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Peace Train: The Cat Stevens Story: Darren Coggan Interview

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by Elizabeth Quinn (subscribe)
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The Cat is Back - Peace Train at the Arts Centre
Darren Coggan, star of Peace Train: The Cat Stevens Story, is one of Australia's most exciting young artists. Backed by a high-energy band, he performs a large chunk of the Cat Stevens songbook including The First Cut is the Deepest, Remember the Days Of the Old School Yard, Lady D'Arbanville, Sad Lisa and Peace Train. Darren Coggan traces the path of a man who never stopped wondering about how to make the world a better place.

Peace Train

Give the Weekend Notes readers a taste of the Darren Coggan story.

My family moved from Glen Innes to Wagga Wagga in 1980 when I was 6 years old. I had a lot of difficulty settling into my new school and forming new friendships. So my parents enrolled me into a guitar class to give me something positive to focus on. It worked. I loved it and would always be singing and playing every chance I had. I formed my first little band at the age of 12, 'The Typhoons', we had so much fun learning together and started gigging in pubs when I was 14! I was always heavily involved in our high school band and musicals, and played drums, guitar, sang, acted I loved it all! After leaving school I entered the Toyota Starmaker Talent search at Tamworth and won it, setting a career path for me in the Australian Country Music Industry. I've had some success in this genre, won a few Golden Guitar awards and released several albums. I've also had the opportunity to be cast in a number of national touring musicals such as Grease, Happy Days and Shout.

What are your first memories of Cat Stevens?

I clearly remember learning 'Moonshadow' on the guitar as a young boy, probably at the age of 10. I recall it being a very positive song, uplifting, and a song that everyone knew and would sing along to. My parents always had 'Tea For The Tillerman' on high rotation of a weekend, so I guess I have been subconsciously aware of his music since I was a child.

This show has been 8 years in the making. How has it transformed over that time?

Peace Train had very humble beginnings in my hometown of Wagga Wagga in 2009. It has evolved enormously since then, all of the performers on stage have grown into their roles and continue to bring new ideas that embrace the spirit of the music. The show has been directed by John Saunders and written by acclaimed playwright John Misto, so I was always in good hands having such incredibly well respected artists guiding me. With over 200 performances in theatres across Australia, the 'Train' has become a well-oiled machine. I am always looking for ways to tweak it though, adding new songs, slightly changing my delivery of the narrative, finding new interpretations in his lyrics. From the beginning my motivation has always been to treat Cat's story, his songs and his fans with great respect. We have always endeavoured to elevate the show out of the stereotypical 'tribute show' mould and I think our audience appreciate this.

Darren Coggan as Cat Stevens

Describe the experience of meeting Yusuf Islam for the first time.

It was very surreal. I had the privilege of meeting Yusuf in London in 2007. We were performing an earlier version of Peace Train in Melbourne at the time and as fate would have it, one day before a performance, I was handed a note backstage from the theatre manager. The note read "My name is Stephen Georgio, I am Yusuf's nephew and I would love to meet you after the show." I was somewhat curious and a bit sceptical about this note, however, to my delight, standing in the foyer after the show was indeed Yusuf's nephew, Stephen, and his family. Stephen was very complimentary about the show and said that he would contact his uncle to tell him about the performance. The next thing I knew I was on a plane with my manager and friend Neil Clugston, heading for London at the invitation of Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) and his brother and business manager, David Gordon. It was such a huge privilege to meet with the great man himself. He showed us the school he founded near Queens Park and he took us to his favourite local restaurant for lunch. He was every bit as kind and considerate as I expected, even more so. We heard first hand some amazing tales; Yusuf and David held us spellbound. I knew when we got home that we just had to share our experience and what we had learnt; to do real justice to Cat's amazing journey.

We Cat Stevens tragics often have difficulty reconciling the Cat of old with the Yusuf Islam of today. How do you view his various incarnations?

The underlying theme of our show is that we all have the ability to make changes in our lives should we not be happy with where we are, or who we are, and I think Cat Stevens is a great example of that. At the height of his career in the mid 70's he was very discontent with the excesses of fame and fortune and he did something about it, left the music industry and ultimately found fulfilment elsewhere, changing his name to Yusuf Islam. At the time I think his fans were devastated, as if they had lost a friend, but in his mind I believe that he had broken down those barriers over a long time and had finally found the guidance that he had been searching for his whole life.

Would you describe yourself as a spiritual man? Do you identify with Yusuf's search for meaning?

I am a spiritual person, and I do seek guidance and direction in my life so I may be the best father, husband, son, brother, friend that I can be. I can certainly identify with Yusuf's search for fulfilment. Whilst I have never reached the dizzy heights of his success, nor experienced the excesses that he indulged, I am conscious of our need to strive for unity, peace, tolerance and understanding, to truly embrace each day, each moment, to love and educate our children and strive to make the planet a better place. The music of Cat Stevens is all about such themes, so as a performer, I love immersing myself in such lyrics, songs such as Peace Train, Where Do The Children Play, The Wind, Oh Very Young, Wild World, Morning Has Broken, it is a great privilege to share these with our audience.

You've been variously described as an accomplished singer, songwriter, television presenter and actor. Which of these descriptions fits you best?

I'm so fortunate to have had the opportunity in my career to have worked across so many varied platforms. I've always embraced every opportunity that has presented itself to me (sometimes without too much rational thought) but I am definitely a richer performer and person for it, learning the craft mostly on the job, real sink or swim approach. I truly enjoy every aspect of my career but I'm probably most comfortable singing and playing my guitar.

You've done folk, country and western and musical theatre to mention just a few. Are you prepared to nominate your favourite musical style?

I'm a fan of music in general - all kinds, from Jazz to Rock, Classical to Folk. I think it's healthy for a performer to absorb as many styles of music as possible and to learn from them all. I love the struggle of composing songs, it's hard work, and I love performing great lyric based songs to an audience and reaching out and touching them through such songs. I also love the discipline of musical theatre and being part of a cast, that tremendous sense of camaraderie. Peace Train really marries these two worlds together for me beautifully, great lyric based, singer-songwriter songs set in a theatrical context.

What can Melbourne audiences expect when Peace Train comes to the Arts Centre in July?

I believe our audiences obviously come expecting to hear these great songs again, but go away with so much more, a real insight into the personality of this complex human being. Peace Train is a night of music and storytelling which will strike a chord deep inside the heart of anyone who longs for something more. It is a journey back in time, re-creating the sights and sounds, seeking out the man in the music and telling the story behind the songs. It is not an impersonation; I present the show as Darren Coggan and trace the path of a man who never stopped wondering how to make the world a better place. It covers his beginnings in swinging London, through some life changing experiences, the triumphs, the loves in his life, and his eternal spiritual search for fulfilment. Woven around this inspiring narrative are 25 of the most incredible songs of our time.

Where to from here for Darren Coggan?

I'm recording a new album of my own material this year and will be playing some shows associated with that release. I look forward to continuing my TV presenter gig on Sydney Weekender and would be keen to explore that avenue a little more in future years, but for now, while ever there is an audience willing to be inspired by the timeless songs of Cat Stevens, I'm certainly very happy to continue performing them aboard the Peace Train.
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Why? Because It's Cat Stevens People
When: July 30 to August 4 2014
Phone: 1300 182 183
Where: Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse
Cost: Adult: $89 - $119 Concession: $79 - $89 ** Concessions include - Junior (2-16 yrs), Full time student, Pensioners and Seniors** **** Group Prices available for some performances
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