Friday, July 25, 2008

24 Jul: Duffy: Retro rocket (Star Tribune article)

The below article appeared today at the Star Tribune.

Duffy: Retro rocket

Hailed as "the new Amy Winehouse," Duffy zoomed up the British charts with a vintage sound. But will a backlash stall her ascent in the States?

Duffy's laughter instantly filled the phone.

"I just had the weirdest moment ever," blurted the newly minted British pop star, who had been on hold, listening to recorded music as her record-label rep connected the call. "I'm singing to myself on the phone."

How did she sound?

"To be honest, I thought the sonics were a bit off," she said. "I thought it suffered a bit on the bottom end. But overall, I was quite pleased."

The much ballyhooed 24-year-old newcomer, who will make her Minneapolis debut Thursday, is playful, innocent and disarmingly honest. Those qualities have been useful in combating the detractors who question her R&B cred and bemoan her rise to No. 1 in England with the retro soul smash "Mercy" and the album "Rockferry."

"I'm not too precious about things, you know," she said from Barcelona, Spain, where she was wrapping up a European tour two weeks ago.

"I can't be something that I'm not. You don't have to love my record, that's fine. I know I'm going to grow and I'm going to explore many things. We all change."

Some British singers have had harsh words for Duffy. "We've had Amy Winehouse, so now let's have 10 of them and we'll train them up," said Alison Goldfrapp, the voice of arty popsters Goldfrapp. "That's what Duffy is. I think she's got an amazing voice, but she's been trained to sound like that. It was a business plan."

Some critics suggest that Duffy is to soul music what Norah Jones is to jazz -- pleasing to the Starbucks crowd, but a shadow of the real thing. This past spring, the Star Tribune's Chris Riemenschneider called Duffy the biggest loser at the trend-setting South by Southwest festival: "Her cutesy soul music (that should be an oxymoron) was reminiscent of Joss Stone's 2003 debut here."

Cities 97 DJ Brian Oake disagrees. He has been a big backer of Duffy, playing "Mercy" on his weekly indie/import "Freedom Rock" program for eight consecutive weeks during the winter.

"It didn't sound like anything else that was coming out," Oake said. "Even Amy Winehouse has a more modern vibe. Duffy seems more old-school, period. It's got a sultry vibe; it's a very funky song."

He understands the backlash from the British music media, which like to build up a newcomer and then tear her down when she reaches a pinnacle. But he thinks the issue of R&B credibility is misguided.

"I don't think the fact she's Welsh or white or 24 years old should be a knock on her," Oake said. "I think she's talented. I think 'Mercy' is a fantastic song, one of my favorites of the year."

Although Duffy played a few U.S. shows in the spring (including Harlem's Apollo Theater and the Coachella festival), she considers this her first proper stateside tour. In many cities, she'll sing at festivals with huge crowds, but she'll open the tour at Minneapolis' legendary First Avenue, which holds perhaps 1,500.

"It makes no difference whether it's 50,000 or 1,500," she said. "It's a group of individuals who've gathered for music. I try to think of it like that rather than the fear factory of 'Omigod, there's 1,500 people -- what happens if I mess up?' It's like trying to think of every kiss as your first kiss."

Duffy's first trip across the pond was a little daunting. In Austin, Texas, she said she was afraid to cross the road. "I was genuinely fearing for my life. And I had to ask these girls to come over and help me," she said with a beguiling giggle. "I was like an old woman. It was new to me."

Welsh 'Idol' runner-up

Aimee Ann Duffy comes from Nefyn, a fishing village (population 2,500) on Wales' western coast. Growing up without records in the house or even a record shop in town, she learned about music from the radio and her father's tape of an episode of the 1960s TV show "Ready, Steady, Go" featuring the Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Walker Brothers ("The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore"), Sandie Shaw ("Always Something There to Remind Me") and Millie Small ("My Boy Lollipop").

After her parents divorced (her dad still runs a pub in Nefyn) and mother remarried, Aimee started at a new school where, on the first day, the music teacher asked her to sing solo. A voice was discovered. At 19, she finished second on "WawFfactor," a Welsh version of England's "Pop Idol," singing sweet ballads in Welsh. (Go to YouTube and search for Aimee Duffy.)

