Saturday, January 12, 2008

12 Jan: Duffy the voice: a new star is born (Times)

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There's this fab article from The Times. It is the full story - really detailed. (Exert below) It also gives a link to download the official Duffy freebie Breaking My Own Heart

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Duffy the voice: a new star is born

She has emerged from deepest Wales to be hailed as the sound of 2008. And with prodigious natural talent and dollops of retro cool, it’s easy to see why

The first and potentially best new musical name of 2008 has been posing as directed on an icy hometown beach for 20 minutes now. Though gloveless and merely cardigan-ed in protection against the winds, her charm and positivity remain intact. “Thank you,” she persists in saying to the swaddled but still shivering rest of us: photographer, assistant, make-up artist, journalist and PR. Variously, and not just here but at a number of equally frigid other locations, that has meant thanks for holding her coat, for taking such care, for being sufficiently interested to have travelled all the way to the Gwynedd coast to meet her relatively unknown self. If good manners and an appealing nature were all it took to guarantee success, 23-year-old Amy Duffy would have it made.

They’re not all it takes, of course. In fact, they’re often a hindrance. But no matter, because Duffy (she forgoes her Christian name, perhaps because to use it would invite comparisons with another hugely talented but now sadly infamous singing Amy) has all the other, more conventionally requisite stuff at her disposal, too. First and foremost is the white-soulful, emotionally honest voice, a gloriously far cry from the posturing of an X Factor generation of female hopefuls. Then there’s the retro-influenced but still idiosyncratic look, a natural exercise in self-expression and not the work of some bought-in stylist. That she’s also responsible for a debut as accomplished as Rockferry, the best pure pop album since that other Amy’s Back to Black, is the icing on an important cake.

To those involved in Duffy’s journey towards the spotlight, it is a source of wonder that someone so inherently gifted should come from the background she does. For in terms of pop awareness, she grew up virtually illiterate, firstly in the tiny coastal community of Nefyn (population 2,550 at the last census), then later in Letterstone, Pembrokeshire. Welsh is her mother tongue, English her second language. There was no record collection, and for years no ready access to a proper music store (the nearest outlet, a bus ride away, stocked only the Top 40). Her first intimation of teen spirit? Tellingly, it came via an old VHS tape of her father’s, one containing an episode of the Sixties chart show Ready, Steady, Go!.

“The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Walker Brothers, Sandie Shaw and Millie singing My Boy Lollipop,” she smiles in recollection. “I thought it was the sexiest, most exciting thing ever, and I played it again and again until finally it disintegrated.” Is such relative innocence plausible in the modern cultural age? When you drive, drive, drive towards Nefyn on a winter’s day and thus have time to ponder its further isolation in the pre-mobile phone and internet era, then yes, very much so. “Look, there’s Titty Mountain,” tour guide Duffy had said, pointing out an aptly named geographic feature passed on our final approach. “Coming back from visiting our nan in Liverpool, me, my two sisters, Mum and Dad in our little red Metro, we’d know we were almost home when we saw Titty Mountain.”

The Nefyn of her parents’ heyday was a different place to today’s wind-whipped, battened-down town. “It was buzzing back then and all the youngsters from the surrounding farming communities dreamt of working here. Parked outside the Nanhoron Arms Hotel, they say, would be Bentleys and Ferraris belonging to this smart set of summer visitors.” Sharp-suited, quick-witted, handsome, John Duffy had been sent from Merseyside to the establishment as an interim manager, someone who could shake the place up a little, teach it new ways. Local girl Joyce Williams worked there as a waitress. “People tell me she was a bit of heartbreaker. Great figure, really good dresser, always wore pearls. A dolly bird.”

The attraction was instantaneous. When the inevitable happened and Duffy’s father asked her mother out, her only question was, “D’you have a car?” He did and so the die was cast. To the amazement of all who knew him, John Duffy jacked in his place-hopping job and junior playboy lifestyle (“the convertible car, even a little speedboat”) for the year-round joys of Nefyn, where for the past 30 years he has managed its constitutional club, effectively the town’s social centre.

As hosts, John and Joyce were a focal point in Nefyn’s communal life, “This sweet, attractive couple, living above the shop as it were.” They had first one daughter, Kelly, then four years later, twins Amy and Katy. “My mum only found out the week before we were born, and it was such a big deal locally because we were the first to be born here since the 1890s. There’s a photo somewhere taken of us on the day of the fair, newborn babies being held by the previous ones, by then aged 90.” And life for the young Duffy girls was idyllic, season after season. “Nefyn was an amazing place to be a child. I couldn’t have asked for anywhere better. It was safe, friendly. You could stay out all hours, playing on the beach. The only downside is that I didn’t grow up very worldly. You couldn’t.”

But the harsh realities of life can impact anywhere. Duffy’s parents’ marriage ran into difficulties and, towards the end of her time at primary school, they announced their intention to separate (later they would divorce). “It was a tough time for all of us, but I see now that my sisters and I have been lucky. I know other people who had the experience when they were kids of their mums and dads splitting up messily and they’re still living with the aftermath. We’re not at all. We’re fine. Of course, it was a big thing in the town at the time, everybody talking about it, but I think my mum did the right thing in leaving. I remember my dad being very upset, even though he thought we were just moving down the road a way.”

