Rhapsody in blue
Reality show runner-up, festival virgin and suddenly Britain's bestselling star - but don't go thinking Duffy isn't tough. Sarah Boden catches up with her in California
Sunday May 18, 2008
This is so far removed from reality,' says Duffy in her gentle Welsh brogue, a smile flitting across her pale-freckled face. It is late April in Palm Springs, the bone-dry desert retreat turned artificial oasis for golf-loving Californians, and the singer is set to play her first-ever festival.
Last night she was dangling her tiny size-two and-a-half feet in a rooftop swimming pool and now she looks composed in a short denim dress, with heart-shaped earrings and huge Seventies-style Chloe sunglasses. Coachella is sometimes called the West Coast's Glastonbury, but it's held on the neatly tended grounds of the Empire Polo Club and the 60,000 festival-goers, drawn by a bill featuring Portishead and Prince headlining the Saturday night, all sport tans and perfect white teeth. As Duffy settles under some shade in the 37-degree midday heat, punters desperately trying to cool themselves under nearby mist sprays eye us idly. Aside from one eager fan ('Hey dude, is that Duffy?'), they're oblivious to who she is, and her success back in the UK.
To the casual music fan, Duffy, the photogenic blonde songbird from Wales, is an overnight success. 'Rockferry', her first single, was released at the tail end of 2007 and suddenly she was popping up on Later.... Touring the UK. All over daytime radio. Then 'Mercy', released in February, reached No.1 on download sales alone and spent five weeks at the top, swiftly followed by her album Rockferry - and so far, she's the biggest-selling artist in the UK this year.
For others, she had simply been a well-kept secret, although this magazine perhaps jumped the gun in featuring her in its 'Flash Forward' slot in October 2006, a year before her first single. Settling under a patio umbrella outside her backstage trailer at Coachella, she seems genuinely chuffed at the exotic circumstances of our second meeting. 'This is amazing. It's really symbolic,' she says.
Back then, she'd only recently moved from Wales to Putney and 'I was getting rickshaws through Soho like a tourist.' Sipping on cups of strong tea on a wintry afternoon, in the Formica-clad setting of the New Piccadilly Cafe, she described herself to me at the time as 'the sort of person who tried to talk to you on the tube'. Nervous for what was her first-ever interview, she was disarmingly chatty: unabashed about her (apparent) provincial naivety and little bothered about the fact that she'd only just discovered, thanks to the guiding hand of former Suede man Bernard Butler, a whole treasure chest of classic singers such as Doris Duke and Bettye Swann.
'People thought I came overnight as some manufactured concept. But I'd been working really quietly for two years when I met you.'
Even at this early stage, it was obvious that she was a potent talent. Demos for the album, which included 'Rockferry' and 'Warwick Avenue', were spine-tinglingly captivating, Duffy's gossamer timbre, mournful and rich, conjuring up a world of hurt. Fame would suit her quite well, she mused back then, 'as long as I don't get people sending me dirty knickers through the post'.
Eighteen months on, Duffy is well-versed in the demands of a gruelling promo schedule. 'I've felt like I'm bipolar because one minute I'll be having a really deep conversation with someone and they'll want to know about my life, and then the next minute I'm on a radio station having a giggle with someone,' she says, looking at me balefully. 'But at the end of the day, I'd be an emotional wreck. Now I just try and find a steady ground, because they want blood - especially journalists abroad.'
But while her petite frame and sunny demeanour give her an air of vulnerability, she is not quite the wide-eyed innocent abroad often portrayed in the press.
She did grow up in a small, close-knit community: Nefyn is a quiet, largely Welsh-speaking seaside town of about 2,500 people on the North Llyn Peninsula. After her parents' divorce, she moved to Letterston, Pembrokeshire with her mum, stepdad and a newly acquired, sizeable extended family. There was her non-identical twin, Katy; an elder sister, Kelly; four stepbrothers and sisters, and an uncle. Despite not coming from a musical household - she recalls the Carpenters and Rod Stewart occasionally being spun on vinyl by her stepdad - Duffy was an imaginative, ambitious kid. At 13, she was posting home-taped karaoke cassettes to record companies plucked from the Yellow Pages
'My mum always had so much to do so I don't think it was noticed as I was growing up. But the great thing about that was that it was a personal thing. No one ever made me do it,' she says, emphatically.
