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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

Among the 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 work.

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. He’d just written another hit Lady D'Arbanville—about a girl-friend, Patti D’Arbanville, 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 writing?

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 people’s songs and started writing my own. Which is why I think, perhaps, I’ve developed a certain style, that's from not singing other people's songs.

One of your first songs was a hit?

Yes I Love my dog. Funny, I wrote that without a dog. It’s 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. lt’s not by thinking about it or controlling it. because then I stop the flow.

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 you’ve written it yourself?

Well, It’s OK. it’s easy. You don't actually Stick to the story you don’t think about what you’re singing You go through various phases with a song. In the beginning you sing exactly what you’re 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. It’s very simple I think it's one of my best songs.

Then, of course, at that time, about 1967, you had another big hit?

Yet. Matthew 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 didn’t 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, he’s still working and working and working, but he doesn’t know why. I mean, it’s 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, that’s 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 that’s why I do it. I was always scared of singing in front of people and I think if you overcome that it’s 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 don’t think I can say I wrote it for her because I can’t do that sort of thing. I’ve 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 couldn’t stand it because it was completely wrong, it was a very, very sad song. They started whistling, a complete party. I couldn’t understand it. That’s what I mean, you just can’t give a song to anyone. You’ve got to really know what you mean by it, otherwise they can’t sing it right, and that’s why there’s 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, that’s 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 it’s not as easy at that, because the songs aren’t like that. Life isn’t like that, you just don’t 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 didn’t 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 I’d 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 it’s 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?

It’s 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 you’ve 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, you’re it and you're happening and you’re 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 couldn’t sing them now because they’re 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 can’t 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. There’s always time to write, You’re never stuck, you know, working, working. you’re always picturing things. I pick up things anywhere I am. I learn about three things a day for a song. I’m always thinking about a song and I have about fifty songs permanently in my head which I’m 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, it’s a happy thing, it’s 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, I’d 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 don’t worry.’ At the end I say. ‘I’m 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 don’t 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 D’Arbanville?

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 don’t know, we started just falling off and I wrote this song about her. It’s 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 we’re still friends, it’s 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 years?

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 couldn’t 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, he’s really a good friend of mine now. And Harvey Burn, drums, and John Ryan and Paul Samwell-Smith, producer. and now we’re almost all together because it was just a perfect combination.

How long did the ‘Mona Bone Jakon’ album take to write?

I think it’s taken years to write. I think that’s also something that I think I can say now, is I don’t 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, they’re all waiting.

What about Influences in this later period?

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 I’ve 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 can’t 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 don’t know after that. I started going my own way after that and just picking up from everything.

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 your numbers?

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, ‘I’ll 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 he’d 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, it’s 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 don’t mind taking part in it. but I don’t 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 I’ve always been fond of and the words are very much like me, paradoxical. they say one thing and mean another but they don’t quite say anything, you know, they say. ‘Well, is it or isn’t it,’ the same as, Maybe you’re right, maybe you’re wrong.’ It’s 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. It’s the father’s 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. That’s 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 you’re back on the road again?

Oh yes, I think it’s great because I get a great buzz from singing in front of people, you can’t help but be scared when you go in front of people, you can’t help be scared when you go in front of maybe two thousand people. You’ve 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 they’ve 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 haven’t got much, you’ve 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 you’re on stage you have so much other things, the sound doesn’t have to be the same as the record for me, all you need is a spark and that’s the most important thing. It’s, it’s two different things to me. When I go on the road with Alan and a guy called Larry Steele, bass player, that’s 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 don’t need drums on stage anyway.

Where do you see yourself going now us composer?

As a composer I think I’m 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 you’ll have kids saying. You just used to listen to it? You couldn’t see the music?’ [ laughs ] and you’ll 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 I’m 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 it’s the same as talking with your eyes. You know it’s like the phone more or less, you can’t see somebody, you can’t get much emotion into what’s happening, what you’re saying. But if you saw the other person you’d get immediately, it would open up completely, ten miles.

How do you see yourself as a composer?

 I don’t know. I think I’m just, I'm just Cat Stevens. One of them I’m not, you know. Ray Davies, or Dylan or Lennon, I’m just Cat Stevens. We’re all one big family anyway .

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