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May 22 1971
Written by Penny Valentine
Courtesy of Chris Abrams




"I’m always searching for that peacefulness that city people dream about."talk-in2.JPG (18889 bytes)

You're very rare in music today in that you managed to virtually disappear for two years  when you were ill and then came back stronger than before - why do you think that was?

I think I came back because - like say in boxing you don't come back because you lose your physical thing. I gained more. As far as songwriting was concerned I gained more scope. My whole outlook was widened. I know much more than I did before - it's just that everything doubled itself so I had twice as much to do what I wanted to. At the beginning when I first started I had a lot of energy but I didn't have the direction. I wasn't sure - I wasn't sure of how to cope with what I had. Because I knew that I could write music and I knew I was good. But I couldn't really express it that well. I didn't do a lot of live dates either and that's really important - that's something I've learnt.

Basically when I first started in music it was for friends that I had around me, people that I knew, I could reflect off, and show them what I was saying. Basically it was just another way of speaking. But then it got into the business element - I forgot completely about the people who actually listened. They didn't want to know about gigantic arrangements - that's the thing that really hung me up, getting into heavy arrangements and the whole session feeling - the arrangers, the producers, the musicians. Everything was so packaged.

The second time round I realised that some of my best songs were down on demos. Those were the best, with just me double tracking, playing piano, guitar. I realised that was the way. Someone said, "Why don't you make an LP with just yourself ?". I thought it was a good idea and I took it a step further because I didn't want to do just that - it would have seemed too contrived.


Do you think you were just lucky that the time was just right for you to come back - almost by accident?

Well I don't believe in accidents anymore. I don't believe it's just luck. Of course it was the right time - it's the only time I could have done it. It was only time I could have actually got into the studios. For a start the musicians that I used on "Mona Bone Jakon" were unknown to me. I'd never met them before - we all met for the first time in the studio. I took a gamble on the producer. I heard the work Paul Samwell Smith had done for Renaissance. I liked his sound and thought I'd try him, and he had the musicians. So that was all chance, but then I think it was ordained too.


It surprises me that over those two years you were ill people didn't forget you - or do you think they did and that it was a totally different audience you came back to?

Yes there was a different audience that had never really thought about me before because of the whole teenybopper thing and Fabulous 208 and all that business. But what we did with the first album was deliberately not have a photograph on it so that people wouldn't accuse me of going back and doing the same thing again. I didn't want that, I just wanted completely non-biased appreciation if the album was due to get it. So we went straight for the music. I mean the trash can on the front of "Mona" was the same thing. I was understating everything - the arrangements, the whole thing was done as subtly as possible. I didn't want people to think I was trying to hype them. Basically I just wanted the music to be heard that's all, and the words.


Do you ever feel that the first time you came into it too young?

Yes, but then it's the same as anything: it's not that important. Just because it's pop and a business you can come into it any time and make a mistake - why not? Because it's the same as life. You make a mistake and the next time round you won't do it again. It just so happens that most of my life is in this particular business - it's not in the business it's in the music. So there's no separation if I make a mistake. I admit I was too young to control my music. I was impressed by people who had been in the business, like Mike my producer. He was with The Springfields and I used to like The Springfields when I was a kid, so I had this thing about him that he had to be right because he'd been around more than I had. Little did I know that he hadn't really succeeded up until then - he was an integral part of the group but that was all - he had never satisfied himself. So he tried to satisfy himself through me, and I felt that he was almost trying to make the record himself - it wasn't basically my record.


Looking back at that time, there anything that you liked with those tracks?

There are some that really give me a twinge because I know the songs basically are good, it's just that the whole treatment of them was wrong. "Matthew And Son" was all right - the whole feel of the arrangements - the whole aura of that song was right. And "I Love My Dog". And there are some songs I really like very much. "The Tramp", which was on my first album, I like, and one that really gets to me - "Baby Get Your Head Screwed On", or something, which was a really good song but the whole arrangement was so cold and at that time I couldn't control it.

Every time I came up with an idea they'd counteract it with their own idea and I'd never get what I wanted done. I realised that wasn't what I wanted things to sound like at the time but I always went along with it. I was much too submissive. I agreed with them too much, but then it got to a point where I was so messed up, my whole feeling for music had gone. I was just writing songs to make singles, to be on television - these were the things I was led to believe were right to do. That it was a natural progression to go on having hits. Whereas the first thought I'd had was I wanted to make music and be understood - and there's NO way you can do that unless you really understand yourself and I didn't understand myself.

In those days you said one of your influences at the time was Leonard Bernstein - were there quite obvious influences to you on your early music?

I think Bernstein was a very strong influence that stayed with me in many ways. I just used to listen to the 'West Side Story" music and the whole comparative feeling between his New York and my London was so obvious. It was the same feeling - I got that jaggedness, that staccato from it. It really satisfied me because that was my whole existence, the area that I was brought up in. That really appealed to me, but also I fell for the really soft feeling in music. I think one of the first records I really listened to was - strange - it was "Porgy And Bess", the operatic one. I really loved it because Gershwin had this lovely flow but then he'd have that jolt with it as well - shock element. And also he worked with black people and that was great because that gave it a freedom. If he'd used white singers it would have clamped it down slightly. I think earlier influences than that - well - Buddy Holly. I always liked him. One of the first records I bought was "Peggy Sue".


