This interview comes courtesy of Keith Balaam. Voxpop
was a book produced in England in 1972. Michael Wales conducted over 30
nterviews for his book. Cat Stevens being one of them, under Chapter 1: The
Composers title.... If you noticed some typo's on this article, it is because I kept the
article exactly how it was printed, such as calling Alun ( Alan Davis ) and referring to
Matthew and Son when Cat is talking about Father and Son. Other than these little
indescretions, this is a great interview.
- Profiles of the Pop Process
- Interviews by Michael Wale
- 1 The Composers
many things the Beatles did for pop perhaps the most important was the emphasis they
caused to be put upon composers. Of course any person who could write a popular hit
was always influential in the past, but what the Beatles brought to the group age was the
important fact that a group was better off musically and financially composing its own
I have taken, on purpose,
three very different composers. The fourth person included is a lyricist. Cat Stevens is
unusual in that he has already had two careers within five years. He first became
well-known in 1967 as a teenager in a smart suit singing hits which he bad composed
himself, like I love my Dog. After this first blossoming of his
career in which he appeared as a very pushy young artist he. Disappeared. In fact he was
in a tuberculosis sanitarium. I next met him in l971 when be was re-emerging as a composer
and guitarist having shed himself of suits and wearing contemporary relaxed clothes. He
lived above his parents Greek cafe near the British Museum in London for many years.
Hed just written another hit Lady D'Arbanvilleabout a
girl-friend, Patti DArbanville, whom he had recently lost to Mick Jagger.
In the summer of
1971 he made a highly successful tour of America. The interview took place at my flat in
Shepherds Bush, London.
How did you first start
I started about
fifteen I think. I wrote my first song, and that was really terrible. That
was called something like Darling No. You know it was so corny. I wrote that
with two fingers on the piano, then I really started writing with a guitar when I
was sixteen, when I was just about to go to art school, and I was getting very much into
folk music. I think my influence then was Leadbelly. I mean. He can just get
people so happy with a song, and I really like that. He got me going. So I started. Of
course, the Beatles had a big influence, but the moment I started playing a guitar
I stopped singing other peoples songs and started writing my own. Which is why I
think, perhaps, Ive developed a certain style, that's from not singing other
One of your first songs
was a hit?
Yes I Love my dog.
Funny, I wrote that without a dog. Its very weird. Some songs they
come as premonitions of things to come. and you really have no control over that. I mean,
I let songs take me over. You know, that's the only way I get a really good song.
lts not by thinking about it or controlling it. because then I stop
How did this particular
song come about then?
Well, I had this melodv
and, of course, I was thinking the first thing. I mean. I had my name Cat Stevens
and I did think, well that would be Cute. You know, because I love dogs but I never had
one. And I just got into writing about it, When I say I love my dog, in other words
I kind of love myself as much as I love you, and though you may fade I will always
come through. And so, basically, I was writing about myself and I suppose I
was saying I can live alone, which I .think, I was trying to say.
You became very much a
star at that time because of that song. What happens with a song when you hove to sing it
over and over again when youve written it yourself?
Well, Its OK. its
easy. You don't actually Stick to the story you dont think about what
youre singing You go through various phases with a song. In the beginning you sing
exactly what youre singing and then you start to think ,about other things and other
images to create the feeling of the song because you just can't think about the
words because it gets very boring. But I still sing that song now because I like that
one very much. Its very simple I think it's one of my best songs.
Then, of course, at that
time, about 1967, you had another big hit?
and Son, People really liked that one, although again, you know, I never
worked at Matthew and Son or anywhere like Matthew and Son. I think I
was talking about my girl-friend who was working in a place like that. I was very hung up
because she didnt have enough time to spend with me. So I wrote that about people
who work and work and work, and never get anywhere. My father does, for instance. I mean,
hes still working and working and working, but he doesnt know why. I mean,
its OK to work. But to know why is the important thing, to know why you want
to work, if you want to work.
Why do you work?