A Welsh rocker introduced her to Jeannette Lee, co-owner of the landmark indie label Rough Trade and former bassist for John Lydon's (aka Johnny Rotten) Public Image Ltd. In London. Lee exposed Duffy to all kinds of new and old music and paired her with producer Bernard Butler, former bassist for 1990s Brit poppers Suede. As Duffy collaborated with Butler and several professional songwriters, four years passed between signing a contract and releasing "Rockferry."

The rookie was clever enough to come up with the 1960s-sounding "Mercy" and its "yeah, yeah, yeah" refrain (perhaps an answer to Winehouse's "no no no" in "Rehab").

"I was so frustrated in this situation with a boy and I wanted so much to do something but I couldn't, so I wrote a song about it," said Duffy of the hit, in which she begs her man to remove the spell he has over her. "It was like a big tantrum. I was screaming. It was a release from the horrible control that somebody had over me, this kind of power and temptation."

Amy, Dusty and Sir Tom

"Rockferry" has sold more than 1.3 million copies worldwide -- it was No. 1 in England, Ireland, Greece, Switzerland, New Zealand and Sweden -- before it was released in May in the States, where it debuted at No. 4.

Despite the impressive sales, the naive newcomer insists that she is more about art than commerce.

"I want to make a difference. I want to give something in this life, I don't want to just be a taker," she said. "I want to make music and try to search for beauty and quality and try and be honest and just be a good person along the way."

Because of her success with both art and commerce, the 2008 upstart is often compared to 2007 sensation Winehouse -- the Grammy-winning British siren who has a taste for mixing vintage soul, a modern vibe and too many vices -- and Dusty Springfield, a blond Brit who had a flair for understated U.S. soul music back in the 1960s ("Son of a Preacher Man," "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me").

Duffy, whose heavy eye makeup also evokes Springfield, bristles at both comparisons. With Winehouse, it's more about timing than style, she figures. As for Springfield, she says, "it's like a mysterious connection to the past that I just don't find for myself."

She'd rather talk about someone a little closer to home -- Welsh icon Sir Tom Jones.

"What does he mean to me? He means sex," she said. "It was very liberating. That was a Welshman doing that in the days when people were quite well-behaved, for lack of a better word. He was kind of cool, you know, he was kind of a bit punk. The guy is still going. He's still probably got the sex drive of a 21-year-old. He's a great bloke.

"I've never, ever met him. But I've got a feeling that introduction is going to happen."


Anonymous said...

Who now cares about what rubbish the critics come up with? Millions world-wide don't give a gnat's gonad about these corrupt commentators. They can go to hell.

The album Rockferry hit one million sales in the UK alone this week - so worldwide it must be approaching three million sales (500,000 in the USA after two months). And this less than five months after its release in the UK.

Millions of people worldwide are saying loud and clear: We love you Duffy, your voice and your music. And those trying to bring you down at every opportunity we simply laugh at for the media-scum that they are.

Bytor - down over said...

As a professional musician. producer and "real music" music fan, I must say Duffy is no where near being from the same old "pop tart" mold the mostly soulless media folks force her into. There are the idol pop tarts like your Spears, the Simpsons gals, Jacksons, Paris, etc etc, but this comparing Duffy to Amy Whinehouse is damn ridiculous - moronic at best. Actually, it makes me quite sick. I've heard tortured cats that sound better than Whinehouse - and looked way better too! Folks, in the real world there is no comparison here. Duffy took a few listens for me to get hooked - and it was her LIVE performances all over YouTube that did it. I really can't watch all that fake "MTV Video" versions of the tunes - very pleased to hear Duffy (Aimee Anne) also has a distaste for that sort of crap. This girl has soul, talent AND isn't really a cream puff, just a good old classy young lady.

Duffy is young and displays a rare musical gift; As she matures she'll forget more about soul music than drugged out Hollywood poll-dancer rejects like Whinehouse will ever know. Duffy has a class Whinehouse coud never achive given 100 life times. Good to see young true talent coming up, even if the commercial scum-bags smothers the public with pimped out street whores like Whinehouse. Duffy is music. Whinehouse is human debris. People with true musical taste know the difference and flush their toilets of "Rotton" scum regularly.

Hope to see her in America down in my area some time soon - (yes there are a lot of folks who love and would love Duffy here in the States!)

PS - Great fan web site!