By Ken Sharp
In 1968, after surviving an almost deadly bout of tuberculosis, Cat Stevens, already a star in his homeland of England, having racked up the hits, “Matthew and Son,” “I Love My Dog” and “I’m Gonna Get Me a Gun,” had grown weary of living life inside the bubble of fame. He harbored deeper, much bigger questions than those that could find voice inside an innocuous two- to three-minute pop song. By the turn of the ’70s, with albums Mona Bone Jakon and his timeless masterpiece, Tea for the Tillerman, Stevens’ music had taken a decidedly new turn, more intimate, more introspective, more spiritual, in alliance with kindred singer-songwriter material delivered by contemporaries James Taylor, Carole King, Jackson Browne, Judee Sill and Joni Mitchell, among others. The aforementioned Tea for the Tillerman was an extraordinary song cycle yielding classic evergreens “Where Do the Children Play,” “Wild World,” “Hard Headed Woman,” “Miles From Nowhere,” “Sad Lisa” and the title track, songs infused with spirituality and longing, a search for a higher power. Fifty years later, the artist has returned to his most famous work, issuing a newly recorded rendering, Tea for the Tillerman 2. And recently two super deluxe editions celebrate the 50th anniversary releases of Mona Bone Jakon and Tea for the Tillerman, boasting remastered versions of the album, new mixes of the songs, a bounty of alternate takes and demos alongside spellbinding live material, including a 1970 set taped at the legendary Troubadour club in Hollywood, California.
Join us for a conversation with Yusuf/Cat Stevens as we examine of the magic, then and now, of his magical catalog of music.
GOLDMINE: 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.
GM: Do you remember the first song you played —let me see if I remember how to do this again?
Y/CS: I can’t, to be honest, but I think the chord of F might have been the most difficult one to just reconfigure. The chord F is slightly more difficult than a C chord, for instance. So I probably would have gone with “Father and Son,” because that’s a very simple one to do, it’s a simple one to play.
GM: One of the highlights of the album is the aforementioned “Father and Son,” which is such a beautiful affecting song 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?
Y/CS: 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, stroke 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 Alexander, 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, who was a peasant and his 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.
GM: When your father first heard the song, what did he think?
Y/CS: 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.
GM: On the new version of Tea for the Tillerman 2, 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.
Y/CS: 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.
GM: Yeah, it’s a grand idea and it really works beautifully. When you listen to Tea for the Tillerman, whether it’s “Wild World” or “Miles From Nowhere,” the songs on this album do not sound dated and have not aged; there’s something relatable not only to my generation that grew up with the record, but younger generations, too. Does that surprise you? Did you get a sense that there was a timelessness about what you were doing at that time, subject matter wise?
Y/CS: Well, I think we all have kind of subliminal goals within our psyche, which we try to achieve those goals sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. But I was always quite conscious of whatever I laid down musically it would be something to last. In other words, if I didn’t get it right, I’d do it again and again until I felt I had reached that pinnacle that would resonate more than just listening to the playback and then through the cycle of a record and all that. This is more than that because it was also the recording of my own life and a musical documentary of what I was going through at the time. So it had to be real and it had to be good. So I was very critical at that time and you could probably speak to some of my musicians and they could confirm that fact (laughs) that I was particular and I was a bit of a perfectionist. So because of that, I think that these things have longevity. These songs have got longevity, you know, and I’m sure if you listen to The Beatles, it would be the same thing. I was a student of The Beatles, if you like, because they were always exploring and musically they never could sit still either. So that was another reason.
GM: You’ve described the original album as a defining album for you. How did the songs define you then and today?
Y/CS: Well, of course, one of the clearest definitions would be found in the song called “On the Road to Find Out.” There you can hear and see the story unfold of my adventure, leaving my happy home and being confronted by the terrifying world. And sometimes, you know, it looks very frightening. And then you listen to nature and it tells you, don’t worry, it’ll be all right. I’m always following my nature on this path, and then I talk quite significantly about knowledge through the symbol of a book. And so I was on the journey to find out. So “On the Road to Find Out” is the searching song, the search for knowledge. And I may not have been the greatest student when I was a kid, but by God, after I went through that kind of illness, I really wanted to find out (laughs) a lot more than I’d been taught at school. And so therefore, that song became very much a biography about what I was going through.