I work because 1 want to
communicate. I think, most of all. I work to communicate myself because I find it
difficult, or I did. Its getting easier now, thats only because you grow old and you
know exactly your limitations and once you know that, you can start to push it further, I
think thats why I do it. I was always scared of singing in front of people and I
think if you overcome that its important to me to be able to stand up in front of a
lot of people and say what I felt.
Still in those earlier
days you wrote a song for P. P. Arnold: The first Cut is the Deepest.
Actuallv, it was a lot to
do with luck I had this song and also it wasn't finished, but the idea was there, the
title and everything and the basic tune. And Mike Hurst, my producer at the time, he was
going to work with Pat and she needed a song, so I played a few things and we just
finished this one. It- really suited her, but I dont think I can say I wrote it for
her because I cant do that sort of thing. Ive got to know their history. I can
only write for myself and hope it will suit someone.
Did you in fact record
The first Culls the Deepest?
Yes, I did. But I
didn't like my version too much. I preferred hers.
Then you also had a song
recorded by the Tremeloes at the time. They were a very big act then.
I didn't write it for
them. They recorded it and did very well by it. They did very well but I
couldnt stand it because it was completely wrong, it was a very, very sad song. They
started whistling, a complete party. I couldnt understand it. Thats what I
mean, you just cant give a song to anyone. Youve got to really know what you
mean by it, otherwise they cant sing it right, and thats why theres a
load of bad versions of people's songs. They don't really understand what the people who
wrote it meant.
It seemed to me that a
lot of your songs during that 1967 period were very sad.
Yes, I think so. I was
very lonely, I think. I just felt lonely all the time. It was living in that area in the
centre of London and somehow, because my fatter was Greek and my mother Swedish and my
father had the shop. I was considered something else. People always knew about me,
but I was never completely able to be open with everybody. They thought I was something
else, Perhaps I was, but that left me very hard and insular, and I had to get out
of myself. I did that through music.
And tben again, you were
probably being pushed because you were very young and very successful. You could
make money for people.
Well, thats when
the troubles came, because they started wanting me to write another Matthew and Son and
they'd say. Well, you can do it again, you've done it once. But its not
as easy at that, because the songs arent like that. Life isnt like that, you
just dont do the same thing over and over again. You do it another way, somewhere
else. And I just had a bad time with producers and record companies and managers and
agents and publishers. I just didn't want to know after awhile, it was getting so bad. it
was just a business after a while, The whole music element, the thing that rnade me want
to create music, was suddenly shoved aside. That didnt matter. The fact was I should
make a hit, which completely messes you up, a thing like that. So eventually I got so
wound up in everything, worrying, making this hit and coming back or whatever, that
I drove myself into a very bad state, where I caught tuberculosis and I had to go away for
a year to just sit down and get better, which was good, which was the best part, because
it enabled me to see what Id done and what 1 could do, and it enabled me to see
myself for the first time, who I really was, which was nothing spectacular.
To me it was important to me to lose my
ego, more than any thing, so that I could start building a better thing.
Do you think its
particularly hard on a songwriter when he's veru young and writes hits early in his
career? Presumably commerce arrives and puts on the pressure?
Its very bad. There
should be a law against it. If you have a hit, then you should go to a certain training
school to say, ' Right now; OK youve got success with this, but where are you
really, what is your music really? Think about it and go away for six months and think
about your music and then come back. Because you always get knotted up with people
who say, 'Yeah, youre it and you're happening and youre really what
it is and, of course you build a false foundation for what you really could be,
When you eventually went
away with TB did you continue writing?
Yeah, I wrote very
strange things. I couldnt sing them now because theyre very upsetting Very sad
songs, Then I came out of that and started to write just simpler, everything
was getting very simple and clear and I suddenly understood what I wanted to do. Just
before I went into the hospital I had this song called A bad Night,, which
was another premonition because this is exactly what it was, and the whole song was so
disjointed it was really upsetting. The fact I could write something like that, and
looking back on it I cant listen to it. Not a second of it.
How did you manage to
write in the early days when you were also on the road all the time?
Oh I always found time.
