Cat Stevens / Yusuf in Beirut
The Beiteddine Art Festival and Bank Med present, For the first time in the Middle East, As Cat Stevens he defined a generation he returns to the stage with hits of a lifetime..
In “roadsinger,” the illuminating title track to Yusuf’s new album, he asks, “Where do you go in a world filled with fright? Only a song to warm you through the night.”
For decades, his has been the voice that has carried us through the darkness. One of the most influential and successful singer-songwriters of the last 40 years, Yusuf has provided the perfect salve for a troubled world—a beautifully nuanced, warm voice shielding us against harsh, turbulent times bringing songs of truth and hope.
Just when we need him most, Yusuf is back with roadsinger, an 11-song collection about the evanescent dreams of life and the promise that spiritual fulfillment brings for those who are ready to travel far enough.
“While writing these songs I was getting a new idea every day and every song said, ‘sing me’, Yusuf says, sitting casually on a sofa in a hotel suite in Los Angeles. “You don’t ‘make’ the music; you just interpret something that’s passing through you.”
The enjoyment that comes in being part of this process of creating music is palpable in every note on roadsinger. And Yusuf is certain that every step of his amazing journey has led him to this place. “Songwriting is a life vocation if you’re really serious about it,” he says. “And, therefore, it comes from your experiences and the times, tastes and troubles that make up your life.”
And what a life it has been. Born of a Greek father and Swedish mother in England, Steven Georgiou grew up in the shadow of the West End, London’s equivalent of Broadway. On one end of his street was a statue of Eros, the Greek god of love. On the other were theaters that brought some of the best music ever written within feet of his doorstep. “Almost from day one when I decided to get into music, I wanted to write songs for musicals,” he says. “I was so inspired by the great composers such as Bernstein, Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein.”
A self-taught musician, yusuf always felt that, like these seminal men of music, he had a voice and something to say. “I just had to wait for other people to discover it.”
Of course, they did. As Cat Stevens, he sold more than 60 million albums. His tender-yet-passionate style became synonymous with the folk-based singer-songwriter movement of the ‘70s, although his music transcended any set place and time. Hits like “Wild World,” “Morning Has Broken,” “Father and Son,” “Peace Train,” “Oh Very Young,” and “Moonshadow” remain as relevant and inviting today as they did 35 years ago.
Always a seeker of enlightenment and universal wisdom, his searching led him to embrace Islam in 1977 after reading an English translation of the Qur’an. There is nothing too posh or pious about Yusuf. His faith is expressed most beautifully in the universal truths of “All Kinds of Roses” from roadsinger. There’s a stillness and deliberateness about Yusuf that comes from a place of serenity and surrender.
He smiles softly when he talks about picking up a guitar for the first time again in 2004. “It was that moment around dawn, morning time, when no one else was around. I decided to have a go and it felt so, so, natural. I could put my fingers exactly where they were 30 years ago (laughs) and yet it was so fresh. I think that was the most glorious of moments.”
That reentry into mainstream music’s atmosphere after a 28-year absence was the critically-lauded “An Other Cup” in 2006. People were relieved “that I didn’t sound like I’d gone through some Frankensteinian transformation which made me sound like something else,” Yusuf says with a laugh.
“An Other Cup” bridged his eastern and western sensibilities; whereas roadsinger is rooted firmly in the West. That shift happened subconsciously courtesy of a plane trip. “I remember listening to a playlist on a transatlantic flight of [music from] the ‘70s and that just captured my imagination. I said, ‘oh gosh, how great it was.’ It was Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Carole King, James Taylor, Neil Young, Elton John. But it was more the L.A. stuff and that may have edged me toward doing that again.”
Yusuf traveled all over the world to record roadsinger including studios in London, Dubai, and others. He produced the album himself, with assistance on three tracks provided by producer Martin Terefe, best known for his work with Jason Mraz, KT Tunstall, James Morrison and Ron Sexsmith. Some of his musical friends—Michelle Branch, Gunnar Nelson, James Morrison, Terry Sylvester and Holly Williams, also chime in on backing vocals.
Much of roadsinger was recorded live with few overdubs, giving the album an organic, unpretentious feel. Yusuf says, “I borrowed from my own experience making ‘Tea for the Tillerman,’ I realized that some of the best tracks were all live so I went back into recording things live again.”
That adds to the immediacy and warmth of the tracks. “When you’re doing it live, it has something to do with life right now, which is much more powerful than ‘let’s try and overdub it again’,” Yusuf says. “Essentially it’s all done simultaneously and that makes it all more vital. The title track actually was a first take. I haven’t done that since 1967,” he laughs.
Yusuf also revisits his past on the compelling, lovely “Be What You Must” which opens with the lilting, delicate piano melody of “Sitting,” an enduring hit from Catch Bull at Four. Accompanied by a children’s choir, Yusuf bravely and boldly sings that in order to “Be what you must, you must give up what you are.”
On “roadsinger,” Yusuf praises love both divine and human. “Thinking ‘Bout You,” is a pure love song of sweet devotion to one who simply makes the world better by their presence.
While much of the album is dominated by Yusuf’s exquisite, tasteful guitar work, confident, layered arrangements punctuate the tunes, such as the horns on the lush “Everytime I Dream,” or the cellos and violins that provide “The Rain” with a gravitas as Yusuf sings of the world after an epic flood.
Similarly, the searing “World O’ Darkness” features some of Yusuf’s most plaintive vocals ever captured on disc, often pierced by his piquant guitar work. Just as he examines war on “Darkness,” on the yearning “This Glass World” he questions how we’ve isolated ourselves from others with our material possessions.
Both songs are featured in “Moonshadow,” a musical opening later this year constructed around his catalog of songs. “’World O’ Darkness’ acts as a prologue to the planet in which we find ourselves,” Yusuf says. “A world where only moon shines and there is no daylight. It becomes the goal of this one boy, who’s very much a dreamer, very much a rebel, perhaps similar to myself, who leaves the social treadmill to find the lost world of the sun.”
Like his best music over the decades, roadsinger is about a journey of love, after rejection; truth beyond illusion and, ultimately, hope from the opening track, “Welcome Home,” in which Yusuf invites “all seekers this way,” to the closing “Shamsia,” a gentle, meditative instrumental, where he sends us lovingly back into the world of musical sunshine.
But, luckily for us, Yusuf says his musical “seeking” is far from done so we can count on him to keep looking for the answers. “Seeking the perfect song is always the task of every songwriter and you never make it,” he says. “And that’s a great thing, that there’s always something more to write about, something more to sing out loud about.”
Date And Time : February 18th 2012 at 20h30 in Biel, Beirut Lebanon
Tickets available at Virgin Megastores : Prices: 75.000, 105.000, 150.000, 225.000 & 330.000 LBP