Popular music is full of celebrated artists taking on side-projects or doing something different. From starting new bands to dressing up in costumes, change acts as a circuit breaker that allows musicians to explore new territory without being judged.
However, that transition is not easy when you are an artist like Sami Yusuf, whose work is viewed by millions as embodying the values of Islam.
The British artist's brand of spiritual ode, which blends mystical traditions such as Sufi music from Turkey, Mugham from Azerbaijan and Qawwali from South East Asia, has attracted an international fanbase and more than 30 million album sales. Time called him "Islam's biggest rock star".
Yet, even the most successful artists have a creative itch to scratch, and all of the adoration and critical acclaim hasn't dulled Yusuf's muse. In an exclusive interview with The National, the energetic 38-year-old details his plans for a busy 2019, which will include new music and a hectic tour schedule.
Kickstarting that flurry of activity is Yusuf's latest release, the remarkable six-song EP SAMi, which was officially launched last month in Dubai with a packed signing session at The Dubai Mall's Virgin Megastore.
The songs achieve that delicate balance of sounding new and adventurous, while sitting comfortably within his evocative body of work.
SAMi has sold well and topped a number of iTunes charts since its release, and Yusuf says he is grateful and somewhat surprised that he wasn't criticised for the commercial nature of the project. "I did expect some misunderstanding and some kind of backlash for the lyrics, but no, people understand it," he says. "And that is because my listeners have grown up with me and understand where I am coming from.
The secret of success - both commerical and spiritual
Clocking in at just over 20-minutes, SAMi stands out for what it lacks: the sturdy percussion of previous albums, particularly 2016's Barakah, has been jettisoned for minimal and moody beats. The luscious vocalism so central to Yusuf's sound, from his plaintive tenor to the mountainous chanting backing vocals, have been stripped down to only Yusuf's raw voice, which at times rarely rises above a whimper. It is a release full of introspective singer-songwriter gems, rather than the spiritual anthems Yusuf fans are accustomed to.
SAMi has accessible pop appeal, but for Yusuf, it is an experimental release. Yusuf tells us that he doesn't do pop music because it simply wasn't part of his cultural vocabulary growing up. "I am a little bit of an oddball in that sense," he says. "I grew up in West London, and my friends were listening to groups like Blur and indie-rock music. While kids at my school were listening to that, I was listening to classical music, artists like Chopin and Ravi Shankar. I was also listening to maqams and Azeri mughams."
While there are sharper and hookey melodies in SAMi – particularly the subdued club rhythm of 8 – it was working on the EP's deft touches that proved immensely satisfying for Yusuf, giving him the opportunity to tap into his production and compositional background. "It really took me back to my production roots," he says.
“I studied music – and I still do – and music for me is not just sounds, there is a science that comes with it and I went through that training. To be able to sit and experiment and come up with ideas and focus on the production has been really good for me.
In search of connection
The sense of experimentation hasn't come at the expense of the poeticism of the lyrics: there is a welcome ambiguity to the words that allows songs like Call My Name and 8 to resonate on spiritual and emotional levels.
A few themes pop up throughout the song's stories, the most pervasive of which is the search for connection in an increasingly divisive world. Over the delicate beats and shadowy synths of Wanderer, Yusuf croons: "Pushed and pulled, through these worlds/ Winding roads I crossed and curled/ Pain and love, hope and fear/ In between all unclear."
Yusuf admits the tired soul characterised in the album's lyrics stems from some personal reflections. "While it is an amazing time in the fact that we are all so youthful, I am nearly 40 years old and I feel 20, and I am sure it is the same for many of us, at the same time, there are a lot of challenges as well that we need to face," he says.
"All we have to do is turn on the news, there are too many things going on. There is an information overload and it is so difficult to take some time and just be mindful. But ultimately, if one has a strong spiritual discipline, whether it is a religion or a tradition they follow, I think it always lessens the burden."
Part of Yusuf's enduring relationship with his fans comes from him choosing to march to his own tune. Ever since the release of 2003 debut album, the ground-breaking Al Muallim, Yusuf's career has been one of exploration and expansion. Where other singers from the nasheed genre – something which Yusuf has never ascribed to himself – focused on songs preaching Islamic values, Yusuf was more interested in the cultures, figures and context that birthed these attributes.
That blending of art and academic rigour remains his calling card and personal mission. Others expressing interest in his journey, he says, has been a welcome bonus. "Here is a secret: if you don't want something, then it is given to you. It is something that we sometimes learn the hard way. But I was very fortunate. I was never interested in fame or making it or anything like that," he says.
“And that’s actually my advice to those who want to enter faith-based music, don’t make it about you. And by that I mean learning your heritage and tradition and connecting to something greater than you.”
SAMi by Sami Yusuf is out now.