This article appeared today at WalesOnline.
Duffy: I’m borderline on a nervous breakdown
Sep 27 2008 by Gavin Allen, Western Mail
Behind her big smile, the girl at the centre of 2008’s biggest showbiz hurricane is feeling stressed to the point of being overwhelmed. In an emotional interview, Duffy reveals to Gavin Allen the worrying depth of her struggle to cope with success
IT’S just after lunchtime on a Tuesday afternoon and in his mind a London cabbie is honing the details of his night’s work.
“You’ll never guess who I had in the back of my cab today?” he will ask, tossing up the ball for a conversational serve, “That Duffy bird,” he’ll brag, smashing a trump anecdote past his colleagues for a bar room ace.
Aimee Ann Duffy is indeed in the back of his cab but his interaction with her is limited, barring a request – which he refuses – to stop so she can grab a coffee on the way from her flat in London’s upper crust SW1 to the studio where she is rehearsing for her forthcoming tour.
“It’s chock-a-block with beeping horns,” she sighs frustratedly, explaining that the car is inching its way through congestion-charged midday traffic.
Duffy is eager to arrive at the studio because she has “a list of things to do as long as my arm”.
“I’m not feeling very calm,” she admits.
“I’m never really calm any more.”
It’s impossible to overstate the speed and strength of Duffy’s rise in 2008, from an all-but-unknown singer in January, to scoring a No.1 single in February, a No.1 album in March and becoming a million-seller by the summer. And next month she will support Coldplay on their US arena tour.
This is the real deal. The kind of all-consuming, eye-exploding, soul-sucking, mega-fame that 99.5% of celebrities desperately pretend to be caught in.
Her success comes from three things – great talent, great management and her own perfectionism, although the third of these means she is having problems relaxing these days.
“I just need to get things right because if I take my finger off the pulse I immediately feel the quality isn’t as good,” she explains.
“I don’t know if other people pay attention to the things I pay attention to because I don’t just rush around feeling like the so-called ‘pop star’ that I am.
“I pay attention to all the nitty gritty stuff but there are so many dimensions to it.
“It’s a full-time thing I have on my hands. I can’t just turn up, sing and then go to bed.
“I have to be so hard on myself. I’m my own worst critic.”
Few singers will ever tell you they have an easy ride of it. Those who are getting money for old rope want you to believe they are busy with all kinds of important decisions while those who are actually very busy tend to wear it on their faces and tell you all about it with a tired tone.
Duffy has discovered the latter of those options to be true and the ferocious level of industry required to satisfy the demand for her voice has come as a surprise to the girl herself, even if everyone in the industry was expecting it.
“There is a lot to it that I didn’t originally think of,” she admits.
“It’s not the physical amount of stuff, it’s mental.
“I used to pride myself on being footloose and fancy free, always having a smile on my face, but I have to be a bit more tough and I don’t know if I can be that sort of person.
“I still feel like a little girl in the middle of quite a tough thing.”
At 24, Duffy is certainly no little girl, but says she is not yet a woman either, so it’s no surprise she feels overwhelmed. Hurricane Duffy has blown everyone away.
When her debut single Rockferry was released in December it went to number 45. Decent, but not earth-shattering. However, the second single, the evergreen and buoyant Mercy, razed the ground before her.
In this digital age, when single sales are through the cellar floor and into hell, Mercy shifted more than 450,000 copies and was No.1 in 10 countries. It also met with critical acclaim winning the Mojo Awards Song of the Year. It pumps through the speaker of every coffee shop, aeroplane and lift in the land; and if it’s not that, it’s her other hit, Rockferry.
Mercy hitting No.4 on the US Billboard chart was the biggest American debut in her label’s history and the album, also called Rockferry, went on to shift nearly half a million records in a market where barely any UK acts crack America. Coldplay managed it, but only after two albums.
Duffy doesn’t have three equally innocent band mates with whom to share the experience though. She is a solo artist watching the wind rage around her and is struggling to control it. And she is doing it in the glare of a public eye that sees her differently to how she sees herself.
The fact that she was recently named Sexiest Woman in Wales by this very magazine amuses someone who has previously teased herself with the nickname Scruffy Duffy.
“Phil Spector once said everything is about timing,” she retaliates. “Relationships, business politics or whatever – and I agree.
“I don’t think I am the most attractive woman in Wales, it’s just because I’m doing my thing right now.”
It is a typically Duffy answer to a question, dismissing a compliment with self-deprecating charm, sense and an undertone of thwarted confidence.
Yet, while this magazine has clearly recognised her girl-next-door appeal, some London publications have been sniffier, picking up and running with that ‘Scruffy Duffy’ image.
A recent interview with the Daily Mail described her thus: “It’s clear she has been having a tough few days. Her face is puffy, she hasn’t bothered to wash her dyed-blonde hair, and she looks desperately tired.”
The singer is unconcerned by what some clearly see as a lack of effort for them, even though it is more indicative of her beguiling lack of ego, and says her everyday image is not something she considers.
