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Disc & Echo Magazine
January 13, 1973


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Talks to ROY CARR

AWAY FROM THE madding crowds Cat Stevens is reserved, self-conscious and guarded — a man who rarely puts himself up for interview.

Any earlier preoccupations Stevens may have had with the materialistic perks of his vocation, in his own words, disappeared with my lung infection.

"After a while these things don’t mean anything, so you have to find peace with one’s self. You start with nothing and end with nothing, apart from how spiritual you are during your lifetime — and this is the only lifetime."

Amarked departure from his first three Island albums, "Catch Bull At Four" reveals a inner-confidence missing from the previous trilogy.

He assesses the album thus: "That’s where my life is catching up. What happens is that your dreams come first and then your realities seem to be everyday. However, my dreams are still coated with nightmares and that’s something that still has to be spen to."

Choosing to live quietly in a terraced house just off London’s North End Road Street Market — as opposed to languishing in an opulent country retreat — Stevens offers: "I live modestly so that it keeps me in touch with the people I’m writing for."

YOUR FIRST three albums in one form or another had a logical progression. "Catch Bull At Four", however, was quite a noticeable departure. How did this come about?

WHEN I start an album I can almost visu1ise everything on it, apart from the accidents which are very necessary to any record. Before "Catch Bull At Four" I noticed that musically my albums were loose. There were always some places I wanted to tighten up.

"Catch Bull" was much more of a group album than any of the others, and that’s one of the reasons I brought the group in. I liked the feel of it. But it wasn’t a quick album. I spent about four months on it, and that for me is a long, time. 

Do you go with all your songs complete, or are they conceived at various sessions?

Every album is different in the same way as every song is different. I mean, halfway through a song you’ve changed your environment by singing it. Before I recorded this album most of the lyrics were finished and I knew the songs.

I went to Portugal with the group so they’d get to know me and I’d get to know them, and we’d feel the’ songs — not rehearse them. For the two weeks we were there, I just wanted them to get to know the music.

The album was then cut at Morgan, the Chateau in France and the Manor, so that scene was like another trip, in that we were still getting to know each other. Then came the mix-down and, of course, the world tour.

Yes, we really got that side sorted out. That all comes from the discipline of getting to know each other without arguments. There never should be arguments in a group . . . a discussion shouldn’t take the form of an argument.

I know there are groups who continually argue among themselves. You know, ‘I want my riff on this thing’. That kinda upsets me, simply because they’re not thinking about the whole thing and how people are going to see it, but only their own selfish point of view.

What I wanted everyone in. the band to keep in mind was that it was more or less a commune album.

Do you allow yourself to be exposed to other artists’ work and, if so, does it have any noticeable effect on your writing?

I’m now opening up more because I want to listen to any kind of music. I want to dig it. I don’t want to say ‘That’s not my bag, I’m not into that- so I’m not going to listen to it’. I’ll listen to anything, and that’s got to-be the food for freedom . . . free thought in music.

When writing and recording a new song, do you ever conceive it with another artist’s style in mind? Or do you just say ‘This is how Cat Stevens would sing it’?

I know what you mean, but that’s how everybody does it. For instance you might think, ‘I wanna do a Hollies-type number’, but actually, the Hollies would have been thinking about someone else.

In fact the whole of music is just one big train of thought. Obviously, if you look back in, 50 years' time yolu'll see the whole train of thought not actually leading from one particular thing, but from the way society has built it at that particular moment.

It’s not easy to detect influences in your music.

That’s because the moment I started playing I vowed to myself that I’d never sing anyone else’s songs. I’d never consciously try to emulate any other artist no matter how much I admired his work.

Because I saw that, when I gave someone else my songs, they never understood them. I thought how cheeky that they didn’t realize that this is about this, it was an insult to me.

I realized that if I was going to have any dignity, as far as music was concerned, I had to contribute almost everything myself, to myself. But, then again, you can’t play to yourself all your life, so you listen to other things and people’s comments.

I suppose much of it comes from being so solitary, because I don’t mix very much. As you ought to know...

Are you content to live in semi-isolation?

