THE NEW DUSTY SPINGFIELD
I QUIT school and went on the dole to find fame. Now I'm the new Dusty Springfield...
Her song is being played repeatedly on the radio; her pouting face stares down from bill-board posters for her debut album Rockferry, which is released on Monday. And with her looks – huge eyes edged with liner, sweeping heavy fringe – and her distinctive gravelly voice belting out soul tunes it was unavoidable that she would be compared with Sixties legend Dusty Springfield.
It is easy to imagine that Aimee Duffy grew up in her North Wales home town – Welsh is her first language – spending nights on end listening to the heartfelt melodies of that swinging era.
But little could be further from the truth – this is a girl who was kicked out of the school choir aged seven and who only really started listening to Sixties tunes after she had been signed to a record label and the bosses thought it would do her good.
“I still don’t really know what a Sixties record sounds like,” the 23-year-old admits. “I only got given my first soul box-set about a year ago.
“When I was a teenager I liked Blur and Oasis but never bought any CDs. We didn’t really have the money. Some people think it’s odd that I didn’t listen to records much but that’s just the way it was.”
This endearing naivety was one of the things, alongside that hugely compelling voice, that drew in the record companies. It spoke of unpretentiousness and gave them a clean slate when it came to guiding her musically.
Long before the prospect of being one of the faces of 2008, Duffy had a small local claim to fame – at 19 she was the runner-up in Wawffactor, a Welsh-language version of Pop Idol broadcast on Welsh channel S4C in 2004. Even though she didn’t have to encounter the likes of notoriously critical judge Simon Cowell, she found the experience intimidating and her confidence took a knock.
“It was a year out of my life. I kind of got myself into something I couldn’t get out of,” says Duffy.
“I didn’t understand it; I had no idea what I was doing. It was the worst experience of my life. I had no faith after that, no self-esteem. I didn’t trust my judgment.”
It is hardly surprising that her confidence was wobbly – she left the school choir after being told her voice was “too rough around the edges”.
Hers is not exactly a tale of rags to riches but the family struggled when her mother Joyce left her father to rekindle a romance with her childhood sweetheart. Duffy, then 11, her twin sister and their older sister were uprooted from the idyllic coastal town of Nefyn in Gwynedd, where they were used to running free on the beaches, and moved to Pembrokeshire.
A school music teacher showed an encouraging interest but the family couldn’t afford music lessons. Duffy then recalls her teacher 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.”
That, and the praise of her family who knew she could carry a tune, sustained her but even at 19 she was still drifting along without much of a plan. Her attempt at following both her older and her twin sisters into higher education faltered – she dropped out of her course at a college in Chester when a teacher told her: “Go on the dole, love, and become a singer.”
So she dropped out of lessons and later flitted between various small jobs while trying, like so many others, to achieve her dream.
“I was a barmaid and a waitress, I put sheets on hotel beds,” she says.
She was finally spotted by independent label Rough Trade, which after a first series of meetings felt compelled to arm her with a bagful of records to listen to on the way home.
Jeanette Lee, who founded Rough Trade more than 30 years ago with Geoff Travis, was blown away when she first heard Duffy sing. “Instantly I was completely taken with this amazing voice,” she says. “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. It was the absolute perfect situation. We set about introducing her to great music and she simply lapped it all up.”
In an unlikely scenario, it was some time after signing her first record deal that Duffy’s musical education began.
“I was quite isolated growing up but now I’m a bit of a music geek,” she says. “I love discovering things and finding out what stemmed from where, what went on in this era, how that had an effect and how people reacted in that time.”
In Nefyn there wasn’t even a record shop. And although she helped her father at work – he ran the local social club – music just wasn’t a huge part of her life, despite the fact her voice sounds so full of soul history. Duffy herself is both flattered and anxious in equal measure about the complimentary comparisons.
“I love the Dusty Springfield sound and to be compared with her is something to be proud of,” she says, “but I want to be known as Duffy, not the new anyone. I think I have worked hard for what I have achieved and want to be known for my talents, not anyone else’s.”
And there have, of course, been other comparisons – Duffy has perhaps inevitably been likened to that other popular young soul singer of recent years, the increasingly troubled Amy Winehouse. Tellingly, Duffy has dropped her first name Aimee in what appears to be an attempt to shy away from being likened to such a controversial artist. While they might be singing in the same genre, they’re clearly not humming along to quite the same tune.
Winehouse’s troubles are as much etched into her music as they are her body with her endless tattoos but while Duffy does indeed sing of heartbreak, there’s a discernibly more optimistic tone to her tunes.
And where Winehouse has become synonymous with living a dangerously hedonistic lifestyle, teetering constantly on the verge of another drug-related breakdown, Duffy appears to have a healthier approach to life as a star.
She has had her fair share of late nights, she admits, but that’s not down to endless partying or living the high life, as the likes of Winehouse so publicly do – it’s simply hard graft that has been keeping Duffy up.
“Recently I had a really tough week working, cancelled a planned night out and got everyone round to my flat. Within minutes I had fallen asleep on the couch and my sister said to everyone as I started to drool, ‘There she is, the face of 2008!’ It was the first time I realised things might be about to change for me,” she says.
And so far she has lived up to the expectations of industry insiders. Her first TV appearance of the year was on the New Year’s Eve edition of Jools Holland’s Hootenanny (she had appeared on Later With Jools Holland last year), alongside such established singers as Kylie Minogue, Lulu and Madness.
A modest Duffy – dressed in a classic floor-length gown – blushed to high heaven when music industry veteran Jools sang her praises.
Praise from Jools Holland must seem a million miles away from those early days of struggling to make ends meet while waiting to hit the big time.
“I worked in a fish shop for one day,” she recalls. “I could only stomach it for that long. I didn’t know kilograms and I'm not mathematical. I took money from a customer and it went through my fingers and into a pot full of dead squid. I just took the coin out and the fish was contaminated by the dirty money but I didn’t say.
“It’s not really rock ’n’ roll. When I was a waitress I spilled soup on this man. He wanted money off his bill and his dry-cleaning paid for. It was chaotic so I never went back. I hope I never have to.”
And by Monday, when her album is released, it looks like that hope will be confirmed.