“To be honest I don’t really hold myself as a young woman who is aware of herself like that,” she says, sounding slightly confused as to why she should be.
“I don’t really care. I don’t walk around thinking about what I look like.
“But I know other people do and it’s a bit strange.
“Sometimes you are walking down the street and you realise you have become a character that you have created.
“Sometimes you can look in the mirror and think, ‘Oh, that’s me.’
“You are so internal you forget that externally there is still a person there that other people see.”
Her public image is just yet another thing Duffy has to contend with and it’s something she finds awkward, saying: “I do struggle with confidence, I don’t feel a confident person” but her transition to woman is subject to scrutiny by hi-definition TV cameras, intrusive photographers lenses and harsh journalistic eyes.
“I still feel I am a little girl of 18 or 19 and I can be quite a shy little girl but there will come a point, with all these things I have to focus on, when I have to become a strong woman,” she says.
“I can’t always be that passive little girl whose favourite word is ‘Yes’.
“I’ve got to be a strong woman who knows how to say no.
“I have to learn not take any s*** from anyone anymore.”
Her transformation from wide-eyed North Walian naïf to continent-straddling artist is being aided by the woman who has been at her side since before the fame began, her manager Jeanette Lee, who has been planning how and where the hurricane would make landfall – and how her girl might survive it.
Lee was introduced to Duffy in August 2004 by two of her former charges from the Welsh scene – Owen Powell of Catatonia and Richard J Parfitt of Newport band 60ft Dolls – who had recognised her talent.
You would think it was easy to put your finger on such a stunning voice, that everyone would see it, but not so. She may have dropped her first name and started called herself Duffy at the age of 19 but success certainly didn’t come quickly for her.
As a singer she was introverted, perhaps wall-flowered by a childhood that saw her parents split up. She was thrown out of her school choir because her huge voice didn’t fit in – a big blow to the confidence of a girl who has previously said was scared of her own talent – and later when she took part in the S4C talent show Wawffactor she could only finish second.
Duffy also admits to being naive about chasing success, not knowing how or where to aim. Post-university she recorded with various small-scale projects and gigs while doing odd jobs – waitressing and working in a fishery – and was going nowhere until she met the savvy Lee.
Lee was one of the many mothers of punk fashion thanks to her time at influential clothes shop Acme Attractions and went on to perform in PiL alongside The Sex Pistols’ John Lydon.
This was before she ran the independent Rough Trade Records with Geoff Travis, a label which among others has looked after The Smiths, The Strokes and The Arcade Fire. It also used to be home to another set of powerful Welsh lungs, those of Cerys Matthews.
Duffy, who hails from Nefyn, on the Llyn Peninsula, is signed to A&M records, an offshoot of Universal, but Lee, via Rough Trade management, is her industry mother, and the pair have grown very close as Lee’s guiding hand has helped to keep Duffy’s decisions shrewd and sharpened her instincts.
Duffy is effusive in her praise for Lee calling her, “An amazing woman who I am blessed to know and work with”.
She goes on: “People talk about there being a big system around me but it is just the two of us in this project.
“We are two peas in a pod and we agree nine times out of 10.
“We are the only two that understand what this project is all about.
“She doesn’t give her time to anything else. I can’t tell you how lucky I feel.
“I was talking about her last night, about how she has been teaching me. She has taught me so much about being strong but still being graceful, being strong without being masculine.
“But also, when I first came to London, I would be talking to any old Tom, Dick and Harry and telling them everything, and I have to learn to not give so much, to keep something back.
“It’s me and her against the world.”
Working from that small base of two, the weight of work falling upon the singer’s slight shoulders because of her exceptional success is ever-increasing, from performances, writing and recording, to interviews, promotional work and approval of everything, from song mixes to artwork.
So which one of these has got her feeling so stressed out today?
“It’s just one of those days when you have to approve a load of stuff. Do you ever have one of those?” she asks innocently.
But as well as the volume of work she also has to cope with the level of her fame, something she is finding increasingly difficult.
“When people recognise me it’s usually like talking to an old friend from Nefyn,” she chirps, before recounting the tale of how she happily stood at an airport arrivals lounge chatting to a male fan who had recently seen her perform in Italy.
But she also recounted a more overwhelming experience from that Italian tour.
“I walked into a restaurant in Italy and there were 30 lads in there chanting at me. I have no idea what they were saying but they were lovely. The people at the restaurant gave me such a welcome too and you can’t really fault it, they meant no harm whatsoever,” she says, although there’s a big “but” clearly pending.
“But you are in jeopardy in those situations.
“It can be a scary situation when there are 15 lads on one side of a pub and a gang of girls on the other, and they all want a photo when all you want are a couple of drinks.
“It’s not normal and it can make you feel very isolated in a large crowd.
“I’m still a normal human. I’m not a brain surgeon or (the person who) sent the first rocket into space but you have to handle that from the beginning.
