On the soul rollercoaster
Singer Duffy is riding high, writes Andrew Murfett, but don't mention Dusty.
AIMEE Anne Duffy is tired. Sitting in her room at the Sydney Hilton after another photo shoot and another interview, she sighs. However, it's but a momentary lapse by the measured 24-year-old. By the time she's handed the phone for her fifth consecutive interview, she is composed.
She will sit patiently and again answer questions about Nefyn, the tiny Welsh village five hours from London where she spent most of her childhood. She will listen politely as yet another journalist likens her to Dusty Springfield. And, for the fifth time today, she will be asked how a white girl from northern Wales has the audacity to sing soul music.
Duffy has spent the past 18 months travelling the world; she could count on one hand her days off last year. The relentless touring schedule included 15 trips to New York from London.
Still, it's all been worth it — her debut album, Rockferry, was the biggest-selling album of 2008 in Britain, selling more than 4 million copies worldwide.
She played a triumphant gig at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, won a Grammy last Monday, and her single Mercy was covered by everybody from John Mayer to Bon Jovi.
When Duffy previously visited Australia two years ago, it was to see her backpacking twin sister, Katie. She was unknown then but Rockferry, five years in the making, was already the product of a marketing machine that would result in huge sales.
She now lives a transient lifestyle, and returns to Australia next month for the V Festival.
While she is seemingly one of pop's most polite superstars, her soulful voice and steely demeanour suggest more is at play. She has developed a thick skin; she is neither jovial nor easy-going.
Her childhood in Wales was not straightforward, and the British tabloid press has ruthlessly scoured her formative years for signs of scandal. (The best they came up with was when Duffy's stepfather's ex-wife tried to hire a hitman to murder him in 1997. Duffy, then 13, and her family were placed in a safe house for a night while the woman was apprehended.)
Today, as long as each interview is bookended with a five-minute cigarette break, Duffy will be fine. She has smoked sporadically since she was 12 years. There was little else to do growing up in Nefyn (population 2000). She recalls spending time with her two best friends in her dad's shed, lighting up and telling "spooky stories". (She reluctantly admits it might partly explain the timbre of her remarkable voice.)
Music, as it goes, is still kind of new to Duffy. She admits to not growing up a music fan, and had no access to a record store, or even a computer. In her teens, she appeared on Wawffactor, a Welsh Idol-style television contest in which she finished second. She recorded a three-song Welsh-language EP that Spin magazine described as sounding "more Evanescence than Dusty in Memphis".
"There were so many things that happened in my life before I became public about my records," she says, warily. "I made peace with everything I did (before the record came out). It's what you do today that defines you, and I won't dwell. I've no regrets. I've stopped apologising about things now."
Following her ill-fated TV stint, she studied in Chester and began singing part-time at a club while demo-ing songs, one of which landed on the desk of Jeanette Lee, co-owner of indie label Rough Trade.
The demos came from Welsh musician Richard Parfitt, who had taken Duffy under his wing.
"He let me sleep on his sofa and looked after me when I really needed somebody to lean on," Duffy says. "He's a key part in my story."
Lee, though, was instrumental in Duffy's success, introducing her to musicians and songwriters, and she remains her manager.
Duffy returned to northern Wales to begin work on her album. Lee drafted in Suede guitarist and producer Bernard Butler, whom Duffy had never heard of.
The two bonded quickly. She would travel by train to his London home, and Butler would pick her up each day at the tube station.
As part of her musical education, she bought an iPod, onto which Butler loaded the likes of Millie Jackson and Dave Godin.
"It was critical, because he gave me a taste for it," she says. "He didn't give me reams of records, but he gave me little tasters."
Butler later told Spin that if it was the only record he made in his career, he'd be a complete man.
Yet Duffy faces criticism that she is little more than a brand; a manufactured pop singer who, like Adele, was created by her record label to cash in on Amy Winehouse's retro-leaning sound.
"I think soul is an emotion, not really a genre," she says. "To be related to soul shows there is an element of honesty in what I do. I still listen to soul as it was when it was a genre, when it belonged to a time where it was originating from black Americans: Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin. Today, it's about honesty in music.
"Radiohead is soulful because there's something about the musicality that really gets to you."
She describes playing a show at soul's spiritual home, Harlem's Apollo Theatre, in reverential tones.
"Most staff have worked there for 30 years," she says. "There's not one person there that's not aware of what the building stands for. You can feel it as soon as you walk in through the corridors. You meet a cleaner or a security guard and they will tell you a story about James Brown or Aretha. It's a museum," she says. "The dreams still lives on. Kind of like a time warp."
The popular perception of her resemblance to Dusty Springfield is a sore point. Last year, anybody interviewing Duffy was asked not to cite the likeness.
"It shocked me at the time, actually," she says. "Maybe people think they're searching for her today in music, and it was a timing thing. Dusty can't be replaced, so that was a difficult thing for me, because I respect her as artist."
Comparisons aside, it's been a salubrious ride. Her first post-Wawffactor TV gig was Jools Holland's Hootenanny on New Year's Eve 2007, with Kylie Minogue and Paul McCartney. The first time she heard herself on radio was in a cab a week later in Paris. (All she understood from the DJ's announcement were the words "Duffy" and "Dusty Springfield").
Q magazine in January 2008 named her as the "Artist to Watch" for the year. Yet, despite the charmed run, Duffy says she has beaten some serious odds: "There were things I was keen to get rid of or overcome."
"The fact I was from Wales. That I had never made a record before. And just my awkwardness as a person. It's been scary. I had to battle to improve myself. There was also an element of serious decision-making — do I want to make an indie record that will sell a few hundred thousand copies, or go global and make this thing go all the way?
"I wanted to give these songs a chance to travel and go as far as possible. I couldn't rest on my laurels."
Part of that has been developing that thick skin. The first big-name act to bait her was Estelle, who launched a tirade against both Adele and Duffy last year. "I'm not mad at them, but I'm wondering, how the hell is there not a single black person singing soul?" Estelle said. "As a black person, I'm like, 'You're telling me this is my music? F--- that!' "
Alison Goldfrapp was similarly harsh: "Great, we've had Winehouse, so now let's have 10 of them and we'll train them up. That's what Duffy is. She's got an amazing voice, but she's been trained to sound like that. It was a business plan."
When these quotes are mentioned, Duffy clenches her teeth and takes a deep breath.
"I have a motto, actually," she says. "The things that people say say more about themselves than they do about others. So you should just bear that in mind and relook at those quotes, and you might find something very interesting."
Duffy plays The V Festival on April 4. Rockferry is out through Universal.