Duffy: A new, old-fashioned girl
As Duffy releases her debut album, the 23-year-old tells Neil McCormick why she's in love with the sound of the Sixties
Star of the moment, Duffy, is a bit of a torrent. She arrives in a whirl of excitement, small and pretty and full of chat and laughter.
Guiltily confessing she has been smoking ("Can you tell?"), she douses herself with a perfume sample plucked from someone's desk then opens her mouth wide to enable an acquaintance blasting her with breath spray.
"That's nice," she says, "What's it called?" Then she hoots with laughter at the label.
"'Snog Me Senseless'! But we've only just met!"
Duffy is being marketed like some kind of demure Sixties pop idol, all black-and-white and blonde (think Dusty/Sandy/Petula and young Marianne Faithfull) but, in person, she is so vivacious and alive to the moment, the nostalgic image seems misleading.
For all the retro fittings of her number-one single Mercy (a kind of Lulu sings Stax jazz-soul stomper, with just a hint of hip hop groove), and the epic strings, soulful melodrama and classic girl group charm of her album Rockferry, she actually seems a thoroughly modern girl.
She talks quickly, with a gushing enthusiasm that might border on the naïve if it weren't framed by self-mocking humility and childlike curiousity.
Her answers to questions tend to offer far more information than you really need, or can even process. "I like to talk," she says.
This is an understatement. But she is pleasant company, with an infectious passion for music.
"I was quite isolated growing up, but now I'm a bit of a music geek. I love discovering things and finding out what stemmed from where, and what went on in this era, and how that had an effect, and how did people react in that time. How was it the first time you heard Bowie's The Man Who Sold The World? What was that day like? It's amazing!"
A name to drop in music circles since late last year, Duffy (like 2008's other big tip for the top, Adele) appears to have been fast-tracked for fame in the wake of Amy Winehouse, whose stellar success put the classic female soul voice at the top of the music industry agenda.
In fact, 23-year-old Duffy's development has been a drawn-out affair. Rather than dropping her given name (she is actually Aimee Duffy) to avoid confusion with Winehouse, the truth may be that she was trying to draw a veil over a brief period of local TV fame.
She grew up in the north Wales seaside town of Nefyn, and Welsh is her first language.
There was no record collection, no music stores, just an old-fashioned wireless usually tuned to Radio 2.
"I have always had an affinity for nostalgic music. We weren't aware of the latest trends. For me, music was so far removed from belonging to anything." A defining moment appears to have been her discovery of her father's video of the Sixties TV pop show Ready Steady Go.
"I remember the first time I saw Mick Jagger, I thought, 'He's cool.' The Beatles, the Stones, Sandie Shaw - it was the sexiest thing ever. I wore that video out." I suspect not many young girls growing up in the Eighties and Nineties fantasised about Mick Jagger.
At 15, she was immersed in the local music scene. "I was such a terror. When you're young and you're female and you have a band, you have like five boyfriends in that band. But I'd have about five bands going on, and each band wouldn't know about the other. I was like a pessimistic lover: I knew that none of them would work out, but I would keep them on the go for enjoyment's sake."
At 16, she was invited to audition for Wawffactor, a Welsh-language version of Pop Idol on S4C, and wound up making it all the way to the final, eventually coming second.
"It was a year out of my life. I kind of got myself into something I couldn't get out of. 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."
She spent a period singing other people's demos and tracks before, aged 19, coming to the attention of Jeanette Lee, a music industry veteran who co-founded Rough Trade Records.
"She asked me what I wanted, and I didn't know. I couldn't articulate it, but I just wanted this huge, lush sound, this grandness. I wanted something extreme because I was feeling extreme."
It is easy to understand what Lee saw in this little force of nature, and why she and iconoclastic indie label Rough Trade (unlikely partners with A&M in Duffy's career) were prepared to back her through a four-year process of self-discovery and music-making.
It was, she says, almost a year into the project before she was introduced to former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, and they almost instantly wrote the song that set things in motion.
Rockferry, the album's title track, is a big, melodramatic, Sixties-style ballad, Phil-Spector-meets-Gene-Pitney, about a girl leaving her past behind.
"It's a song about struggle, about overcoming. I knew I had a mammoth job on my hands to write that record, because I had to live up to something. It was either really step up and sing it or go home. When we were done, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders."
The comparisons to Dusty Springfield are based more on her dress sense and poise than musical similarities. Duffy's voice is reedier and coarser than Springfield's, yet shot through with authentic emotional force.
Her musical styles draw on a wide range of retro genres, yet the girl herself has a contemporary edge.
"As a person," she says, "I always draw the line. I have to because I've been hurt and I've been disappointed. I made all those mistakes, I've had to learn quickly, and I knew that, if I was going to survive this, I had to be strong. So there's an element of defiance."
Like Winehouse, Duffy brings something new to the past.
"Ever since I was little, I have been old-fashioned. I would hate to be pigeonholed to one era, but the Sixties was a mad, liberating time, from the blues influence on rock, the soul movement, hippies. If you've got to start somewhere, the Sixties seems a good place to start."