IT WAS A CRAZY YEAR for Aimée Duffy. Virtually unknown last Christmas; Number 1 album in March; a bit wobbly in the summer as the year went surreal; and now it’s all hobnobbing with Whoopi Goldberg on US chat shows. And yet, it all started four years ago, as the former Mawffactor (ie. Welsh Pop Idol) runner-up hooked up with Rough Trade management maven Jeanette Lee and the journey to Rockferry (the album, not the place) began. Here, in an extended mix of an interview that appears in the current MOJO magazine, the Welsh soul belter gives Lois Wilson the lowdown on how she penned Mercy, the album’s centrepiece, all-conquering hit single and MOJO’s song of the year.
How did the song come about?
The record was almost finished, it had taken four years to put together. I’d been working with this very tight-knit team; there was me and [manager] Jeanette Lee and then songwriters Bernard Butler, Eg White and Jimmy Hogarth and I’d spent these four years reflecting on just what kind of record I wanted to make, because once it was out there it was how I’d be defined. I’d said a lot but I really didn’t think I’d said everything. I felt something was missing and Mercy was that missing thing. We were writing it literally at the end, when the strings were being put on Rockferry and Warwick Avenue.
How did you meet Steve Booker, who co-wrote the song with you?
It’s funny. I was looking at a flat in Ladbroke Grove and he was living in the flat. His friend answered the door, this amazing woman, she asked me what I did and when I told her I was a singer she said I must meet Steve as he was a songwriter. We went for coffee and I had this gut feeling that we should write together. I asked Jeanette what she thought and she just said, we’ve made this record so go and have fun, be creative. By the end of hanging out in the studio for two weeks we had Mercy and Stepping Stone.
Which came first, the lyrics or the melody?
I’d already written the lyrics to Mercy, it was like this melodic poem in my mind, which I just had to get out, and I knew exactly what I wanted it to sound like. Steve was very patient. He sat at the piano and put chords underneath it and we built the song from the bottom up. It’s very important that my songs start from an organic source, rather than a drum loop. You can dress it up how you like but at the end it’s about the strength of the song, the melody and the words. The lyrics were about having a feeling towards someone, whether it’s a romantic feeling or just some chemistry that you don’t want, and you desperately want to be released from that feeling. I’m very cautious about saying what a song is about, it’s my issues and baggage and when someone else listens to the song it isn’t about my baggage anymore it’s about their baggage. I don’t want Mercy to become more about the situation that inspired it than the song. The song does the talking.
Was it always the intention to write what could be called a soul song?
I never have a plan as that always fails, I learned that in the first year of putting pen to paper. I just try to be spontaneous and open, because if I’m trying to get something it won’t work. You have to see every song as a new day, don’t think what you’ve done before or where you’re going to go now, you just have to live in the moment. I don’t call myself a soul singer. I’ve no idea what I am. If I had to write a CV I’d be useless, I’ve no idea what I’d put.
Why do you think the song has found such universal appeal?
Everyone is searching for liberty in some way, from themselves or from the world they’ve created around them. Everyone would like to be set free and so they can relate.
What do you think of the many remixes of the song?
It was so fascinating to see people picking up on it, taking it and creating something from it for their genre. My favourite version is by The Roots – that was the one that blew me away. It was amazing, as I’m such a huge fan…
Best thing of 2008?
Meeting Whoopi Goldberg today, which was unbelievable. She’s an absolute quality great bird. We were both on this US TV chat show called The View and I don’t usually get starstruck but she’s a legend and she was totally up for a laugh. She gave me a hug and I thought, This is something I’ve got to tell my mum about. Usually I’ll call her: ‘I’m in Japan, it’s brilliant,; ‘I’m in New York, it’s raining.’ I give her the weather report and what I’ve eaten that day, but now I can tell her about Whoopi.
You know, if I moaned about anything I really think I’d deserve a big slap because, hand on heart, my friends are happy, my family is alive, I’m alive and happy, there’s nothing to complain about. People deal with a lot of hardship and pain, and I’ve got to see a lot of the world. It hasn’t been easy at times, but nothing’s been bad.
And your best track of 2008?
MGMT’s Time To Pretend. I’ve seen them play live quite a few times and they’re amazing and the record has such great production and interesting lyrics and brilliant melody, everything that makes a great song. I think we’re seeing the new Kings Of Leon and new Arcade Fire here. It’s very exciting to listen to them.
Interview by: Lois Wilson