Was "Pop Star" on "Mona" a send up of your life up until then - or was it simply that you didn't want to turn out like that again?

The last lines of that song are the most important - the ones that say "I'm home". And I'd said that before the record was released. To me it meant that no matter how successful I was going to be, or even if I wasn't it really wouldn't take away the fact that I KNEW what was going on at the time, the whole crap end of it. But when I wrote that song I wrote it for this guy who was trying to get into the business - this was how he viewed it, as a business, the dull side for the wrong reasons. To have bread and fame and get chicks. I wrote it for him, almost showing off because of what I obviously knew already. But I mean we show off with our ideas anyway - we talk about them.

During your illness the whole attitude to music changed - do you think it was easier to come back because of that change?

Yes, I think it was. I think I grew with the audience. For that time I was away I wasn't anything to do with musical papers, records, television. I was viewing it as anyone would view it. I was taking the place of a spectator and just enjoying it for itself. So I felt where my music was at the time. If the music hadn't changed in that time, if it had stayed as it was, I don't think I'd have come back into it. I would have got into something else - I don't know what. Most probably I'd have ended up running a restaurant or perhaps started painting again.

Do you feel happy about the last two albums and live appearances you've done since you came back?

No, you see - the moment you do something it can't be perfect, you just can't be completely happy with what you do. If you were you'd never do another record. It's like The Beatles, if they'd thought "Sgt. Pepper", which was fantastic, was the best and were perfectly happy with it they wouldn't have made any other records. It would have been so difficult for them. I mean to us it seems so perfect. Maybe it seems to other people that everything I've done since I came back has gone very well but in fact there have been real struggles. I mean this thing of doing live appearances - I'm always really scared before I go on. Not so much now as I did, but I still have that fear. I want people to go away from a concert and not feel hungry. I want them to feel really satisfied. I mean in every respect - with songs and feeling and truthfulness and just being real to them. Not so they go away thinking, "What did he mean by that?". You know that one word that maybe they didn't understand.

There's always going to be some people that don't get the whole thing. I'm sure at every performance there's going to be some mistakes, there's got to be. Anyway I like mistakes. That's the only way I can push forward. I gain much more from being in a tight corner. And that's why even now I'm not surrounding myself with the symbols of success that might have taken place before. I make a point of staying with the people that have helped me - that to me is the most important thing, because once you have loyalty to people - even if they change you can see it and help them - but at least you have that base. And I still travel on tubes. I want to do that because it's important for me to stay myself.

Has the musical acceptance of solo artists singing very personalised lyrics - a kind of emotional nakedness which didn't exist before in music - helped you?

Yes, this has really helped. Because now you don't have to connive, you don't have to be a fantastic brain to be able to communicate. You don't have to be clever in that respect. Whereas my greatest hang-up I think - and a lot of people's hang-ups - were that they always had this fear of intellectualism. A terrible fear that, "I can't really talk about that because I don't know too much about it". So what we're doing now is we're getting back to the point where we accept we don't know that much about it, but what do you have to know? All you really have to know is about yourself. Know yourself and you can know other people too, then you can know about your environment and what you are and who you are.

So music has come down to basically being yourself, which is easy, but also very difficult to break (23291 bytes) Because some people still have set ideas about what they are and what they think they are. You know we have a set face we put on in the mirror and we never drop it and it's only that time you look into that mirror and really SEE yourself - that's the time you really learn about yourself and accept what you see. I find it easier to expose myself emotionally through a song. I find it simple to write a song, words. You can write about anything, you've got so many ideas going around in your head to focus on - one set idea or experience you've had with someone or something yourself is much easier because you know so much about it. It's like having a theme in painting, that's all you need.

Of course, I think that suddenly there's going to come a time where like for six months I'll be going round and just living life and nothing's going to happen, so I might not write a song or I may get one song from that saying nothing's happened. I think there has to come a time in everyone's existence where there's light and shade, and I think records are going to reflect that soon. They will actually become complete extensions of musicians so that you'll have periods of nothing happening and you'll accept it but there should be records saying that. There should be that change, I like that. I feel for instance that the next album, the one I've just finished, is very "up". I'm quite frightened, about that because the last two albums were quite introspective and people dug that, and now I'm going to come out and say, "I'm happy. I'm really happy".

Have you used the same working nucleus of musicians that you started out with on the first album and used again on "Tillerman"?

Yes. We did use Rick Wakeman and a bouzouki player. I think it's nice now that musicians' friends will just drop into a session because the people that are dropping by are really fine musicians, the kind of people that you never thought would really play with you before. We used Rick through my road manager, Carl. He knew the Strawbs and I was fed up with my piano playing and I wanted a certain sound. He suggested I used Rick and he was fantastic. He played piano and harmonium, and organ on another track and he was really fine. Obviously if you want a certain sound you have an idea in your head like the bouzouki. I couldn’t play it that well so I found someone who was really good. In fact the guy I picked - we never found out till afterwards - but my half brother used to play bouzouki about ten, fifteen years ago and this was the guy who went around with him playing violin. It was a really strange coincidence. He's really good and he's going to play me a few songs and if he's got enough good songs I'm going to do an album with him.


