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'Religion is knowing how to treat people with a smile'

As he reimagines his iconic Seventies album, Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens tells Alex Green why the spiritual side of life is so important to him

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Strong faith: Cat Stevens became a Muslim and took the name Yusuf Islam following a near-death experience

Strong faith: Cat Stevens became a Muslim and took the name Yusuf Islam following a near-death experience

Press Association Images

Strong faith: Cat Stevens became a Muslim and took the name Yusuf Islam following a near-death experience

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 July 1948, during the intervening years.

After garnering critical and commercial success, he converted to Islam following a near-death experience, almost drowning off the coast of California.

He abandoned music for nearly two decades, devoting himself to religion and philanthropic causes, before returning 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 says.

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," he tells me.

"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."

Tea for the Tillerman, written in and around London's Soho in the late Sixties, contains some of his best-loved songs, including Where Do the Children Play?

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.

"The album itself stands as an iconic moment of the Seventies where you had marvellous music and a marvellous time for people to enjoy - the spirit of the time.

"But today, things are different. Of course, this happens to many songs but also very much to these songs.

"They're all very relevant to what's happening, to 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 its initial 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. Today, (with people)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, it's much more challenging."

Islam hopes that, if any positives can be drawn from the coronavirus pandemic, humanity will use this time to recalibrate its relationship with nature.

"We are made of earth and water and many other things, 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," he says.

"That's the thing that can cause great damage, much more damage to your life than just catching the flu or 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 - 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.

"If you really bring religion down to its basics, it is about living together," he says.

"It's about knowing how to treat one another with kindness, with charity, with a smile."

Tea for the Tillerman 2 is out now on UMC

Belfast Telegraph