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Yusuf Islam Revives the Cat Stevens Sound on New Disc

Singer channels his 1970s hits with mellow, acoustic ‘Roadsinger’

David Browne Jun 21, 2009
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When Michelle Branch entered a Nashville studio last year to sing backup on a new album by Yusuf Islam, she and the other backup singer, Hank Williams’ granddaughter Holly, gathered around the bearded singer-songwriter. The artist formerly known as Cat Stevens started singing a new song on acoustic guitar. “Holly turned to me and said, ”˜Oh, my God, this sounds”¦ familiar,’ ” Branch recalls. “And that’s the only way to describe it. It sounded familiar.”

Islam has recorded little secular music since his Muslim conversion in 1977. The 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami disaster inspired him to write a tune called ”˜Indian Ocean.’ And in 2006, he made a tentative return to pop with the slick, synthesiser-heavy An Other Cup, which sold 214,000 copies. During this time, Islam was also working on Moonshadow, a musical that incorporates old Cat Stevens repertoire alongside new material written specifically for the show ”“ the new songs became the backbone of his new album, Roadsinger (To Warm You Through the Night), out last month.

Recorded in Nashville, London, LA and Dubai, and produced by Islam himself, Roadsinger purposefully recreates the soothing balladry of soft-rock landmarks like ”˜Moonshadow’ and ”˜Morning Has Broken.’ “I did listen a little bit to Tea for the Tillerman just to get an idea of the bare, minimal sound I achieved with that record,” Islam says. “That’s what I was aiming for.” ”˜The Rain’ was actually written in 1968, and snippets of ”˜Sitting’ and ”˜Peace Train’ are woven into two songs. The lyrics also tackle topics familiar to fans of Stevens’ Seventies work: love, the precarious state of the world, spiritual rebirth and Islam’s own philosophical journey. ”˜Boots and Sand’ ”“ a bonus track recorded with Paul McCartney and Dolly Parton, available on iTunes ”“ chronicles a 2004 incident when Islam was escorted off a Nashville-bound plane because his name appeared on a terrorist watch list. “There are probably those who thought it would be a bitter protest song!” he says of the jaunty country tune. “But I took the whole incident lightly. I turn those moments into something lighthearted, which is the way I like to go through life.”

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Although he has no desire to tour, Islam will promote the CD with rare concerts in New York and Los Angeles in May. At this stage in his career, Islam is feeling more comfortable with his legacy. “A lot of people may look at me and my life as two separate sort of lives,” he says. “It’s not true at all. If you ask the question ”˜Who is Cat Stevens?’ he’s Yusuf today. And that’s the reality.”

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