This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal.
Princess of Wails
Makes a Bid for U.S. Stardom
The Monday night bill for the Apollo Theater in Harlem features a 23-year-old Welsh soul singer who says she never heard of the Supremes until a few years ago.
The concert is part of the American debut of Duffy, whose take on the Motown sound has made her a hit in Britain and across Europe. "I didn't really know all those amazing songs existed," says Duffy, who was raised listening to contemporary pop in a coastal hamlet called Nefyn.
Duffy is part of a trend in pop music: the retooling of classic American soul by young British women. In that category the unrivaled champion is Amy Winehouse, whose multiplatinum album, "Back to Black," spawned five Grammys and was critically hailed for its hip, horn-stabbed sound. But even as Ms. Winehouse has been showered with awards for her work, her career has been sullied by personal and legal troubles. In her wake a series of successors have stormed England, each with their own retro stylistic twists.
Estelle, whose album "Shine" got a U.S. release last week, switches easily from girl-group croon to Cockney patter on tracks that feature a hip-hop flair -- and cameos by John Legend and Kanye West. The singer Adele weaves smoky vocals through modern beats, and her hit album, "19," is slated for a U.S. release in June. And Leona Lewis, a pop singer who won a United Kingdom variant of "American Idol," recently hit No. 1 on the U.S. album and singles charts.
Duffy, whose given name is Aimee Ann Duffy, also appeared on a TV talent show, in Wales in 2003, but she says the experience was "completely a distraction" from her development as a singer. She didn't win the contest, but was soon fronting a band doing acoustic soul in the style of Van Morrison. Her recordings made it to an executive at Rough Trade, an esteemed label and management company based in London. Then, over almost four years she wrote and recorded the songs for her new album, "Rockferry," with guidance from a trio of producers, including Bernard Butler, a leader of the 1990s Britpop group Suede.
Duffy's collaborators fed her music by Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and other masters she had little exposure to while growing up. "I thought I'd have a heart attack," she recalls of first hearing "You Keep Me Hangin' On" by the Supremes. Her influences are clear on songs like "Mercy," an organ-driven workout with echoes of Ms. Franklin's "Chain of Fools." The '60s feel of the torch song "Rockferry," a showcase for Duffy's vocals, is heightened by reverbed guitars and strings. But now that she's increasingly steeped in the soul canon, Duffy has some worries about losing the guilelessness of her first efforts. "I don't know if I'm going to have that freedom on my next record," she says.
As for the comparisons to Ms. Winehouse, Duffy's representatives are confident they will fade as Duffy's profile rises on the radio and with TV appearances next week on "Live With Regis & Kelly," "Ellen" and "Late Night With Conan O'Brien." "There's room for everyone," says David Massey, president of Mercury Records. "It's not like one artist occupies the space that excludes others."