It seems from the people who surround me that it’s a good way to live. Nice things rub off and it seems to almost build a community. You can’t, in fact, live in the world, you just live in the one place you’re living at that particular moment - so you’re always alone.

If you come to terms with that then everything else becomes joy, like going out and meeting people.

You said a lot of people misconstrued your songs, but don’t you have-this tendency to veil the meanings of your lyrics?

Committing myself is something I do very privately. In other words, I don’t like to lay my thing on everyone else. For instance, if there’s a conversation about something political . . . I feel I know the answers, but for me to try and explain them would be insulting.

I often see people trying to explain themselves . . . and I see them going through so many changes during just one sentence by contradicting themselves that I couldn’t do that to myself.

Are you infèrring that songwriting in some ways is a game for you? That you only let the public know so much about you, then at the most important moment you cut them dead in their tracks?

That should be it that’s the trip. Either you go in for the obvious or the subtleties. As you progress through life, I think you begin to notice the subtle things more than ever,

Just like, as I progress in music, I become a shade more subtle within myself. With ‘Catch Bull At Four’, I felt confident enough to open up more musically.

Why do you think you’re able to communicate successfully with such a wide audience?

That comes from my taste in music, because it doesn’t end anywhere just so long as it’s good.

At your London concerts, you confessed to being extremely nervous in front of an audience. Is it an ordeal for you to go on stage?

No, it's not an ordeal. But the Drury Lane and Albert Hall concerts were two very special gigs and I’m more nervous in London because all my friends come along to see me. That kind of thing tends to get me on edge.

Do you still get a buzz from Concerts?

Sure . . . to be truthful, I’m one of my own biggest critics, and that can be terrible because it can really stop the flow.

On the whole though, it keeps me aware of what I’m doing and what my stature is in the business - as well as knowing how important it is to relate to reality.

Do you have people around you who can provide positive guidance?

Yes. I’ve got to have good critics around me too. Actually my favourite critic is a guy who, musically, isn’t clever. He just has an instinct about things. I don’t ask him what he thinks but how he feels. That’s the kind of response I’m after. That’s why, when I get press criticism of a gig, I’m not worried by it unless they describe the feel of the concert, which most critics don’t do.

Critics describe the technicalities, but when the public go to see a show they feel it, rather than look for technicalities.

To come down to specifics, who says if a song is good or or bad?

Me. . . Because most of the time I know when it's good or bad. Although there are occasions when you can’t feel that clear, for the reason that you're so personally involved.

In retrospect are there any things you’ve been unsure of and, if given the opportunity, would retract?

I thought that after I’d finished ‘Catch Bull at Four’. I was really scared, almost petrified.

Should I do this, should I do that? Eventually I said, ‘No, that’s the way it is, don’t deny the spontaneity of what it is, don’t try and hide anything.'

What’s the most important thing in life to you?

I suppose being able to laugh, because that’s where sanity takes over. One of the most important things to me is being emotional.

Another important thing in life is the family. Whether you care to admit it or not, the family is still one of the Strongest units and elements in one life. It’s also true that once one leaves home one tends to appreciate one’s family even more.

You once admitted, despite this, that you found it difficult to substain a lasting relationship. That you were in fact, vulnerable.

That’s very true. I am. You see, I’m very scared of having too long a relationship with someone . . . again it brings back the family thing.

If, like a lot of people, you get to the stage with your family where silly little arguments are taking place, usually it’s only because you’ve been living so close together for so long. You’ve got to know each other so well that you start picking on minute things. That’s not right for a relationship.

Any close relationship should have spaces . . . heads together - bodies apart . . That’s really the most important thing. What happens with long relationships is that you begin to rely on even someone’s bad habits.

That being the case, do you find it difficult to live with yourself?

No, I'm really lucky. It comes from inner-confidence. If you believe that you’re working for something good, then nothing can put you off.

Do you take yourself seriously and, if so, what can upset you?

Oh yeah, that’s perhaps one of my failings. One thing that can upset me is criticism, simply because my main aim is to do something good. Now, if somebody sees bad in it, I honestly can’t understand it.

Even though I didn’t do it for their expectations, I did it for good - and unfortunately some people aren’t able to see that.

It’s been rumoured that Carly Simon’s "You’re So Vain" is dedicated/directed towards you.