They weren’t. Joyce Duffy had reconnected with her childhood sweetheart, Phil, in the interim. “He’d been a bit of a wild child and my grandmother hadn’t approved. Then he moved away, and contact had been lost.” And then, eventually, was remade. “Both of them with failed marriages by this point. They fell madly in love, the holding hands and kissing in public kind of love. And so we moved hundreds of miles away [to aforementioned Pembrokeshire] and found ourselves living with four new stepbrothers and sisters and an uncle. Ten people in all. No privacy and not much money, either. So not a good time to ask for music classes, which I’d have loved.”

For although she hadn’t yet got any CDs of her own, the young Duffy already knew she had a voice, albeit a fledgling one. And on her first day at a strange school, the music teacher discovered it, too, after pointing at her and asking her to sing solo. “Me? The new kid in the class? Just horrible. My face was burning. But on hearing me he said, ‘There’s something in that. Carry on,’ which was like an endorsement, the first I’d had.” In all other respects, this new environment represented a total culture shock. Back in Nefyn, Welsh was spoken at school and continues to be among her sisters (she still has friends who speak nothing else). Here, no one spoke it.

While both her siblings would go on to wear cap and gown, the growing Duffy struggled with academia. “Not that I was stupid. I got GCSEs. I got A levels. And to try to keep everyone happy, I then went on to college [in Chester, where she completed two out of three years of a nebulously titled course, Culture], but simply didn’t get it or want it. My graduation photo was never going to be in a frame alongside the other two’s.” Yet she describes those years as being among her happiest. “In addition to classes I was waitressing in a really fun French restaurant, plus singing each Tuesday night in a bar, Alexander’s. People were becoming interested in me. Life felt like it was jam-packed.”

In time, one of many demos she had recorded reached the desk of Jeanette Lee, who 20 years ago and in partnership with Geoff Travis founded Rough Trade, the record label and management company (among the acts she has represented are Pulp and Beth Orton). “Instantly I was completely taken with this amazing voice,” she recalls. “I didn’t even know if Duffy and I would work together. But I felt strongly that I needed to meet her and help her take things forward. When she came to London to see Geoff and me, we were just bowled over. She was charming, disarming, a breath of fresh air.”

Duffy, by then back in Nefyn and travelling by bus each day to Pwllheli to work in a ladies’ seconds clothing store (“Lovely owners, stock around ten seasons old and waiting bravely to come back into fashion, mainly elderly clientele, nothing over a tenner”), remembers being similarly smitten. “I didn’t know what Rough Trade was or what it stood for, but of course I recognise warmth and knowledge. A lot of people I’d met along the way had wanted me to do things I didn’t want to, in terms of sound or songs or style. Jeanette and Geoff were just so relaxed.” And for Lee, the fact that Duffy was self-admittedly ignorant of music history but desperate to learn was “the absolute perfect situation. We set about introducing her to great music and she simply lapped it all up.”

They also introduced her to ex-Suede guitarist, now record producer Bernard Butler, who was similarly taken with her artlessness. “She managed to grow up without any concept of what’s cool or current, even of how to sing,” he enthuses. “For her, coming to London at all, was the stuff of fairytales. It meant taking two buses, then two trains, took all day and was a leap of faith. Then she’d do it all in reverse to get home, playing the music she’d just made to old ladies she’d meet upon the way. It’s hard for cynical music industry types to comprehend how far removed she was from our world. But what you’ve got as a result is someone who acts and sings utterly unselfconsciously and from the heart, a most rare and magical thing.”

Together they wrote the title track of Rockferry three years ago, and so began the slow process of readying Duffy for the spotlight. Along the way, Lee became her manager, a small band of writers and producers was brought on board (Jimmy Hogarth, Eg White and Steve Booker) and a deal signed with A&M. The resultant album is gorgeous, mixing sounds redolent of Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield’s Bacharach & David-penned Sixties heartbreak with something very Welsh, untamed and all of Duffy’s own. Radio 1’s Jo Whiley was sufficiently moved to make Rockferry her single of the week; similarly, her one appearance on Later was not enough for Jools Holland, and she went back a second time. She’ll be a star.

But currently she’s one in waiting, and with blue lips, Porthdinllaen beach in winter being what it is. “Is that Amy?” wonders pensioner “Ming” Owen, on her way back from the Londis mini-mart. “It is! You having your picture taken as well and me in this old coat.” Then, turning to the rest of us, she adds, “Lovely girl. Sweet girl. Always was. I hope it’s true what they say in the paper.” (“Young singer hits the big time,” reads the billboard outside the newsagent’s this week.) At which point publican Stuart Webley, spotting Duffy amid our sorry crew, takes pity and opens up Ty Coch Inn. Her old schoolfriend Elgan Jones happens by, too, in recovery having broken his back playing rugby.

They want to know all about making an album and what it was like to tour recently in support of the Magic Numbers. “Amazing,” says Duffy of the latter experience. “The first time ever my family sees me perform and it’s at the Festival Hall. Mum was there, my stepdad, an auntie and uncle and two cousins. Another auntie cancelled ’cos she was worried about the terrorists in London.” Meanwhile, and en route to popping in on her dad, what she needs to know in return is all that’s been happening in her old neck of the woods: “Who’s going out with who? Who’s broken up? All of that.” A three-cornered volley of Welsh ensues. To the rest of us, only an increasingly wide-eyed Duffy’s eventual, “Scandal! Scan-dal!” is comprehensible. Which proves that you can take the girl out of Nefyn...

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