A Conversation with Yusuf Islam
Mike Ragogna: Yusuf, let's talk about your new album Tell 'Em I'm Gone. It seems like you're saying something larger with it overall.
Yusuf Islam: Yeah, I'd say I'm setting myself free in a way, to make the kind of music and sing the kind of songs I was influenced by, especially in my young teenage years. We used to listen to R&B records in the clubs, that was what really drove me into music. And so many bands like The Beatles and The Stones were all getting off on the same thing.
MR: I guess it was an education in American music?
YI: If you look back at Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, you would see that their inspiration was coming from the same place.
MR: And you give those musical hints in some of the production of the songs on Tell 'Em I'm Gone. This project has some of the bluesiest music I've ever heard you record.
YI: I kind of explored this a little bit when I did Roadsinger, my last album. I did a version of "Peace Train" called "Peace Train Blues" and it was that that sort of set me on my course. I said, "Wow, I sound pretty good in this genre!" I think I've got enough experience and grit in my voice that it makes it real. It kind of works now for some reason. It doesn't mean I'm going to live here forever in this genre but it does mean that I'm able to do things that I enjoy, and I do love the blues.
MR: And it seems that Tinariwen helped you convey that.
YI: Tinariwen has an interesting African link to the blues. A lot of African slaves came from that part of the world and were shipped over to America, so that's where it kind of began. It wasn't just the delta.
MR: Right. And I imagine working with Rick Rubin helped you bring out these connections as well.
YI: I might have made a more faithful rendition of some of those songs if it wasn't for Rick. He helped me expand my musical imagination a little bit more and make it much more personal. When we started talking about ideas, Tinariwen was my son's idea and then we both clicked on it and said, "Yeah, that's the root we should follow." He was really good in being able to make me think further.
MR: Rick seems to interject that little bug in an artist's ear.
YI: Yeah, absolutely. He's a master producer.
MR: Yusuf, is "I Was Raised In Babylon" based on personal experience?
YI: I think maybe it has to do with what was going on in Iraq, that may have brought to mind the memory of Babylon. Then I started looking at other civilizations because there was one of the cradles of human civilization. I started looking at it from that angle and as I started writing this I realized I was making a critique of civilization. That was basically what was happening. I started to look at the disconnect between divine guidance and civilization. When a civilization becomes a superpower it kind of loses touch with the divine. That's what happened in Babylon. Abraham was sent to Babylon and then you've got Egypt, the next one, where Moses was sent. Then you have the holy land with Jesus and then the last prophet Muhammed was sent to--Well, I won't actually say any particular place because the Islamic empire was actually quite big in those days. So I kind of critique the way in which sometimes a civilization goes off the track.
MR: And there's "Big Boss Man" that's got the sentiment, the flavor of what you were doing years ago with "Matthew And Son."
YI: Yeah, that's right. Again, it's looking at how people allow themselves to become slaves to their masters and all the kings and presidents who come along and become in a way lords over the earth. That's really where prophethood becomes so important, because they break that allegiance to make sure that people remember that the first thing to do is remember the real superpower. The theme for the album was really that it came out of the blues, it's a way of escaping the predicaments that we find ourselves in, chained to our situations, sometimes to our cultures, sometimes to our technology, sometimes to our wives--I don't know, maybe that's a joke. It means we are forever in a state of wanting ultimate freedom to fly. That's it. But you're not an angel, we're not angels, so perhaps we'd better live with this.
MR: You also point out one of the things that seems to crumble in these oligarchies is the truth. "Editing Floor Blues" tells that story using the setting of a recording studio to make the point.
YI: Yeah. I love the way in which "Socrates" rhymes with "Greece," or the way I make it rhyme, anyway. It was a point where the truth was not palatable for those who were in power and therefore he had to swallow his own poison, which was extremely sad, but at the same time he left a model of someone who took another view. He suffered through it, but he's a man to be remembered.
MR: Looking at your catalog and the way it's changed over the years, what do you feel is the major evolution for you as an artist between this album and the previous ones?
YI: I think I took my lead from The Beatles. One of the things we loved about them was that every record was an innovation and a higher plateau for us to try and reach and enjoy. It was that that I think made me always want to improve and excel with every record and try something slightly different. When I did my records at one point I was fearful of becoming a little bit of a clone of myself. When people start sounding exactly like themself you don't know where it begins and where it ends. I wanted to avoid that. That happened with Catch Bull At Four particularly. Then I took an excursion to Kingston, Jamaica and I made a thing called Foreigner. I've always been hesitant and careful and cautious about not just following the same old track.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
YI: Wow, that's difficult. Certain movements were created because of the pressures which the music business puts you under. Therefore you have a thing called grunge, you have punk, and then you have the opposite, where everyone conforms to the sound of the day and sound like each other. To me, it's to do with digging down and finding out who you are and how best you can represent your unique view of this universe. That's the way I see it. Not just copying what others do.
MR: Nice answer. You were inducted into the Rock 'N' Roll Hall Of Fame this year. How did you react when you found out?
YI: I really didn't expect it. I thought it was going to be another one of those nominations that never amounted to anything, but it happened. I think it was a kind of a "Welcome Home" thing. Maybe because I've been making records again, people said, "Hey, you know, he's taken one step, let's take another." I don't know, something like that.
MR: And maybe an appreciation for the work you've done over the years?
YI: Yeah, I think it was that. I think I've played my part in the story of rock 'n' roll although I haven't conformed. That's the best part of rock 'n' roll...you don't quite conform. That's what makes great new art. By the way, we are doing a tour now and it's a way of saying thank you to the fans as well.
MR: It's going to be through North America?
YI: Yep, we're starting in Toronto I think and moving on from there, to Philly and Boston, that way around, I think.
MR: Yusuf, I have one more thing to ask. A long time ago, you and Warren Beatty were two of the names that came up when people talked about Carly Simon's mysterious "You're So Vain." What's your theory on who that song is about?
YI: My theory is she keeps people guessing so people keep listening to that record. I think she's an amazing woman and a great songstress. I think one was about me and I wrote one about her and that was no secret, but this one she's kept a secret to keep it alive.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
HEY ROSETTA!'S "SOFT OFFERING" US PREMIERE
According to Hey Rosetta!'s Tim Baker...
"I first visited Fogo a few years back and was awed by the landscape and the people and all the rad and noble work being done there. When the idea of taking the band and doing a live performance film there came up, everyone enthusiastically agreed. And once again I fell in love with the place. Playing in the artists spaces they've just created there, there's a whole new energy and we tried to match that with the tunes, the film. We had a blast. A beautiful blast. I hope it shows."