GM: You have two super deluxe box sets coming out, both albums you recorded and released in 1970, Mona Bona Jakon and Tea for the Tillerman. In 1968, you had tuberculosis and a collapsed lung and were on the other side of having pretty big success in England with some hit records. And then those records signal an immersion into spirituality. Even the way the records were created and sounded with their stripped down and stark vibe was initiated then. Could you discuss how these two records were the albums that changed everything for you in that transition?
Y/CS: Well, it was by a pure stroke of destiny and luck that I was introduced to Paul Samwell-Smith, and he, of course, goes back to the R&B days and I used to actually see him at The 100 Club playing with The Yardbirds. But when I was introduced to him was at a time when he more or less became a full-time producer. He was recording a group called Renaissance and I listened to the album and I loved it because it had a sort of English madrigal simplicity and acoustic folk flavor, which I really love, because mostly, but not all of my songs, were written on a guitar acoustically. So I entered into this acoustic universe, which is how I wrote my songs. And he saw that universe and said, “That’s what I’m going to capture.” And that’s what he did. He didn’t have to do very, very clever things. He just used to sit me in the right place, put the microphone in the right position and everything, just to be able to capture me performing that song to the best that I could and that would be it. And then we had our complementary musicians like Alun Davies, who would just fill in those little spaces with his beautiful artwork of guitar and riffs and picking and suddenly the whole thing grew from a very simple base, which was me, the song and that’s it.
GM: Well, you know, there’s also another really important element of personnel in those records that really colored the sounds and transformed them into Technicolor, and that was Del Newman doing the orchestrations.
Y/CS: Yeah, well, he was a beautiful man and such a gentle soul. He spoke with a velvet voice very quietly; you know, you get some arrangers that shout at the musicians (laughs), you know, be dogmatic and he was nothing like that. He was just a pure, gentle soul, and that was reflected. And he used to listen to all the songs, and he developed and sort of nurtured this arrangement out of whatever was there in its simplicity and its bareness. But he never ruined it. He never overcrowded it. And, you know, I love the guy. Recently he just passed away. He was from the Caribbean and so he had this warmth about him. He just (had) that with him on his back, and you just felt this great warmth when he walked in the room and his arrangements expressed that.
GM: Musically, who are you listening to at the time when you were writing the songs for Mona Bone Jakon and Tea for the Tillerman in 1970?
Y/CS: Well, there would be a whole kind of eclectic collection by the side of my bed, which I would listen to sometimes, just play the record and fall asleep. There’d be Tim Hardin, there’d be Richie Havens, there would be The Band, there would be Neil Young and maybe a record from Joni Mitchell. And then I’ve got my all-time favorites, which would be Nina Simone, and then I’d be into electronic music like Switched-On Bach by Wendy Carlos. And I’d also be into some very ethnic music, like I’d have a record by an Armenian choir. And I used to love choir music. That’s why the Russian Revolution theme is so strong with me, because I love that kind of Slavic choral sound and then things like The Planets. Then you’d get things like The Doors, and even though I loved some of the other groups, I never really had some of their records. I didn’t even have a record by The Beatles for some reason, because I heard it all the time on the radio, so I didn’t need to. But yeah, those are the things I was listening to at the time. I’ve got to say one more, Paul Samwell-Smith was really into Van Morrison, so he put me onto him and Astral Weeks as well.
GM: In terms of your lyrics, what was the literature that you were drawn into reading at that time that perhaps may have had an indirect or direct influence?
Y/CS: Well, the book that really turned me around, and I suppose the one that I referenced in “On the Road to Find Out” would be a book called The Secret Path, which is by a Buddhist convert called Dr. Paul Brunton, a really, really amazing soul who could speak to the Western mind with an understanding of Buddhism — which would make it easier to understand, make it easier to comprehend. But that was probably the most important book for me at the time. I was also reading Hermann Hesse. So you’ve got The Journey to the East and Siddhartha and things like that.
GM: You did the artwork for the cover of Tea for the Tillerman and you’ve revamped it with the Tea for the Tillerman 2 record. Let’s talk a bit about coming up with the concept for that cover.
