Saturday, February 23, 2008

23 Feb: Indepent Article - Duffy: Little voice

Huge article appeared in today's Independent Saturday magazine.

Duffy: Little voice

Move over Amy and Lily: There’s a new girl in town. Rob Sharp meets Duffy, the young Welsh diva set to topple the song queens from their thrones

Saturday, 23 February 2008

There seems to be a tried-and-tested career arc to being a pop star these days. One minute you're a Bambi-eyed housewife's choice; the next thing you know you're tottering around on hard drugs, bawling "I loves yew Blakey" as if you're starring in a perverse cross between Skins and On the Buses.

It is safe to say that Duffy looks most unlikely to follow this trajectory. Sitting in the plush St John's Wood offices of her publicist, the 23-year-old rocks back into her seat, laughing. She points out the miniature dolls of the Rolling Stones sitting on the windowsill; giggles about how the free perfume she has just tried on is making her sneeze; casually drops into conversation how she just ran into an "old friend" who worked on her new record, Rockferry, in New York. The pair went out for cocktails. It's all fresh and exciting.

"Before Christmas I remember it being quite frantic," she gushes, after taking off her coat and flapping around the room, "and I was thinking: 'How could it ever get any busier than this?' But when you're in the thick of it, it feels a bit different. I've always been slightly afraid of coming out with my record because it's so personal to me. Now it doesn't feel as frightening as I thought it would."

The reason for Duffy's confidence, in case you don't already know, is that she, along with 19-year-old Adele Adkins, heads the list of singers already making a splash in 2008: in terms of column inches she will soon be on a par with the likes of Lily Allen and Kate Nash. That's not to say, however, that she doesn't have talent: Jo Wiley made "Rockferry" her single of the week on Radio 1 late last year, and Jools Holland has already invited her on to his iconic TV show, Later. Twice.

Then, there's her voice: powerful, edgy, distinctive. And she's certainly got no cracks in her musical foundations: she is managed by Jeannette Lee, one of the founders of Rough Trade Records, and is now the proud owner of a deal with A&M. Rockferry is co-written and co-produced by the venerable Bernard Butler, one-time guitarist with Suede. "From the moment she started singing I knew it would be great," he says. Life couldn't look peachier.

Another reason to love Duffy is that in person she seems like an innocent. At a time when pop stars are imploding left, right and centre, she seems a world away from anything like a Britney Spears or Amy Winehouse-style meltdown. She's honest, interested in others, confident, lacks pretension, and even has a full head of hair.

"There's no shit on Duffy," Butler adds. "She doesn't need to lie about anything. She is what she is. It's amazing to meet someone like her in London. She sings exactly from the heart. But she was lucky enough to find people that could steer her. On the same day she met Jeannette she could have met Simon Cowell."

But you can't say she lacked the drive to get here. While some of her early interviews have dwelt on how she grew up with no record collection, she did leave school at 15 to pursue her singing career. At one point she even commuted to Switzerland to work on her music.

And if there were once holes in her musical knowledge they are harder to pick out now. For a time, she was in the enviable position of having Butler load up her iPod with tracks from his record collection, which she would listen to on the five-hour trip between her home in Wales and his pad in the capital. He bolstered her "soul": Al Green, Bettye Swan, Ann Peebles, even a bit of Beyoncé. Now, in the course of our interview, she is as happy name-dropping Doris Duke and Scott Walker as Phil Spector and Burt Bacharach. But she's not embarrassed about her "ignorant" beginnings.

"I don't think I'm an exception. I have a lot of friends who don't own records. With my friends and my sisters' friends, it's really normal for music to be the background of your life rather than how you identify yourself."

And if you listen to her album, somehow, despite Duffy's relatively secluded beginnings, she does seem to have pulled it off. It's full of show-stoppers. So how did she manage it?

Amy Ann Duffy was born in 1984 in the north Wales seaside village of Nefyn. Her first language is Welsh. Her first experience of music was seeing a VHS cassette of Mick Jagger singing "Jumpin' Jack Flash". But it wasn't this that kick-started her decision to pursue music.

"I was at a swimming lesson when I was six and I was standing next to 11-year-old boys," she remembers. "I remember all the guys picking on me. My mum was watching me, and I remember when I was swimming I was crying underneath the water. And I thought, 'How can anyone see the tears when I'm swimming?'" Shortly after this she ditched sport in favour of her voice.