No, if ‘You’re So Vain’ is dedicated to me it’s only as much as Carly Simon is a Cancer and so am I. She might in fact be-writing about herself. In that song, I think she mentions ‘Mirror’.

To mention the word mirror, means that you’re talking about yourself. Listening to it with that in mind, it becomes almost like she’s writing about herself.

Do you write many songs about, or for, specific people?

Almost every one of my songs is either about me or those people around me. Trying to fictionalize about life would be a very heavy job. God, can you imagine trying to make up another life?

Come to think of it, the reflection is stronger in the songs and the music than in the actual person. The actual person has developed strongholds and barriers, but, in music, people seem to let themselves go. I look first at the songs and secondly at the person.

Do you know yourself?

(Laughs). Not that much. Obviously I’m just a figment of life’s imagination, so I’ve got to learn more about life.

Are you a figment of your own imagination?

No, I very much doubt that ... it would be presumptuous of me to even say that. Actually, just the other day I said to myself: 'What am I doing, because I don’t do anything?’

Sure, I was writing, but yet I felt so lost because I honestly felt that I wasn’t doing anything. Where’s the feeling gone? The only way to compensate for that is to work and work without thinking.

You’ve been quoted in the past as not wanting to do such things as playing the Albert Hall and "Top Of The Pops" - yet you do them. At a certain juncture, do even very big artists get themselves trapped into almost compulsory engagements?

Yeah I reckon so. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to keep tag on what you want to do and what you actually do. The Albert Hall . . . very weird, that place is such an institution. I did it, I can’t say I’m glad or not. I think I could have done a better gig somewhere smaller.

Not so long ago I was with a little friend, who’s an 11- year old boy, and we got to talking and suddenly realized I was losing contact with a certain element of people who were listening and buying records.

An element who were missing out on certain things because they were being constantly fed with typical BBC elements . . . beautiful blondes, or whatever Pan’s People and all that crap is. Here was a TV programme so why not use it?

A lot of people avoid the show, but if they chose to work it then it could be an incredible show. It’s the biggest truth show of them all. You can’t have anything more phony than glitter, nobody’s fooled. Just accept it as a truthful phony show and leave it up to the people who watch it.

You know, my biggest idol was Leadbelly. He often sang out of tune, played badly, but he had songs like "Goodnight Irene" and "Pick A Bale O’Cotton" which scanned everything. Leadbelly was like an epitome for people to hold on to just one second.

The Beatles had this thing that they weren’t doing it for just one section of the public or one particular cult.., they were doing it for everyone, and that’s incredible.

Your recent concert tour of Japan seems to have had a positive effect upon you. How did this come about?

Probably after seems so much degradation in America. The way they talk about themselves and make utter fools of themselves in film, television . . . the whole American Pie thing, which was so descriptive in that one song.

So then you go to Japan where they have so much dignity and haven’t changed their basic mode of life since they began. Only problem is that there’s a big American influence attempting to creep in, but, on the other hand, it’s still going to be very hard for Westernism to change it.

The sun rises in the East and sets on the West and one day the West will die with it.

Were you well known in Japan prior to you visit?

That’s a total mystery to me, cause I’m not interested in what’s happening in that way. You see, these things don’t bother me, never have, just as long as I have an audience. And I’m not bothered how big or small, that’s enough for me.

Someone, as a criticism, said a strange thing: they thought the reason I was so interested in Japan was because it ~ quote, ‘another market’. That really bust me up, to think that I think in market values like that writer.

That’s not what interests me over there, it’s the people. If you want to know, the market in Japan isn’t nearly as big as the publicity would have you believe.

What they’ve got is one of the biggest record selling markets, but it’s split up into areas of Japanese music, French music, Italian music and when you come down to popular English music it accounts for about two per cent of the total market.

Have you reached a point where you would like to be excused from having to sing so many of your older songs?

I’m upset that I haven’t written any new songs that I want to do, so I’m always waiting until an album is done for new songs. As soon as possible, I want to quit singing the early songs, in the same way, as I don’t sing the very old ones any more. That’s why I’m going to make the next album as fast as possible. It’s time I made another album.

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