Yusuf/Cat Stevens has spoken to NME about his newly-announced album ‘King Of A Land’, as well as his thoughts on the Glastonbury 2023 legend’s slot, Rishi Sunak’s government, and his dream of working with Green Day. Check out new single ‘Take The World Apart’ below, along with our interview with the icon.
The first wave of artists for this summer’s festival was revealed earlier this month, with Arctic Monkeys and Guns N’ Roses set to join Elton John in headlining the iconic Pyramid Stage – and Yusuf/Cat Stevens filling the coveted legends slot on Sunday afternoon.
Fresh on the heels of the announcement, the iconic singer-songwriter – who first found fame ‘Matthew And Son’ when he was just 18 in 1967, before releasing the likes of ‘First Cut Is The Deepest’, ‘Father And Son’, ‘Morning Has Broken’, ‘Peace Train’ and ‘Wild World’ – has today (March 15) revealed details of his new album, ‘King Of A Land’.
“I didn’t have a plan for what this album was going to be and, in a way, I’ve been recording it for 12 years,” he told NME. “I started recording it in Berlin in 2011, but I wasn’t happy with the tracks I laid down there. Over the years, I’ve gradually been perfecting them. I live in Dubai, where I’ve been adding details in my studio. So it’s taken a long time, but it’s benefitted from that.
“I wasn’t going to let go until it’s ready and I’m very, very pleased with the results. It’s probably one of my best albums.”
Made with Yusuf’s longtime producer Paul Samwell-Smith, ‘King Of A Land’ is a fascinatingly diverse album, veering from the childlike wonder of ‘How Good It Feels’ and gospel-tinged ‘Highness’ to the politicised rock of ‘All Nights All Days’ and the heavy ‘Pagan Run’. The album is launched with infectious acoustic single ‘Take The World Apart’.
“I kept on feeling it was somebody else’s song,” he said of the track. “I’d play it to people, saying, ‘Who wrote this? It sounds like one of your songs’. It got put to the back of the shelf, but every song has its time.
“Once I found the right words, the daylight came in and that song had its chance to live. It utilises a melody by Tchaikovsky, and I’m so pleased I can pay tribute to the first composer who inspired me.”
NME caught up with Yusuf to discuss his new record, as well as why it’s taken so long to get to Worthy Farm, his despair at politicians and admiration for Greta Thunberg, and why he’d love to work with Green Day.
NME: Hi, Yusuf. Congratulations on ‘King Of A Land’. It’s such a diverse album. The song ‘Pagan Run’ is a surprisingly hard rock song. What inspired it?
Yusuf: “I sometimes write songs that focus on periods of my life. ‘Pagan Run’ focuses on the really messed up time in my life when I had no idea where I was going. Happiness was so elusive for me, and I’d become superstitious. Some people only have superstition, not faith, and that’s all I had. When Stevie Wonder came out with ‘Superstition’, I thought: ‘Wow, he’s hit it on the head!’ People say they don’t have faith, but they do. There’s always something where you think: ‘If I do this, it’ll save me from getting into trouble’.”
“‘Pagan Run’ took me back to that very confused moment in my life. It’s a great rock song, so you’ve got two things to listen to: the words, and I think it’s musically one of the best rock songs I’ve made.”
In 1977 you converted to Islam, changing your name to Yusuf Islam and quitting the music industry in 1979 before gradually returning in the 2000s. Do you wish you’d had it easier before finding your faith, or are you glad you went through that dark time to get to where you are now?
“I’ve never wished to change anything, as it’s how you learn and progress. Every problem is an opportunity got get a little higher on the ladder. I’ve always motivated to go forward and do things better.”
How do you feel about playing the legends slot at Glastonbury?
“I’m petrified, obviously! I haven’t done a big gig like that in a long time. How many hundreds of thousands of people is it?”
Without wanting to petrify you further, the official attendance is 195,000.
