The man formerly known as Cat Stevens is standing on the side of a dirt road in Southern California's Mojave Desert, hitchhiking. Yusuf Islam, as he is now called, has one thumb hooked around the shoulder strap of his worn leather bag, and the other pointing toward town. His companions are dozens of Joshua trees, a few goats from a nearby farm and Allah, who has been his guide ever since he pulled out of the music game and converted to Islam three decades ago. Commercialism, ego and adulation were the demons back then, and his newfound faith the salvation. Now, at 60, he's playing music again, and moving closer to the spotlight—or is it the flame? His hitchhiking journey is actually a high-budget music video for his new album, "Roadsinger (To Warm You Through the Night.)" The cameras roll as he wanders out of the desert toward civilization, his gray hair and beard a reminder of how long the singer's been away. The video director cues a car into the shot, and then a gaggle of extras, and then a Dolly Parton impersonator. Clearly, the game is back on, and Islam is willing to play again. "When you step back in the arena, you have to be brave," he says during a tea break. "Well, I'm really not brave, I'm just picking things that are fun. And really," he says, motioning toward the Dolly impersonator, "this is quite fun." (Story continued below...)
If his last record, "An Other Cup," was a dip into the wading pool of renewed public attention, the new CD is a swan dive into the open sea. Islam is promoting the early-May release on the late-night talk-show circuit, morning radio and on the road. He'll embark on a small, selective "Roadsinger" tour next month, where he'll play material from both incarnations of his music career. The mini-blitz is quite a switch for a man who spent the past three decades in retreat quietly raising five kids (all of whom are now grown), running two Islamic schools in the U.K., founding a charity for kids and making only a few faith-based, benefit records that catered to other Muslims. Islam was occasionally in the press, but not voluntarily. In 1989, the British media claimed he called for a fatwa against Salman Rushdie during a university lecture (Islam denies it). Some years later, a U.K. tabloid wrote that the former pop star spoke to women only if they were veiled (not true, and he won a lawsuit to prove it), and in 2004 the news wires reported that Islam was denied entry into the United States at the Bangor, Maine, airport when his name appeared on a no-fly list (true, but it was a case of mistaken identity). Despite his abrupt recoil from fame, and the negative press he received for his choice of faith, Cat Stevens's catalog still sells well into the millions decades after his retreat—since 1991 alone, he's sold 6.2 million albums. "It's been great to hear songs like 'The First Cut Is the Deepest' being listened to, and covered, again and again," he says. "It massages my ego slightly. I can't help it. It's nice."
Islam's latest album also tackles secular themes, and these days he has a lot more stories to tell. "Roadsinger" is a compelling mix of Cat Stevens's simple but deep songwriting, Islam's optimistic world view and that voice. The real Dolly Parton, and Paul McCartney, clearly still love it enough to harmonize with Islam on the bonus track "Boots & Sand." Islam's playful sense of humor propels the tune, in which he details being denied entry into the United States by Homeland Security in a serene, almost whimsical tone. Set against a pleasantly spare acoustic guitar and mandolin, the song is sweet enough to be a nursery rhyme, until you listen to the lyrics: "As we reached the border, seven sheriffs arrived/ Me and my girl, we're saddled outside/[a chorus of booming voices] 'Is your name this?'/[a meek Islam] 'I guess it is'/[chorus] 'You're on our no-song list!'/ [Islam] 'Oh, no, sir, no/This can't be so/ Oh, please let us go!' "
Islam traded one type of notoriety for another when he bowed out of his music career and converted to Islam in 1977. He's certainly not the first pop star to be ridiculed or rebuked for publicly practicing his beliefs: George Harrison became synonymous with Hare Krishna jokes in the '70s, Prince was later characterized as certifiably insane for becoming a Jehovah's Witness and the Jonas Brothers are demeaned about every 10 minutes for their conservative Christian beliefs (not to mention their annoying, breathy voices and bad haircuts). But Islam chose a faith that's often misunderstood and feared, changed his name to reflect his beliefs and abandoned his fans for it—a trifecta for scorn, scrutiny and scandal. Yet his biggest struggle came from within. He knew that as a superstar, the toughest gig was wrestling with his own ego, and he felt it would be impossible to cultivate the humility needed as a good Muslim while playing to adoring crowds. Plus, there was all that rock-and-roll excess to contend with (after all, it was the '70s), which would never jibe with living a clean, simple life. But as the decades passed, Islam—with the urging of his son, Muhammed—came to the conclusion that his music and his faith did not need to live in exclusivity from one another.
