NEW YORK – Singer-songwriter Yusuf enjoys the reaction he gets while driving his 1960s-vintage Volkswagen van though London — a vehicle he recently had custom-painted with artwork from his days as the artist known as Cat Stevens, including images depicting classic hits like "Peace Train" and "Moonshadow."
"Everytime we rode that thing across town we'd get this amazing buzz. People would just look at it and smile and that's the kind of message I'm sending out with my music," said the 60-year-old Yusuf.
The VW van is prominently displayed on the gray-bearded Yusuf's new CD "roadsinger," symbolizing his desire to fully embrace his Cat Stevens legacy. He is picking up where he left off almost 30 years ago when he became a Muslim and changed his name to Yusuf Islam, auctioned off his guitars for charity, and walked away from the "Catmania" of pop stardom.
Yusuf, who prefers to use only his first name, now feels he can square his Muslim beliefs with a return to the introspective folk-tale and storytelling songs that made Cat Stevens one of the most popular and best-selling artists of the '70s.
"I wanted to prove that there's music in this Muslim," said Yusuf, speaking by telephone from his headquarters in London, near one of the Islamic schools he founded.
"I think Muslims should work a little bit harder at making people a bit more at ease and to create an atmosphere of happiness which is what we need. I think that's what this record does, that's what my music used to do and it still does," he said. He spoke a few days before heading to Los Angeles where he gave his first West Coast public performance in 33 years, mixing new tunes with past hits like "Wild World" and "Father and Son."
Yusuf tested the waters with his 2006 comeback album, "An Other Cup," his first collection of modern pop songs in 28 years. That record mixed Eastern and Western influences, using lots of new technologies with overdubbing that sometimes overshadowed his voice and guitar.
On "roadsinger," Yusuf says he's returned to the "very stripped-down musical approach" — with minimal overdubbing — that he adopted after recovering from a near-fatal bout of tuberculosis on his introspective 1970 folk-rock albums, "Mona Bone Jakon" and his breakthrough "Tea for the Tillerman."
"A lot of people were very complimentary about `An Other Cup' and they were extremely surprised that I still sound like me. ... The only other point they made was that they wished there were more of the bare guitar-style songs which I used to do in the `Tea for the Tillerman' days," Yusuf said.
Yusuf had a further epiphany on a flight to the U.S. when he found himself enjoying an inflight music channel featuring old hits from contemporaries like Joni Mitchell, Carole King, James Taylor and Jackson Browne.
"I realized that I was so much a part of that sound and perhaps it wouldn't be a sin if I just got back to doing some of that kind of style again," he said with a laugh.
The album's inviting opening song, "Welcome Home," symbolizes his coming back to what he does well. The gentle piano melody of "Sitting" (from his 1972 album "Catch Bull at Four") introduces a new song with the message: "To be what you must/ You must give up what you are." It sums up his own life's spiritual journey.
Yusuf also deals with the prejudice he's encountered as a Muslim. "The Roadsinger" is the tale of a troubadour who's treated like a stranger when he returns to his hometown, but then finds "the path to heaven" in a foreign land "in the desert sand." (Yusuf spends part of the year in Dubai, which he describes as "a modern Muslim country with a futuristic approach.").
Three of the songs — "World O' Darkness." "This Glass World," and "Shamsia" — were written for the musical "Moonshadow," a tale about a young boy's journey from a world of perpetual nighttime in search of a world of light, that Yusuf hopes to premiere in London's West End next year.
The musical takes Yusuf full circle back to his pre-Cat Stevens days when the young Steven Demetre Georgiou would hear the sound of music coming from theaters near his parents' Moulin Rouge restaurant in the West End.
"Musicals were my first love and then came the Beatles," said Yusuf. "It seemed like `West Side Story' just changed my life.
"Now having the opportunity to put all that into a musical is quite a miracle," he added.