Yusuf/Cat Stevens talks religion, musical influences, and why he's using both names

Wendy Geller
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

Yusuf/Cat Stevens is one of the most influential singer-songwriters of all time. His new album, The Laughing Apple, marks the 50th anniversary of his first two albums, both released in 1967, by combining new tunes with covers of tracks from his early repertoire. The album follows the common ‘60s template of combining newly written songs with a number of covers, and puts a twist on his earlier work, presenting the older songs as he has always wished they had been recorded.

The 69-year-old singer recently sat down with BUILD series in New York City to discuss the album, as well as his religious viewpoints and musical influences over the decades.

When asked why the album was being released using both of his recognized names, Yusuf deadpanned, “Well, to sell more records, of course,” provoking a wave of laughter from the audience.

“It also helps because it defines who I am,” he continued. “Because musically, as you can hear from the record, it sounds like me, and that doesn’t change. People recognize me and they know me.”

While the singer has infamously been scrutinized for his conversion to Islam in the late ’70s, his overall deep dedication and approach to faith continues to inform his life and career. “We’re not thinking straight. We’re kind of blurring the whole thing, like ‘oh, religion, it creates wars and messes and all that kind of stuff,” he noted. “No! Go to the heart of it. The one who created this world and this universe should know what we need to do to reach Him.

“There’s a saying that one hour’s contemplation is better than a lifelong worship. Because contemplation enables you to get to the highest fears of understanding,” he continued. “Ultimately you need to contact the higher consciousness in order to see above the things you’re doing, even ritualistically. Like, today I thought — a lot of people don’t know that God exists, and that God has communicated to us in words that we can understand. What? Think about that. That is amazing — that the God of this universe has contacted us and told us things. Wow!”

When it comes to musical influences, Yusuf is unquestionably a purist: “You go back to the classics like Beethoven and the amazing music that was made in those days,” he noted. However, he has a list of modern icons who’ve made an impression as well.

“Of course the Beatles — but before the Beatles came little Richard. That was my first single, “Babyface,” a bit weird, but anyway the other side was ‘Tutti Frutti,’ which is more like Little Richard. Buddy Holly.

“And [Bob] Dylan for sure—I was into the blues, but what Dylan was doing was adding a real explicit view to protest and giving us a vision where we could think about this world in a different way. And the changes that we wanted to see—we were going to make those changes. I was just so sad that Dylan didn’t become president. He kind of backed out on that one!”

The Laughing Apple was released September 15, and marks Yusuf’s 15th studio album.