Theres always time to write, Youre never stuck, you know, working, working.
youre always picturing things. I pick up things anywhere I am. I learn about three
things a day for a song. Im always thinking about a song and I have about fifty
songs permanently in my head which Im tossing around. Changing bits and making more
words, phrases, colours, from feelings and music, just anything. It can be the screech of
a truck that can give you an idea.
Your songwriting was
divided into two parts. The early very commercial period and the present album releases.
I think after the hospital period I was
understanding more what I was writing. That was all. I think it just got to the point in
hospital where I saw myself a complete reflection of myself. I was just so mixed up and
wondering what the hell was going on. Why should life be like this? Why should I be so
unhappy? Music is a good thing. It's a fun thing, its a happy thing, its a
communicative thing, people can enjoy each other with music. I was on a very big, self
destructive kick. I think I wanted to smash myself down, What ever I built, I wanted to
tear down and start again, and I think I did.
When you came out of
hospital you wrote an album Mona Bone Jakon'.
I was telling the story
of the illness and before the illness, you know, very much a biography thing I think. I
think one song on that album, Trouble, sums up everything, says everything about
the illness, how I used to be. It says, Trouble go away, Id see your face and
it's to much for me today And that says that. I also sing this song about a pop star,
Pop Star, which was describing myself before and now. I mean, I knew more or less that
I was going to be a success, you know, coming back, and I was saying. ' But dont
worry. At the end I say. Im home already, so no matter what success can
bring me now, it can never take away anything from me so that is the most secure thing I
have, which a lot of people dont have. They worry about losing, losing possessions
or materialistic things. All I knew is the most important thing is to be happy or try to
do good, or whatever makes you happy.
So when you came out you
wrote Trouble and also on the same album was Lady DArbanville?
Well, that was about a
year after I came out. I met Patti and we started going out together for about a year, and
just before I made the album, or was it during? I dont know, we started just falling
off and I wrote this song about her. Its as simple as that.. Then it was chosen to
be a single. I couldnt really see it as a single because it was very personal to me.
Obviously a lot of people felt very much for it. Although the affair had ended I was sti1l
recording the affair. Even now whenever I see her were still friends, its just
that were not together as much, not at all.
That became a hit
single. Did It surprise you that there you were back in the charts again after all those
No, then again you see,
I was ready for it. I kind of knew one would happen, because I felt I was doing right. I
just got to the point before where everything I did was a disaster. I couldnt help
but do things wrong. And then after a while it really started happening, the people I met
just after the illness were so right, just to help me along, and I was obviously
helping them too. But it was so right, everybody was just perfect.
Which musicians did you
meet in that period?
I met Alan Davis,
guitar, acoustic guitar, hes really a good friend of mine now. And Harvey Burn,
drums, and John Ryan and Paul Samwell-Smith, producer. and now were almost all
together because it was just a perfect combination.
How long did the
Mona Bone Jakon album take to write?
I think its taken
years to write. I think thats also something that I think I can say now, is I
dont write a song in a day or a week, it takes a year to write a song. A song is
just not something you can conjure up out of a second of inspiration. It takes years of
inspiration and ten hours work to really get it. But the thing is, songs are always
there just to be written, theyre all waiting.
I think my most
important influence has been Greek music. which my brother used to play. He played the
bazouki, which is like a mandolin, a larger mandolin. And I always used to listen to him
in clubs and I got really a taste for music then. In fact on this new album Teaser and the
Firecat, I've got a Greek song that I wrote, Ruby Love, it 7/8 timing and Ive got a
verse that I sing solely in Greek. I've got bazoukis and things and it really turns me on
because I just love Greek music. It's a lot to do with me. Once you know that, you can
understand my music a bit more. Because it sounds a bit strange at first, timings and
things that I use, they come very naturally to me, and often Greek composers they
understand it completely: sometimes English people cant understand. Why did
you do that? Is there an ultimate ambition there? Was he trying a new timing? Well,
I'm not thinking about that at all, I'm just doing a natural thing. I think also
Bernstein, well he influenced me very much in the early days; West Side Story I think had
a great effect on me. From then on, I dont know after that. I started going my own
way after that and just picking up from everything.
