Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens: Tea For The Tillerman an iconic moment of the early 70s
London-born singer-songwriter Yusuf/Cat Stevens's Tea For The Tillerman was one of the definitive albums of the early 1970s. He told Alex Green about its reimagining and recent new release
Yusuf Islam, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, was 21 when he recorded Tea For The Tillerman. Now, 50 years later he has recorded it again.
Much has changed for the singer-songwriter, born Steven Georgiou in west London in July 1948, during the intervening years. Garnering critical and commercial success throughout much of the 60s and 70s, he converted to Islam after a near-death experience – almost drowning off the coast of California.
He abandoned his musical career for nearly two decades, devoting himself to religion and philanthropic causes, before returning, tentatively, with An Other Cup in 2006.
“Part of the wisdom of this album is that when you look back, usually you can see what you did wrong – in this case I saw what I did right,” he chuckles warmly.
Islam joins the call from his home in Dubai, a few months into the coronavirus pandemic and just as the city’s muted Ramadan celebrations come to a close.
“I tried to make it relative to myself today because when I go touring – of course that’s called off for now – but when I tour a lot of people want to hear the songs.
“So I have to make it real for me today, to bring it to life again, and that’s one of the reasons why I’ve gone back in the studio and done that again.”
Tea For The Tillerman, written in and around Soho in the late 60s, contains some of his best-loved songs – the environmental ballad Where Do The Children Play?, the heartbreaking Wild World.
A new iteration of Father And Son sees Islam duet with a recording of himself at the Los Angeles Troubadour in 1970.
Hard Headed Woman now goes, “I’ve found my hard headed woman” – referring to his wife.
“It’s also a challenge and I love a challenge,” he says of the project. “The album itself stands as an iconic moment of the early 70s where you had marvellous music and a marvellous time for people to enjoy – the spirit of the time.
“But today, things are different. And yet, of course, this happens to many songs but also very much to these songs. They’re all very relevant to what’s happening, what’s going on today.”
In many ways, Islam lives up to his reputation as conversationally sharp, philosophical in thought and unwilling, or unable, to suffer fools gladly. But he is also kind and funny, addressing his weighty musical legacy with humour and a good dose of modesty.
The album’s environmental message resonates today, perhaps even more so than it did upon release.
“Where Do The Children Play? stands proud on that issue – and for good reason,” he explains. “As a child born in London just after the war, there was a lot of bombing and essentially it was all concrete.
“I always dreamed of greener pastures and today, growing up in urban metropolises across the world, compounded with the fact we now have a technology where people sometimes don’t even go out the door, means it’s much more challenging today.
“But it’s the message which is very strong, very loud and having someone like Greta Thunberg around is extremely positive and encouraging.
“Funny thing is, not many people listen to her but perhaps, maybe after what’s happened now, people will start to think again.”
Tea For The Tillerman’s new cover suits the times – illustrating the same tea time scene from the original album, but this time the Tillerman has returned from a trip to space to discover the world has become a darker place.
Two toddlers still play beside him but now they stream the latest music and video call each other on their mobile phones.
Fittingly, it was Islam’s son Yoriyos who encouraged him to mark the album’s 50th anniversary.
An unlikely move for an artist who has struggled to reconcile his personal, musical and spiritual legacies, he reimagined the 11 tracks during recording sessions at La Fabrique Studios in the south of France during summer 2019.
“It was like being home,” he says eagerly. “This time, I suppose, one of the differences was my ability to know what I wanted and how to get it sonically.
“Because in the old days something happened and you would go, ‘Oh that sounds good’ and then that bit formed itself before your eyes, before your ears.”
Islam reunited some of the original album’s key players, producer Paul Samwell-Smith and guitarist Alun Davies, but kept the production decidedly old school.
“An incredible location and a beautiful studio,” he says, wistfully.
Given it came in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, our conversation was framed by the virus’s then-unknown implications.
Islam hopes that, if any positives can be drawn, humanity will use this time to recalibrate its relationship with nature.
“We are made of earth and water and many other things,” he says. “But essentially, the more you concentrate on that one side of life – and that is to try and satisfy the sensuous needs – there’s a part of the human entity that is forgotten – the spirit.
“That’s the thing that can actually cause great damage, much more damage to your life than just catching the flu or catching a cold.
“The spiritual side has always been prominent and important for me. I did go through a very strict Roman Catholic school, I didn’t have any choice really – that was it – but that did give me a perspective on things we call right and wrong.”
This year Islam led a series of short spiritual reflections on BBC radio to mark Ramadan. He read from the Quran and other holy texts and performed some of his own religious songs.
The project was prompted, at least in part, by the need to right what he sees as misconceptions about the Muslim faith in the UK.
“That’s exactly why when I did this programme for the BBC I kept it extremely wide,” he says. “So that every human being could be included and could listen and relate.
“But essentially that is the bottom line – if you really bring religion down to its basics it is about living together. It’s about knowing how to treat one another with kindness, with charity, with a smile.”
:: Tea For The Tillerman 2 by Yusuf/Cat Stevens is out now on UMC