Y/CS: The artwork followed the song. First of all, I was looking in the dictionary and I was just looking for inspiration. You sometimes do that as a songwriter; you’re looking for a word that will kind of ignite some idea in your mind. And under the letter “T,” I found Tillerman. (laughs) It was very simple, alphabetically, and then I kind of constructed this scene around the Tillerman. I didn’t see him as someone who prattled a boat. I always took the meaning that this was a man of the earth. In fact, one of the first professions that man started with was nurturing the earth. So therefore it has an archetypal meaning going back to the beginning of how man has this especially important role on the earth to nurture and to grow and to develop. So therefore Tillerman became the character, and then I surrounded him with all these other characters that were in my head at the time, and then came the illustration. I just said, “Well, I’m going to paint this” and that’s what I did, and that became the cover. Of course, it was much more bright and much more cheerful, and much more childish. These days, 50 years on, we’re in a much darker phase. If you look at the things that are going on, or films that are being made, almost every one of them is dark. There’s some kind of twist to the story, which doesn’t allow any happy ending in a way like there was. And that’s probably why I sang at the very end of “Tillerman,” “Oh happy day,” because that always has been my guiding light and I always believed that the ultimate day will be happy. So now today it’s much darker, but there’s still Tillerman and he’s still constant and he’s still smiling. The kids are out playing with their games and streaming music on their phone. Now it’s the moon, not the sun, and we’re going through this period, which I felt was more appropriate for our time, which I reflected in this artwork now.
GM: Speaking of darkness, from the Mona Bone Jakon album comes “Trouble,” which is such a perfect song for the kind of forces we’re dealing with today.
Y/CS: “Trouble,” for me, again, I’m picking letters from the alphabet. It spelt to me, “TB” and “TB” is what I had to battle with. And so, you know, the word “trouble” has those two letters in it, and it was significant for me. It also kind of leaned on my love of the blues. And, if you think about what the blues are all about and how they began, it’s all to do with trouble. It’s all to do with being oppressed, you know, being persecuted and having to rise up above your situation to maintain your humanity and to survive. So all these things are very, very relevant today. I mean, you’re looking at the Black Lives Matter movement. You know, there’s still trouble, and we’re facing it all the time.
GM: On the Tea for the Tillerman album, is there an underlying message that can relate to what we’re going through globally?
Y/CS: Well, let’s see, I mean, Tillerman begins with “Where Do the Children Play?” So it’s already sending out warning signals that the world isn’t quite what it should be. I think the whole album has something to do with change. So when you’re talking about problems, it’s to do with having to learn to live with change and facing up to change. With “Where Do the Children Play?”, it says, (recites lyrics) “We’ve come a long way, we’re changing day to day...” Yeah, again, it’s to do with change. It’s being able to cope with change, because life throws up things that you really did not ever expect. And when that happens, you must be able to balance yourself and to go forward and you may have to readjust. So I think it’s all to do with going forward. It’s all to do with being prepared to change. And, you know, that’s the world we’re living.
And it hasn’t stopped, ever since man has found his feet on this earth, he’s always had to deal with unexpected situations. So the other thing I think it reflects is that there’s knowledge out there and we’ve got to find it. As a human being, you would be an invalid. As John Lennon said, you’d be crippled inside if you didn’t go out and try and find out more about what life means, so I think that’s the other major, major theme.
GM: “Sad Lisa” is an extraordinarily moving song. What is the back story behind that song?
Y/CS: Well, I love that song because it’s part of my classical upbringing, you know, my love of classics, the classical composers. And so there’s something about that. It’s almost Bach-like. But the subject of the song, Lisa, is a real person, and she was an au pair and worked in our family for some period of time. She was from Sweden. One day my brother came back, and he’s an elder brother so he’s a bit bossy. He came back and he found that she hadn’t cleaned, she hasn’t provided the bed, and so he got rid of her. So that’s why she’s very sad.
GM: For the super deluxe editions, both of the records not only have remastered versions of the albums, but new mixes.