- What about Influences in this later period?
Is there one particular
number in the past Thai has caused an influence?
A very strong tune in my
life has been Peggy Sue. I think Buddy Holly had quite a bit to do as well. Looking back
now I think he inspired me even before Leadbelly. I used to love Buddy Holly and Peggy
Sue, just the rhythm, that was the thing. It was just that heartbeat you know, I think
that was the one song that got me going.
Jimmy Cliff did one of
He did Wild World. In
fact I produced that one. We gave it to somebody to do. you know, and again it was the
same story, they just didn't understand what the song was about, they just did it very
badly, So I thought, Ill do a backing track to that and find a singer who can
really sing. And I did this backing track and invited Jimmy down, and hed
heard the song before, he really liked it . He just sang it straight off. It was
fantastic. It was meant to be . . it was his song. And he says, he always says, that be
understands the wards so perfectly. It was a matter of understanding the rat-race of
cities and civilizations and societies, whatever it is. Just understanding that that is a
crazy world, its a mad world, you know, it has no rules; the only rule is to win.
And I think Jimmy has had the same kind of experience in his life somewhere along the line
where he says. OK, I know about that. I dont mind taking part in it. but I
dont have to. He understood the story completely. It's the same story.
What particular numbers
do you like on your albums and why?
I think on Mona
Bone Jakon , I like I Wish, I Wish, because that has a very
strong rhythm, a rhythm that Ive always been fond of and the words are very much
like me, paradoxical. they say one thing and mean another but they dont quite say
anything, you know, they say. Well, is it or isnt it, the same as, Maybe
youre right, maybe youre wrong. Its in both sides, standing in the
middle, and in fact quite a few of my songs look like that now. Like that, Matthew
and Son is the same thing. Its the fathers side and the son's side,
neither one is right or wrong. And I do that quite a lot. You know, standing in the middle
and seeing both sides and just being a spectator.I think. Thats how I write my
lyrics, mostly as a spectator of myself, if you like. Just able to look at myself, which
is very difficult.
Despite your loathing of
your past youre back on the road again?
Oh yes, I think its
great because I get a great buzz from singing in front of people, you cant help but
be scared when you go in front of people, you cant help be scared when you go in
front of maybe two thousand people. Youve just got to get the certain kind of
adrenaline thing going and when you do you tend to sink so much into your songs that they
suddenly live like theyve never lived before, even in the recording thing. This is
why I made a difference between singin them live and recording them, On the
record you havent got much, youve got to get the attention, so you try every
trick. every kind of musical thing that you know, to try and get that spark,
you know, in the record, but when youre on stage you have so much other things, the
sound doesnt have to be the same as the record for me, all you need is a spark and
thats the most important thing. Its, its two different things to me.
When I go on the road with Alan and a guy called Larry Steele, bass player, thats
all we have, you know, just that. I play piano and guitar and that s it. And I find that
that satisfies me and it satisfies a lot of people. Just not having drums for a start is
great for me because I can get the concentration of almost everybody, then you can
suddenly give them dynamite with one powerful stroke, and then you get them, and you
dont need drums on stage anyway.
Where do you see
yourself going now us composer?
As a composer I think
Im going more and more into the visual approaches. I'm yearning now to be able to
see my music I mean, actually have film and music and see it., because I think in twenty
years time youll have kids saying. You just used to listen to it? You
couldnt see the music? [ laughs ] and youll say, Well, yes. we
just had these discs and we used to put them on and everybody used to listen,' 'What, with
lights on? And Im leaning very much into that, something visual. You can put
almost any piece of film and music together and suddenly you get something very
strange.You get something more than just one or the other. They seem to fit so well, I
mean its the same as talking with your eyes. You know its like the phone more
or less, you cant see somebody, you cant get much emotion into whats
happening, what youre saying. But if you saw the other person youd get
immediately, it would open up completely, ten miles.
How do you see yourself
as a composer?
I dont know. I
think Im just, I'm just Cat Stevens. One of them Im not, you know. Ray Davies,
or Dylan or Lennon, Im just Cat Stevens. Were all one big family anyway .