Would you like to produce?

I'm not really excited by the thought unless there’s actually someone who gives me that feeling. I'd like to produce but it's not such an ego trip with me. Basically I know if I want to produce someone really all I'm doing is helping them to produce themselves. It would only satisfy me in being able to help someone. Because I remember from way back when I started there were so many people into their own things and they didn't give a thought to what you actually meant even if you didn’t say it right. If you went up to their office and you weren't a good hustler that you actually had SOMETHING - nobody ever saw it and so, whoever it is if they say they play guitar, I listen to them and if I feel them - if I feel there's something there – I’ll take it as far as I can even if it's just talking to them. I doubt I'll go as far as producing them, but I think I can help by just talking and telling them what I know and that's important because you need someone to shine off when you start.

Why didn't you go out on your own this time, why did you decide to use Alun on stage?

Because it gives me an added support and I got to the point years ago - I feel terribly old and I'm only 22 now - where I felt I had a lot of energy and I could have gone out alone. But nowadays I just like someone to lean on a bit, someone I like and anyway there's nothing nicer than seeing someone on stage, communicating with someone else on stage. Because you can insulate yourself so much on stage, you can completely wipe out everything if you want to. If you've got someone there you can get a flow with it's good. People recognise that, they recognise when you're not playing so well the other person picks up on it. It's just nice.


"Tea For The Tillerman" has won a gold record in America and done much better there than it did in Britain and you’ve just come back from a very successful second tour - has this surprised you?

America was like a sleeping beauty for me. I never thought it would ever get to this point. I've always wanted to get into America because so much influence has come from there and it's always a great challenge to make it in America. I thought I'd get to the same stage as perhaps I am in England but things have really gone so much wider than that because there's no pre-conception about who Cat Stevens is. They're really taking it on music value and whatever comes out on record. Over here they just keep people in a specific idea, "That's what you do, now don't try and tell me you’re doing different". And they're not so into a change once they've got hold of you. They're willing to accept really strange things but once they've got that they're not willing to change too much - to turn round and look the other way. It's sad really that "Tillerman" did better in America than here. I feel there's not so much communication here. I don't think I've done so many live appearances over here, I should have done more. Because when you get down to the basic thing they've got to see you no matter how many television appearances you make or records you release. They've got to see you. And if they come to a concert then they automatically take you into their mind.

I was so into recording here, like "Tillerman" took four months to get the whole thing together, and there was television in between and France, and we weren't sure how much we wanted to do. And anyway over here there seems to be a real shortage of clubs say of the type of The Troubadour. It wasn't only the dates that did it in America for "Tillerman". They got onto the lyrics very strongly and they have James Taylor which is similar except that I still get the feeling he's very insulated within himself, he hasn't opened up THAT much. But I had no reason to hold back, no inhibitions on the record and I think they see that and I think they like the hot and cold of it, too, the change of level. It's a shame because I LOVE England so much. This is the place I'm going to live for a long time.


Last time we talked you said your music now was being influenced by Greek music, do you think it's apparent on the next album?

Not obviously. It's sneaking in bit by bit. I think really it's always been there, it's just that people haven't realised it. They've always thought the music was different, but they couldn’t quite put their finger on it. The timing is strange on my music - which is something that's always existed. Looking back, I was brought up with Greek music. The only time we all went out together as a family was to weddings and parties or friends and it was all the Greek music thing. I see a lot of the Greek character in myself though only my father is Greek. My mother's Swedish. I can also see that sneakiness every so often coming out in me.


Do you think your general attitude, not just musical has changed since the first time you were successful?

I used to save money if I could, try and keep everything to a minimum and keep as much as I could for myself. That really spoilt things for me. You just didn't get the feeling that you and the musicians you used were doing everything together. But now if someone's working with me I'll give them really a good thing so they can feel they're doing it for something as well as appreciating it. I don't mind giving percentages away as long as people will have the interest at heart which is really important. I think you can get so hung up with keeping 100 per cent of nothing. Whereas if you have ten per cent of something really big then it's great, you shouldn’t be stingy about it.


It's often been said that your writing particularly is totally reflective of being brought up in London – do you feel that’s true?

I think the city has been a great thing for me – to understand just how a city works. It's just because I'm a city boy. I certainly wouldn't have written the same way if I'd been brought up out of the West End. There was so much colour going on. All those advertisements trying to hit your head off and saying, "Buy me, buy me - take me home". You gradually learn to accept certain things and reject other things. In the country things are so much more simplified. My music has always had the city’s edginess, even the new music I’m writing. I'm always searching for a peaceful goal - the song which takes you up slowly and puts you down slowly. I'm always striving for that song. The same thing goes for relationships. The person I’ll meet will feed me slowly with ideas and I'll do the same and we'll grow together. I’m always searching for that peacefulness that city people dream about. They can't quite figure it out, it's something they can't quite touch. No reason to get angry, no reason to even smile to show you're happy - to just BE.


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