Y/CS: Yeah, well, I mean, you know, we’ve advanced so far from those days, those days we were just beginning to learn how to use Dolbys, you know? So that was one of the things that when we entered the studio for Mona Bone Jakon, and Paul was ecstatic because they had a 16-track with 16 Dolbys to go along with it. In other words, the quality of the acoustic sound could be captured without all that bothersome hiss, which used to accompany quiet musical moments. And so now, of course, with the digital possibilities, everything has become that much more possible to raise the kind of level. And in terms of just being able to hear the thing clearly and record it and do so many different things with it, you’ve got these little plug-ins that you can use. Some people would maybe say that’s a bit of a criticism, because now you don’t get the kind of dynamics that you used to get, and especially when it comes to analog — you know, recording of drums is not quite the same. So the drums are very peculiar instruments that cannot be faithfully recorded digitally; it’s more suitable towards the analog technicalities. I had a great time. I’m familiar with Pro Tools and it’s a bit of a battle sometimes between me and the engineer (laughs) as to what to do with the sounds and how to mix it. But I usually win in the end. (laughs)
GM: With the new mixes, do you hear significant improvements?
Y/CS: I think so. One of the things I always used to regret was the fact that when my records came on, people used to have to turn up the volume a little bit. Yeah, so it’s made a little bit easier now for the listeners, because we’ve got so many choices and so many options. I mean, streaming is just a flood, it’s not a stream. And so therefore, you do need to bring things to people’s attention and you have to hear the song clearly. And that’s what I think the new remixes have done. It’s made it very clear. There’s not much hidden that we’re now revealing. It’s still all there, but I think a little bit more shiny, a little bit more level.
GM: There are some revelatory demos and alternate versions as well as some beautiful live recordings on both the super deluxe editions. For you, what were the most interesting discoveries?
Y/CS: In the context of those type of recordings, I think going back, some of those demos were pretty good. You know, I like things like “Time” and “Fill My Eyes.” There was a little jangle piano, which we used originally. You know, you try things out in the studio and if it doesn’t work, you move on somewhere else. But there was that lovely moment where I did a version, which is on the album. It’s “Fill My Eyes” and it’s a lovely little riff, and it’s played not just by a guitar, but on this jangle piano. I love that one.
The rest, the fact that we recorded it so sparsely meant that you couldn’t move things around. It is what it is, if you like. There’s nothing else you can do with it. It kind of mixed itself in some strange way. You know, Paul always had a flair for what kind of echo to use and things like that, and that was very beautiful what he did there. But in the end, you can’t do much with it. The songs speak for themselves. They need to be kept simple.
GM: Of all the demos included on either of the super deluxe editions, was there anything particularly interesting to your ear, things you hadn’t heard for a long time?
Y/CS: Well, I think there were reasons why we rejected them. (laughs) I don’t want to go over that. But we always were very, very, very careful and very particular about which version would end up on the album. But because it’s a fun thing, like the end of a film you like to see how Charlie Chan (laughs) falls over and winds up in the wrong direction and ends up on his face or whatever. You like those kind of things because they’re old and they’re unique.
GM: The Tea for the Tillerman super deluxe set includes a wonderful show taped at the Troubadour in Hollywood circa 1970. What are your most indelible memories when you look back to that time and that performance?
Y/CS: Well, you know, it was me venturing out into the great other side of the Atlantic, and that’s always going to be a challenge to conquer. (laughs) From day one, when I came back after my hospitalization, I was always incredibly honest with who I was and what I was doing and what I was singing about, and I think that struck a chord, a very, very big chord in the hearts of many of those people listening to me. And, you know, when you’re in such a close environment like the Troubadour, you’ve almost got the same breath, you’re breathing and you’re so close together. I entered into the hearts of so many people because I was very, very, very honest with who I was. And when they saw this quite unique, curly black-haired figure with a little mustache with a bit of a mystical, romantic look, I think people fell in love with me in the simplest way.
GM: Last question, tell me about “Honey Man,” your duet with Elton John.
Y/CS: OK, well, we had the same publisher at one point. We had a friend called Lionel Conway, and I think Elton was already signed to Dick James Music, but he was still doing sessions, and in fact, he did a cover of “Lady D’Arbanville” when I released the Mona Bone Jakon album. He was still doing things like covers. Anyway, I knew about Elton and some of his songs through Lionel. I had this song and I asked him to come along and be on it, and we did that recording. It was very, very early days. I’m not sure if his album was out at that time. I don’t think it was. And anyway, he is singing the duet with me and, in fact, that was a song I wrote with someone else. There aren’t many songs that I wrote with other people, but that was when I worked with a guy called Ken Cumberbatch. So anyway, I replaced Ken with Elton, and it all worked out very nice.