Songwriters Hall of Fame 2019
On June the 13th Yusuf / Cat Stevens will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He is set to receive this prestigious honour at the Hall of Fame’s 50th Annual Induction and Awards Dinner as a member of the class of 2019 alongside Dallas Austin, Missy Elliott, Tom. T Hall, John Prine and Jack Tempchin. The accolade recognises Yusuf’s tremendous gift for writing songs that have whispered gently into the hearts of millions worldwide throughout a glorious career that has spanned more than half a century.
“I appreciate the honour, and I think this award is definitely something special.” – Yusuf
The Songwriters Hall of Fame was founded in 1969 by songwriter Johnny Mercer along with music publishers Abe Olman and Howie Richmond. Their aim was to honour those whose work represents and maintains the heritage and legacy of a spectrum of the most beloved songs from the world’s popular music songbook. The organisation also has an ongoing focus on supporting new generations of songwriters through Master Sessions, songwriting craft forums, scholarships, and digital initiatives.
Yusuf’s musical aspirations were jump-started by the arrival of The Beatles in the mid 1960s. Having caught the bug in a big way his dad bought him an acoustic guitar upon which he began to learn simple chord shapes. He wanted to be like his Liverpudlian heroes – particularly George Harrison – but also drew inspiration from American rock ’n’ roll, blues, R&B, soul, and folk artists such as Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Nina Simone, Leadbelly and of course Bob Dylan. However, the young Steven Demetre Georgiou (as he was born) found it too difficult to learn other people’s music and so decided to make up his own songs instead. This perhaps gives an early indication of the creativity and independence of spirit that would define so much of his life.
“In order to play something, I needed to make it up myself.” – Yusuf
Another massive influence on Yusuf’s songwriting was musical theatre. He grew up in the heart of London’s West End and as a boy became quite adept at sneaking into the many theatres that lay on his doorstep. Once inside he’d be transported to new worlds and introduced to the rich tapestry of life by the likes of West Side Story, Porgy and Bess and King Kong. In fact, many of Yusuf’s songs emerged from his various attempts to write a hit musical. The most obvious example of this is ‘Father and Son’ which was originally conceived for a musical about the Russian revolution called ‘Revolutia,’ but there are others such as ‘Northern Wind’ and ‘I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun’ which were intended for a musical about Billy the Kid called ‘Mexican Flower’. The influence of musicals, however, runs deeper than simply attempting to write one himself. Many of the unpredictable cadences and melodies that are such a feature of the classic Cat Stevens songwriting style originate from his love of the genre and his exposure to the best it had to offer at such a young age.
“West Side Story was absolutely it for me, and if you listen to my early songs, you’ll hear that kind of jagged staccato (…) Bernstein was definitely my model.” – Yusuf
A defining element of Yusuf’s songwriting is his wizard-like ability to conjure fully realised magical worlds through his lyrics. The inhabitants, artefacts and locations of this internal universe are the instruments with which he explores the contents of his soul, the fundamental experience of existence, and the state of the Earth. The honesty and sincerity that Yusuf applies to this process make his songs universally identifiable and his innate charm and humour keep things light and playful so that we feel like we’re listening to a trusted friend rather than on the receiving end of some dour sermon in a school assembly. This aspect of Yusuf’s song-craft relates closely to his first artistic passion; illustration. Young Steven Georgiou was a talented draftsman inspired by the cutting satirical cartoons of Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman that featured heavily in the popular counter-culture magazines of the ‘swinging 60s’ as well as the escapist fantasy and strong moral subtext of Walt Disney. Understanding the profound impact of these influences upon Yusuf’s developing imagination explains much about the immersive visual effect of his lyrics.
“I have this ability to write about things which I imagine.” – Yusuf
Of course, when we drill down to the molten core of what makes Yusuf’s songs so timeless we meet the spiritual seeker that’s always present deep beneath the many outer layers. A lifelong quest for meaning and peace, both internal and external, has seen Steven become Cat and Cat become Yusuf. He first came face-to-face with this aspect of himself when confronted by his own mortality after contracting TB in 1968. During his convalescence and fuelled by a diet of spiritual literature as well as another of his great loves; classical music, he began to meditate upon his place in this vast and complex dream that we call life. The intellectual power of classical music as well as its ability to reach in and stir the emotions of the listener gave him the confidence to attempt this level of depth within his own music. Likewise, his voracious appetite to confront the biggest questions, supported by his love of great texts, has encouraged him to tackle life’s grand themes in his songs.
I listen to the wind
To the wind of my soul
Where I’ll end up well I think,
Only God really knows
– ‘The Wind’
As the years have passed Yusuf / Cat Stevens has come to know his creator and dedicate himself to a path of humble service but along the way there have been many unexpected twists and turns. These have taught him the lessons needed to refine his character which, in turn, has allowed his spirit to flourish. Yusuf has shared these myriad experiences with his audience through his songs. Like a diarist happy to allow any and everyone to pour through the pages of his deepest secrets, Yusuf has opened his heart to the world. It is humbling to contemplate all that he has given us over the past five decades and inspiring that he continues to do so having seemingly achieved all that a songwriter could possibly hope for. However, Yusuf’s clarity of purpose has been reinvigorated in later years. He is driven by the enormous potential that music has to unify people and to spread a message of the purest peace.
“There’s nothing like being in front of your audience. The connection you get there is unlike any other. It’s a real harmony of souls, and what I realised is that I’ve got another job to do, to come back. Because everything’s looking so bad and so negative, and I realised I needed to reconfirm to people the principles of life I’ve always believed in and my songs have always seemed to reflect.” – Yusuf
Yusuf’s Billboard interview: https://bit.ly/2wHQUPn
Yusuf’s Songwriter Universe interview: https://bit.ly/2K9XNAJ
Songwriters Hall of Fame website: https://www.songhall.org/