Yusuf / Cat Stevens is a star who has been releasing music for over 50 years. Throughout that time, the one description that has helped to define his work is perhaps transcendent. Anthems like ‘Father and Son’ have tied together generations and become a wider touchstone of culture in general. That, in short, takes some special songwriting chops and a sense of artistic sincerity.
As he said of the ethereal appeal of music himself: “It’s a mystical thing still. I mean, we can’t put it on this sort of laboratory table and examine it. It’s something which permeates our emotions and our soul. Sometimes our intellect, our body moves to it. I mean, there’s so many things. But for me, music was a vehicle.” His tracks are often ones that stick with you, like little signposts on memory lane—mystic in the sense that they just seem like fated findings rather than considered creations.
Few artists have managed to achieve this feat, but Stevens, without much commercial marketing, has offered up a back catalogue that a multitude of songs that hold a special place in many people’s lives. What’s more, with his name to the songwriting credit for tracks like ‘The First Cut is the Deepest’, there is a slew of songs out there that you might not even know he penned in the first place. This a mark of his creative breadth which is echoed in the choice of songs that he couldn’t live without.
Desert Island Discs has been a cornerstone of British broadcasting since its inception in 1942 when it was created by the playwright, novelist and radio producer Roy Plomley, OBE. The premise is simple, in fact, it’s one we’ve all thought about ourselves even if you’ve never been aware of the show: if you were cast away to a desert island and you could only take eight songs with you, which sacred records would you select? Well, back in 2020, Stevens answered just that.
One of the first records that stirred him was ‘America’ from West Side Story. As he explained: “That was the musical which really blew my mind and opened the door for me musically. Leonard Bernstein, absolute genius. And I’ve never got over him, you know, over his music. And it was me and my pal. We used to watch this as many times as we could. And of course, Natalie Wood had a little bit to do with my infatuation with the film, you know, and we used to go dancing around the telephone boxes outside my front door.”
That might have whisked him up with wonderment, but from then on, his interests gradually took a spiritual turn. In his music, he searched for something primordial and that is reflected in his love of Ali Farka Touré. As he explains: “You know, and one of the great musicians, I think, from Africa, West Africa, Ali Farka Toure, you know, I mean, God, you can see where the blues came from.”
This sense of spirit and commonality with the past is also reflected in his love for Nina Simone. “This one kind of speaks for itself,” he explained, “because the repercussions of my inability to explain myself, my position, and perhaps not be learned enough in many cases to explain. So ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’. And there are many reasons for this song. One of them, obviously, because of prejudice that we carry around, we don’t know we’ve got it. The other thing is because Nina Simone was just such an influence on my musical history and my I used to love her.”
You can check out his full selection below.
8 songs Yusuf / Cat Stevens couldn’t live without:
- ‘America’ – Rita Moreno, George Chakiris & The Sharks and Girls
- ‘Tutti Frutti’ – Little Richard
- ‘Twist and Shout’ – The Beatles
- ‘March from a Clockwork Orange’ – Wendy Carlos
- ‘The Wind’ – Cat Stevens
- ‘Allah Uya’ – Ali Farka Touré
- ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ – Nina Simone
- ‘As’ – Stevie Wonder