps, there were always neon lights in the shops everywhere, so you never really saw anything of nature. And then when I was on holiday in Spain, I went out on the rocks around midnight, and there was a full moon. Suddenly, I looked down and discovered there he was…that was my moonshadow. And I had this melody already in my mind…it’s like this semi-calypso type of song. So I just took that theme and wrote the song.
DK: Also on that album is your classic song “Peace Train,” which many people love. What inspired you to write this song?
Here’s a video of Cat Stevens performing his hit “Moonshadow”
Yusuf/Cat Stevens: Number one is…I love trains. And we were growing up in a time where war was always looking imminent, with the Cold War and everything. And then there was Vietnam, and you’d see these images of destruction and killing. I think there was war everywhere. Then there was obviously the movement…the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament which is CND, which is where you get that peace sign from. That movement was very strong, and it was growing stronger. So I wanted to write about this search for peace, and then I got this idea to link it with a train…the idea about peace with the peace train.
The other thing is, the peace train is a symbol of mankind traveling together towards the same destination. Because we all have goals…we all have similar goals, if you analyze it. Happiness is definitely universal—it’s what we all want. So that’s where “Peace Train” comes in.
DK: You’ve written several songs about children, such as “Where Do the Children Play?” or being young, like “Oh Very Young.” What inspires you to write these songs about children or being young?
Yusuf/Cat Stevens: I lived in the city, and at the time I was growing up in London, there were bomb ruins, because the war had just ended. There was still signs of destruction all around. And there weren’t many gardens…you had Hyde Park…you had to travel quite a long way to get there. So there was a yearning for the countryside and space for kids. At my school, we had a basement…it was like a lower ground floor. That’s where the boys played…confined to that small basement. That was the reality of growing up in the city, so that’s where [“Where Do the Children Play”?] came from. I also read an article which inspired me to write that song.
About “Oh Very Young,” it’s one of my favorites and I think it’s a very profound song, talking about how youngsters all believe that life goes on forever. Of course it doesn’t, and at some point everybody has to leave this planet, you know, and therefore it’s a reminder about trying to leave the Earth in a better state than you found it. Of course, that’s a very big message for today. And the other point was, I never quite grew up (laughs). Even though I managed to get out of short trousers (laughs).
Here’s a video of Cat Stevens performing his hit “Oh Very
Young” in 1976.
DK: Around 1978, you decided to leave the music business for a very long time, for 28 years. What made you decide to leave, and what made you decide to return to music in 2006 with your album, An Other Cup?
Yusuf/Cat Stevens: Well to be honest, it’s a long story and it will be explained in my forthcoming book. But essentially, it was my finding…you know, if you listen to my songs, especially on Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat…as I grew, you definitely discern The Seeker within me, looking for something beyond what I had, even though everybody thought that what I had was enough. It wasn’t for me, and then I was looking for something that was much more important and much higher than everything that was material around me. So therefore, when I found that in 1977, I finally decided to enjoy it, and to get out of the (music) business, and just start to get a life. And I married, had children. Then the moment you have children, your life definitely, radically changes. You know you have responsibility. I got [involved with] education and charity and so many things.
Then in the early 2000s, the time came when my son brought a guitar back into the house. I had gotten rid of all my musical instruments. He brought a guitar back into the house, and that’s when I picked up the guitar and I realized that you know…we need some more good songs. And by that time I had a lot of ideas, not having played or written, apart from a few songs here or there mentally. I had a lot of things to say and things to sing about.
DK: When you released your album An Other Cup in 2006, I was amazed to hear that your voice sounded exactly the same as it did 28 years earlier. It’s as if you’d only been away for a few years.
Yusuf/Cat Stevens: Yeah that was true, and perhaps I was preserved in some way (laughs). I hadn’t worn myself out. Well it was that, and I have a very healthy life. So it was really a great surprise for a lot of people, too.
DK: Several of your songs have been covered by other artists and become hits for them, such as “Here Comes My Baby” (the Tremeloes), “First Cut is The Deepest” (Rod Stewart and Sheryl Crow), “Wild World” (Maxi Priest) and “Peace Train” (10,000 Maniacs). Do you enjoy hearing other artists’ versions of your songs?
Here’s the video of Sheryl Crow’s hit “The First Cut is The
Deepest,” which was written by Yusuf/Cat Stevens.
Yusuf/Cat Stevens: Yes. I find it’s obviously a great compliment, and it goes back to my original ambition, which was to be a songwriter and composer. The problem I had most of the time, because my songs were designed for my voice and my style of singing, not everybody could actually do it. Therefore, it had to be a quite simple kind of song for it to make it through…for someone else to take it and make it theirs.
That happened with a few songs, such as “Wild World.” Maxi Priest and Jimmy Cliff recorded it. When somebody records one of my songs, it’s an honor. And I must admit, I loved it once when I was in Malaysia and I heard this muzak record—they were playing an instrumental version of “Sad Lisa” at the hotel. And I thought…Ahh…that’s exactly what I wanted, for people to appreciate the musical part of it and the melody. I’m a man of melody—I’ve always put a high importance on melody. So I was really pleased to hear that.
DK: Speaking of your musical side, I’ve always liked your song “18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare)” from your album, Catch Bull at Four. Can you talk about how you created the dramatic music arrangement and the instrumental section?
Yusuf/Cat Stevens: I love that song. That was one of those special keyboard songs, with electric piano. It’s based on a real event that happened in my life in Kansas City. I had taken some weird drug, or someone had given me something which really put me in a terrible state of mind. And it was like getting out of that place and making it to the plane, so I could make it to the next gig. It was really a race of time. That’s what the story’s about…me going into that dreadful, nightmarish experience, and then coming out of it.
With the instrumental section in the middle…it’s really the description (musically) of everything I saw. But you can’t describe it in words…it’s all sort of spasmodic and dramatic. And so I put everything I could into that middle piece. [By hearing this section], one of the things you may understand is my love of (George) Gershwin. If you listen to “Rhapsody In Blue,” you get an idea of where I got those musical ideas from. I also love [the music of Leonard] Bernstein. Put Gershwin and Bernstein together, and you get what I did in the middle of that instrumental.
DK: You mentioned that you have a book (memoir) coming out. When will it be released?
Yusuf/Cat Stevens: It’s almost done and it’s in the editing mode at the moment. I actually wrote it myself…I can’t believe that I did. You know, it’s like a new talent developing or is developed. We’re hoping it will be released next year.
DK: Thank you Yusuf for doing this interview. Currently, are you working on a new album?
Yusuf/Cat Stevens: Yes, we’ve completed a new album already and it’s in the mixing stage. There are some very special songs in there. I have a lot of melodies that go back many years that I never did anything with. And so one of the songs on this album is just me finishing off what I started back in 1968…a beautiful melody which was inspired by Tchaikovky’s Swan Lake. And now of course, with all the knowledge and experience, I can now produce this song—write it and finish it, and also I’ve added a section of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, just to perfect it. It’s gonna be a great record.