- Disc & Echo Magazine
- January 13, 1973
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 dont mean anything, so you have to find peace with ones 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:
"Thats 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 thats something that still has to be spen to."
Choosing to live quietly in
a terraced house just off Londons 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 Im writing for."
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 thats one of the reasons I
brought the group in. I liked the feel of it. But it wasnt 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 youve
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 theyd get to know me and Id get to know them, and wed 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
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 shouldnt
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 theyre 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?
Im now opening up
more because I want to listen to any kind of music. I want to dig it. I dont want to
say Thats not my bag, Im not into that- so Im not going to listen
to it. Ill listen to anything, and thats got to-be the food for freedom
. . . free thought in music.
and recording a new song, do you ever conceive it with another artists style in
mind? Or do you just say This is how Cat Stevens would sing it?
I know what you mean, but
thats 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
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.
easy to detect influences in your music.
Thats because the
moment I started playing I vowed to myself that Id never sing anyone elses
songs. Id 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
didnt 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 cant play to yourself all your
life, so you listen to other things and peoples comments.
I suppose much of it comes
from being so solitary, because I dont 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 its a good way to live. Nice things rub off and it seems to
almost build a community. You cant, in fact, live in the world, you just live in the
one place youre living at that particular moment - so youre 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 dont you have-this tendency to veil the
meanings of your lyrics?
Committing myself is
something I do very privately. In other words, I dont like to lay my thing on
everyone else. For instance, if theres 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 couldnt do that to myself.
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
That should be it
thats 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 youre able to communicate successfully with such a wide audience?
That comes from my taste in
music, because it doesnt end anywhere just so long as its 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 Im 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,
Im 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 Im 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. Ive got to have
good critics around me too. Actually my favourite critic is a guy who, musically,
isnt clever. He just has an instinct about things. I dont ask him what he
thinks but how he feels. Thats the kind of response Im after. Thats why,
when I get press criticism of a gig, Im not worried by it unless they describe the
feel of the concert, which most critics dont do.
Critics describe the
technicalities, but when the public go to see a show they feel it, rather than look for
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 cant feel
that clear, for the reason that you're so personally involved.
are there any things youve been unsure of and, if given the opportunity, would
I thought that after
Id finished Catch Bull at Four. I was really scared, almost petrified.
Should I do this, should I
do that? Eventually I said, No, thats the way it is, dont deny the
spontaneity of what it is, dont try and hide anything.'
most important thing in life to you?
I suppose being able to
laugh, because thats 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. Its also true that once one leaves home
one tends to appreciate ones family even more.
admitted, despite this, that you found it difficult to substain a lasting relationship.
That you were in fact, vulnerable.
Thats very true. I
am. You see, Im 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 its only because youve been living so close together for so long.
Youve got to know each other so well that you start picking on minute things.
Thats not right for a relationship.
Any close relationship
should have spaces . . . heads together - bodies apart . . Thats really the most
important thing. What happens with long relationships is that you begin to rely on even
someones 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 youre working for something good,
then nothing can put you off.
Do you take
yourself seriously and, if so, what can upset you?
Oh yeah, thats
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 cant
Even though I didnt
do it for their expectations, I did it for good - and unfortunately some people
arent able to see that.
rumoured that Carly Simons "Youre So Vain" is dedicated/directed
No, if Youre So
Vain is dedicated to me its 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
To mention the word mirror,
means that youre talking about yourself. Listening to it with that in mind, it
becomes almost like shes 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
(Laughs). Not that much.
Obviously Im just a figment of lifes imagination, so Ive 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 dont do anything?
Sure, I was writing, but
yet I felt so lost because I honestly felt that I wasnt doing anything. Wheres
the feeling gone? The only way to compensate for that is to work and work without
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 its 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 cant
say Im glad or not. I think I could have done a better gig somewhere smaller.
Not so long ago I was with
a little friend, whos 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
An element who were missing
out on certain things because they were being constantly fed with typical BBC elements . .
. beautiful blondes, or whatever Pans 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. Its the
biggest truth show of them all. You cant have anything more phony than glitter,
nobodys 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 OCotton" which scanned
everything. Leadbelly was like an epitome for people to hold on to just one second.
The Beatles had this thing
that they werent doing it for just one section of the public or one particular
cult.., they were doing it for everyone, and thats incredible.
concert tour of Japan seems to have had a positive effect upon you. How did this come
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 havent changed their basic mode of life since
they began. Only problem is that theres a big American influence attempting to creep
in, but, on the other hand, its still going to be very hard for Westernism to change
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?
Thats a total mystery
to me, cause Im not interested in whats happening in that way. You see, these
things dont bother me, never have, just as long as I have an audience. And Im
not bothered how big or small, thats 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.
Thats not what
interests me over there, its the people. If you want to know, the market in Japan
isnt nearly as big as the publicity would have you believe.
What theyve got is
one of the biggest record selling markets, but its 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.
reached a point where you would like to be excused from having to sing so many of your
Im upset that I
havent written any new songs that I want to do, so Im 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 dont sing the very old ones any more. Thats why Im
going to make the next album as fast as possible. Its time I made another album.