“There we are. It’s teatime on a Sunday, when everyone has spare time to see whoever is on. That’s why I’m a little bit scared. But something usually helps you when those challenges are there to be met. I think I’ll get that help, and Glastonbury will be a very important moment in my career. It took me time to say yes to the offer, but it’s a bucket list moment. A lot of people would like to see me live, and this is one big go when they can do that. For me, I could have done it years ago, but I took that long sabbatical in my life.”
It’s surprising you didn’t play Glastonbury in the ’70s before that sabbatical. Why not?
“Maybe because my music was prone to solitary contemplation, to working things out within yourself. My music was microscopically very important but, for big things? People never danced to my records, they used them to sit down and listen. I thought that was my lot in life, that my songs made people sit down and listen.”
Will you be staying for the whole weekend and enjoy the full Glastonbury experience?
“I don’t know, I’ll see how much I can manage. It’s such a big gig, I’ll be thinking about my set and making sure that goes alright as my priority.”
You released your first album as Yusuf/Cat Stevens with ‘The Laughing Apple’ in 2017. Do you see any difference between Yusuf and Cat Stevens?
“If you call me by my first name, it’s Yusuf. But I cannot deny the fact that most people think of Cat Stevens when they think of me. That’s their embedded impression of who I am, what I’ve contributed to their life. And that’s OK. You can be many things at the same time in life: father, son, brother, and all those identities are OK.”
You re-recorded your classic album ‘Tea For The Tillerman’ for its 50th anniversary in 2020, as ‘Tea For The Tillerman 2’. How do you feel when you revisit your old songs now?
“Remaking ‘Tea For The Tillerman’ was a new way of connecting to those songs. ‘Tea For The Tillerman’ was such a big album that it was a little intimidating for me, having a powerful album that changed people’s lives. I’d been scared of it, and revisiting it was my way to reclaim it. It makes it relevant to me again.
“The imagery on the front of ‘Tea For The Tillerman 2’ tells it all: those were the days of summer and love, but now that person is wearing a spacesuit because it’s dark and the air is so polluted.”
Speaking of pollution, what do you think of Greta Thunberg?
“She’s someone who we dream of arising. There are still brave souls, which is the way of human nature. You can think life is very dark, but someone like Greta comes along with a little lamp to make you think: ‘Wow, I can see the way forward now’. She still has to deal with the establishment, of course.”
You address the establishment in ‘All Days All Nights’ on the new album. How do you feel about the current government?
“I say it clearly in the song: ‘Lock them up in London Zoo’. Politicians are meant to look after people, but it ends up as a squabble. Even if they believe in what the opposition party says, they have to oppose it. That’s the default position in politics, which takes away the great moral incentive politicians can start with, of wanting to help serve people and save the world. That gets lost along the way.”
‘King Of A Land’ is released on George Harrison’s record label, Dark Horse. Could you feel George’s spirit when you were mixing the album at his old Surrey home, Friar Park?
“Oh, George’s spirit was there, of course. George left his spirit in so many places, including obviously his music. His son Dhani is the carrier of George’s legacy, and he protects it beautifully. Friar Park is like it’s brand new, as everything in the studio works so fantastically. It was a joy and a privilege to work there. Walking around the grounds, there’s fields and lakes, amazing rock arrangements. It’s just beautiful.”
How much do you keep up with modern music?
“Not very much. I came from one of pop’s pinnacle eras, when there’d be a new milestone every week, so I tend to listen to that period most. But I love Green Day because of their message. ‘Know Your Enemy’ is an incredible song with a message about the Iraq war that was right on time.”
Would you be interested in working with Green Day?
“Yeah! Wow, that’s a good idea. I think they listened to my song ‘Bitterblue’ before making ‘Know Your Enemy’, as I can hear little titbits of it in the chords and some of the words. I reckon we could definitely get it on.”
‘King Of A Land’ is released on June 16 on BMG/Dark Horse. Check out the full tracklisting below.
‘Train On A Hill’
‘King Of A Land’
‘He Is True’
‘All Nights All Days’
‘Another Night In The Rain’
‘Son Of Mary’
‘The Boy Who Knew How To Climb Walls’
‘How Good It Feels’
‘Take The World Apart’