When she was 10 her parents divorced. Soon afterwards she moved to Pembrokeshire with her mum and her mother's new partner. But the upheaval didn't stop her making close friends, and in the absence of an obsessive, navel-gazing record-collecting mentality Duffy says that certain songs, often the classics, leapt out of the background into her life. The first time she heard "Unchained Melody" by the Righteous Brothers was at her best friend's mum's funeral. "This song just seemed to follow her after that," she says. "And that's when I realised just how spectacular the power of emotion is in music. Every time she heard it I can remember her putting her fingers in her ears and tears streaming down her face. She was just frozen, and I would have to act, and get people to turn it off. It is such a poignant song for that reason."

The singer quit school after her GCSEs – "it caused real mayhem. I kept my head low for a while because everyone was against it" – and went to do her A levels at a college in Chester where she met an (anonymous) teacher who said: "Go on the dole, love, and become a singer." So she did. She worked in an optician's, as a waitress, and appeared on an early Pop Idol-style show in Wales.

After much hard work, in 2004, one of the many demos she had diligently recorded landed on the desk of Lee at Rough Trade. Soon, Duffy was on the journey from her home in Nefyn to London. "I went there and met Jeannette and Geoff [Travis, Rough Trade co-founder] and he ordered a shandy, and said, 'Let's go crazy'. And I was like – these people are cool. And I remember a couple of weeks later I got a call from Jeannette saying do you want to do this? I just thought, 'Why me?'"

The admiration was mutual. "When I first heard her voice, I fell in love with it," says Lee. "It's so emotional and huge. And then you meet this tiny bubbly character. There was something immediately that was interesting. She's a real live wire with an incredible talent. And when we met her she was a blank canvas, which was interesting. But she knew she could sing, and also that she had a lot to learn."

This meeting overlapped with a period in which Duffy was singing the songs of Owen Powell (the former Catatonia guitarist) and Richard Parfitt (from 60ft Dolls). But the singer decided she wanted to have some input in the writing process, and Rough Trade hooked her up with Butler. The partnership between Duffy and Butler, along with the other hit songwriters and producers who have worked on the album – Jimmy Hogarth, Eg White and Steve Booker – has allowed the singer to contribute lyrics and the vocal "top-line".

Since then, it is clear Butler has had an amazing effect on her, certainly in terms of her confidence. The pair have been collaborating on and off on the album for the past few years, but one moment particularly stands out. It involves, appropriately enough, the recording of Rockferry's first track in 2004, which shares the name of the album.

Duffy sung its first verse conventionally enough, Butler recounts. But then he asked her to move the melody up a fifth. The singer was nervous about stretching her voice, and she said she didn't want to. But Butler insisted. "I said, 'That's amazing. That's thrilling and beautiful.' Duffy said she still didn't like it. It took her months before she got 'Rockferry'. But on the record she sounds like she's being pushed out. It's edge-of-the-cliff stuff. I said, 'Do this or go back to Wales'. But in a great way."

Certainly the pair seem to have achieved something against the odds. The ingredients of "Rockferry" could have been disappointing – its languorous tempo is too slow to dance to; it is not the hippest sound, in that it sounds as if it could have been written 40 years ago; then there is the chorus – it doesn't have one. But the whole adds up to something special, "an experience", as Butler says. As it builds to its climax it is thrown forward by the sheer intensity of Duffy's vocals, which are emotionally honest and soulful beyond her years. Her lyrics aren't shocking, either. "There's no sleep on the journey, away from town/ A bag of songs and a heavy heart, won't make me doubt," she sings in "Rockferry". For "bag" should we read "iPod"? Thank goodness for Bernard.

As we wrap up the interview, ensconced in friendly patter, the question arises of who this successful, single, pop star – who seems to have a healthy interest in gossip – will be seen out and about with in the diary columns over the next year. She does say she'd consider seeing the younger brother of Winehouse's spouse, Blake Fielder-Civil, should he exist – "It might be quite fun having Amy as a sister-in-law."

We also discuss who will like her music. "My mum was driving back from work recently," Duffy says, "and there was a girl of six or seven by the side of road and she wasn't dressed properly. The girl was freezing and wearing a T-shirt. And my mother said: 'Oh my God I remember that being you.' And I thought to myself that it is so important that this little girl gets to hear my music. I'm not doing this because I get kicks out of it or that I wake up every morning and it feels like I've won the lottery. I'm doing this because I just like music and I want to be a part of music culture."

To the cynics out there, Duffy and her record shouldn't "work". But they do. The music industry is in constant search of something new. She fits the bill, and deserves her success. Now let's hope it doesn't go to her head.

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