The challenge now is striking a healthy balance between playing for the people and serving God. "There is a pang of conscience I feel about getting out there again," he says. Islam, who now splits his time between his hometown of London and Dubai, is hardly noticed by the other patrons while eating dinner in a Greek restaurant in Hollywood. His trademark curly brown hair is now silver and cropped, he wears wire-rimmed spectacles and the lower half of his face is covered by a long, but finely maintained, mustache and beard. "The adulation issues are something which I stayed away from," he says. "But I had dinner with Art Garfunkel recently, and he said, 'Come on, you've got something to say. Get out there and say it. People may take a swipe at you, but get in the game.' I said, 'You're right.' There's a whole section of humanity that won't go digging very far, so you have to get out there and hand it to them. And I'm no pinup these days, so I haven't got to fear becoming a sex idol again," he says with a laugh.
Talent aside, it's unlikely that Islam—the London-born son of a Greek Cypriot father and Swedish mother—would have become a pinup, let alone an opening act, if the aspiring folk singer hadn't changed his name from Steven Demetre Georgiou to Cat Stevens in the mid-'60s. By 1966, he toured with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and recorded several hits in the U.K. before releasing his major breakthrough LP, 1970's "Tea for the Tillerman." For the next five years, the prolific songwriter would create some of the most moving, indelible and uplifting music of the era: "Peace Train." "Wild World." "Morning Has Broken." The bittersweet "Harold and Maude" soundtrack. Along the way, he searched for some higher purpose, and dabbled in Buddhism, numerology and astrology. Then in 1976, Stevens almost drowned off the coast of Malibu during a swim. He claimed it was then he made a deal with God: if spared, he'd devote his life to serving the Lord. He says that a wave rose up and swept him back to shore. Shortly thereafter Stevens's brother introduced him to the Qur'an and the singer converted to Islam, both in faith and name. "I just was so happy, I was floating," he says, his dark eyes gleaming. "But I got a bad response from the press, and I turned a little bitter. I wrote something called the 'Last Love Song,' which went, 'If you don't love me, then maybe I don't love you.' It was the last song on the last album I recorded in 1978. It was a response to treatment I was receiving in the media, headlines like CAT ON THE MAT—insulting, tongue-in-cheek stuff. We all had a lot of learning to do."
By the close of the decade, Islam donated all his guitars to charity and then turned his back on music. He also ceased watching television or listening to the radio. "I just stopped being influenced by worldly chaos and commercialism," he says. One marriage and five kids later, Islam became a philanthropist who raised money for various charities, including his own Small Kindness. He also began recording benefit songs for English-speaking Muslims in the form of children's music. A song about the Arabic alphabet in 2000 was his first real step back in, and it was a hit. "I can't believe no one ever thought of the title 'A Is for Allah'," says Islam. "I thought, this is a find." The song is now a staple in Muslim households across the Western world.
The warm acceptance of his new music made Islam question some of these more rigid Muslim ideals that he had adopted. He converted at a time when conservative strains of Islam were on the rise, and he says now that in his search for a Muslim identity, he perhaps misinterpreted the teachings of the Qur'an and pulled away from singing and songwriting too abruptly. "When you look at Baghdad in its golden age, there were musicians, poets, scientists—and there was law as well," he says. "There was a balance. It was all one fantastic civilization, and that got lost somewhere in the reprocessing of the religion."
So Islam (the man) stepped back in the studio and came out with "An Other Cup" in 2006. The singer's comeback album was well received from VH1 to Al-Jazeera, the only criticism being that wecouldn't hear enough of him. Even Islam admits his voice and guitar playing were often overpowered by too much instrumentation, and the songs may have been a bit "overworked." So "Roadsinger" sounds much more akin to a Cat Stevens LP: spontaneous (Islam says he recorded five songs in three days), confident, raw and earthy—a place where his songwriting and guitar work have room to breathe. Even the cover art is a throw back to the "Teaser and the Firecat" days. Designed by his son, it features a vintage VW van decorated with images from classic Cat Stevens album covers: the orange cat, the artful dodger and, of course, the moon. It's a career come full circle, even if that circle was interrupted for a while. "Pulling away from it all helped me to appreciate the art of music, and how it can be used positively, again," says Islam. "It gave me a whole sense of freshness. Maybe I'll leave it again one day, I don't know, but as far as I'm concerned I've come to a very balanced place in my life. I'm happy with what I'm doing. I have schools, I'm helping kids get an education, helping kids in poor countries. I don't think I could get a better deal. Except I want to do a musical."
Move over, "Les Mis," because Islam is going mainstream. "Moonshadow" has been his pet project for the past six years. The musical will incorporate Cat Stevens material, as well as new Islam songs, and it's scheduled to debut in London's West End by the close of this year. "It's set on a planet where there's perpetual night, and the moon is the only source of natural light," Islam says. "But there's this tenacious boy who dreams of a world where the sun shines, where there's natural order and beauty. The story is about his search to find that perfect world, with the help of the moon's shadow, of course." And with the help of a long-lost singer who, thankfully, has regained his place in the sun.