Her first taste of success came at 19 when she came second in the Welsh version of Pop Idol. Footage on YouTube shows a baby-faced Aimee Duffy (she dropped her first name, shortly thereafter) crooning sugary ballads in Welsh, her mother tongue, looking heavier and slightly tomboyish with spidery eyelashes and glossed lips. Stylistically, she had a long way to go but her most distinctive feature - her smoky, supple voice - was more than apparent.
None the less, there is a world of difference between the slick, ruthlessly professional technical artifice that is the calling card of talent show finalists and a genuinely captivating, voluble voice. Her break came when she met Rough Trade co-founder Jeanette Lee through former Catatonia guitarist Owen Powell. 'I was very nervous and had issues because I'd done so much shit before. So she had a job on her hands,' she says. 'Not only did I not understand music, I didn't know what I wanted. I thought I was over it. I had all these big ideas when I was a kid. Then I got used a lot. And when I met Jeanette it was really like this one person actually was listening to me.'
While Duffy worked in a series of crap jobs - waitressing, a second-hand clothes shop - to get by, Lee steered her away from the idea of being a production-line pop artist, before moving her to London to pursue a more fecund direction. 'We made my album together,' says Duffy of Lee. 'I only made songs for her - no one else cared. If she loved them, it was the best day.'
Paired with Libertines producer Bernard Butler, as well as established songsmiths Jimmy Hogarth, Eg White and Steve Booker, she has honed her musical palette and as well as its UK success, Rockferry ended up going in at No.1 in Ireland, Greece, Switzerland, Sweden and New Zealand. The album has sold 1.3 million copies globally even before its imminent US release.
Given her sudden ascent, you could forgive a singer the Mail on Sunday calls a 'new music megastar' for taking a brief moment to bask in the spotlight. But in the absence of a drug habit, drunken brawls and illicit liaisons, her family background has been a ripe subject for shock headlines, in particular the Mail's expose about her stepfather's ex-wife taking out a contract on his head ('Voice From Heaven, Family From Hell'). Family, childhood friends and even her former boyfriend have been pestered for stories. 'Apparently I dumped him because I wanted to be a singer and I couldn't take him along and it was tearing us apart,' she chortles, indignantly. 'Everyone thought, "Oh bless, they parted company." I dumped him because he cheated on me: you couldn't keep your knickers on. For a split second, my blood was boiling.'
She's done with 'wrong boys' now. There are lots of fit indie boys in America, she says, casting her eye over her shoulder as US rappers Cool Kids gambol around the main stage. But having a boyfriend is very consuming. 'I've really put my heart into this. I'm giving it so much of my emotions on a daily basis.' Still, she grumbles, 'room service... burger and chips... some kind of shitty foreign film. It's not quite what you want when you get back into a nice hotel room.'
Later that afternoon, the sun still high in the cloudless sky, Duffy takes to the stage with her crack six-man band for her performance. Despite initial technical difficulties, by the end of a 25-minute set the insistent faux-Motown stomp of closing number 'Mercy' has a tent-full of people unfamiliar with her tunes whooping and hollering with glee. (That song, co-written with Steve Booker, about frustrated sexual tension, has been her calling card. 'I play it several times a day and it's just like having sex every time,' she says.)
This girlish character with a boisterous voice commands the stage with a feisty strut, singing to the heavens. She's beginning to sound victorious, acquiring the blooming gravitas of a bona fide star. In the midst of this whirlwind ascent to the top, has she had a chance to take stock?
'I did it the other day for the first time. Sat out, had a cigarette in the morning, a coffee, and I thought, "Fuck." I know it sounds like an old cliche but I try to just hold on to what it is and who I am and what I'm doing it for.' The promo treadmill continues unabated. She's in the US for another three weeks during which time she'll play New York's Apollo Theater, then it's back to Blighty for the festival season. 'I'm looking for kicks, like anyone else, but I don't abuse it.' Here she giggles and wrinkles her nose, pausing for emphasis. 'Watch this space, though.' OMM
Duffy plays Evolution Festival, Wychwood Festival, Glastonbury, Wakestock, V and Hydro Connect. Her new single, 'Warwick Avenue', is released on 26 May on Polydor