“I have sold my soul and I’m no longer anonymous, but I have to remember that the majority of people are good.
“They just want their kid to sit on your knee for two minutes and have a squeeze and if I let myself be afraid of it I won’t...” her voice trails off and she abandons the sentence.
Her next statement hangs uncomfortably in dead air, the way only a telephone silence can.
“It would be very easy to become a recluse.”
The timeworn path of celebrity is that you explode with success and then implode with the pressure that fame brings. Cynical industry minds will be expecting Duffy to follow suit – even if not to an Amy Winehouse degree – because over the years celebrities have found few ways to cope with the pressures of fame outside drink and drugs – or a hermit-like retreat.
I tell her that for the first time in speaking to her (we have spoken previously) she sounds afraid of the future rather than excited by it.
“The scary thing is that this feels to me like just the beginning,” she agrees, before making a worrying admission.
“I’m borderline on a nervous breakdown.”
That is a headline-making quote in any interview so I ask her if she means it. Isn’t that just an exaggeration or turn of phrase?
But she reiterates it.
“I used to make music when no-one had heard of me and there was nothing else going on in my life,” she continues.
“As a girl I thought I was super-human but there are pressures about being public in what I do.
“All the doubts I have are of myself.
“Can I handle this? Do I want to disappear?”
Duffy is clearly under immense pressure from her bursting diary but more so from her ringing conscience and expectations of herself, feeling that she owes every single person who has bought her album the opportunity to see her live, and if that means travelling to Italy or America or anywhere else then so be it.
She thinks about what she has just said and answers her own question.
“It would be wrong for me to disappear,” she asserts.
“I have to go and play for the fans. It’s not about selling the product, it’s about doing it right for the people who have bought it.
“I can’t not go to Italy because I have to live up to it (the album).
“And the way the record sold in the US, I want to go there and follow that up too. I don’t just want to sell records, so many people just sell records.
“I want to make my music exist as a living thing.
“I spent 80% of my time in the US playing s*** holes, and when I say s*** holes I mean it. Two thousand tickets sold but the toilets don’t have a seat on them, or they don’t have a shower – and I flew a long way to be there.”
In October she will tour the US again, on her own headline dates and as support to Coldplay before returning in November for a European and UK tour taking her back to Wales with a date at Newport Centre on December 7.
If she is nearing the end of her tether now then surely three months of touring isn’t going to help her pull back from whatever brink she feels she may be nearing.
So I ask the big question: “Are you happy being ‘Duffy’?”
“Happiness is something very personal,” she supposes.
“I have different days and emotions, but music helps me to feel happy. I think that finding happiness is searching for all the answers in life, relationships, security, passions. I write music to help unravel these answers.
“You are just a person. You try to make the best of something. It’s really not easy to stand there in front of people and sing a song you just wrote because you felt like singing.
“It’s so all-consuming and all I am is one girl writing songs.
“You stand there thinking ‘Wow, this thing that I created is changing so much of who I am’.”
It sounds to me like Duffy is in need of a long break, that disappearing somewhere for a few weeks or even months would be a good idea and I suggest her success means she has the means to take as long a holiday as she wants, with the whole of Nefyn in tow if she so desired.
“I don’t know,” she says, referring to her financial situation.
“I don’t know if I can afford to buy a new pair of tights, I just do it.
“But maybe for Christmas we (her and her family) can go on a big holiday, and buy a big turkey from M&S instead of Aldi this year.”
Duffy, who says her sole extravagance has been a classic 1956 Cartier watch, is looking forward to the end of this year, closing out her transatlantic tours to return home and reconnect with the things she misses about home.
“I miss going to the fish and chip shop, going to the beach, seeing my mates and being able to speak Welsh and have a pint of Guinness in the local.”
With those home comforts an exiled memory at the moment, Duffy is immersing herself in her work, driving herself back into that vicious circle of pressure.
“In that respect I’m my own worst enemy,” she groans.
But it is the creative process that enlivens her and it has provided respite from the grind.
While we speak she is en route to the studio where she is working on material for a deluxe double album edition of Rockferry.
It is set to be released next month featuring new songs and B-sides that have become necessary because she is being asked to headline major concerts with only 10 album tracks at her disposal.
“Ten songs isn’t enough any more, I need more,” she explains
“We never thought it would go to this level, headlining and being able to fill venues. I thought it would be an easy introduction to the world for me.
“But its been great to go back to being creative and that has been a tipping point for me, recording, being in the studio until 4am, like a mole.”
She promises the deluxe edition of her million-selling debut album will feature, “Nothing half-arsed” – she thinks it will be the original album plus a bonus disc of eight to 10 other tracks, which will include the likes of her recent cover of Paul McCartney’s Live And Let Die.
It will also feature a new song called Rain On Your Parade, something which she wrote around three months ago.
“What’s it about?” she repeats with a mischievous little snigger.
“You might see a little bit of the woman that won’t take any s*** in it.”