Duffy: living the dream
Growing up in north Wales, Aimée Ann Duffy dreamt of being a singing star. When success came suddenly, it brought adulation, awards and a call from Hollywood
It is a gloriously sunny afternoon as I walk to the west London studio where Duffy is mixing her new album, but by the time we sit down to talk, the weather has shifted into one of those sudden, almost tropical end-of-summer storms.
So with the rain lashing against the windows, we start talking about our childhoods, and those days in the holidays when you want to go out to play but you are cooped up inside, and cosily, luxuriously bored.
For me, it was books that opened up a different world on rainy days. For Duffy, it was always music. Her twin sister, Katy, and their older sister, Kelly, would find something to amuse themselves, while she would settle in front of the radio, listening to the Our Tune feature on Radio 1.
'All these romantic stories about the troops away at war – it would break your heart!’ she says, dreamily humming the Our Tune theme. 'Then they’d play something like Scott Walker or Otis Redding, and I didn’t know anything about this music, but it would take me away, in my imagination. I’d be looking out at the rain in Nefyn, north Wales, but then there was this music that transcended anything that I’d ever encountered before. It was different from the choirs of the Eisteddfod and from the hymns at school. It was so raw, with the crisp voices of the Motown singers or women like Patsy Cline – who were singing about a place lifetimes away from where I was sitting in the rain.’
Her family didn’t have a stereo at home, and she didn’t grow up surrounded by music. But Duffy always knew she wanted to sing, to be part of the world those voices on the radio inhabited. 'I was born a singer,’ she says firmly. 'I didn’t belong to anything, and I needed to belong to the place I’m now in. It was like being a young fledgling that knew it could fly, but it can’t get off the ground yet. It was torturous.’
A small coastal village on the Llyn Peninsula, Nefyn has a population of 2,600, although in the summer these numbers are swelled by tourists, so there were always new faces to flirt with in the holidays. Her father, Jon, still runs the Constitutional Club, the pub that forms the heart of the community, and Duffy describes it as an idyllic place to be a child.
'We’d play on the beach all day, and the ice cream van would come round every day. It was safe, and we were so free. We had this whole town to run around, and everybody knew each other. When people ask how I’m handling fame, I say it’s really no different to living in a small town – everybody knows who you are.’
But if you were growing up with ambitions to be a pop star, it must also have seemed very isolated. 'Yes, I was desperate. I used to cry. And I didn’t know why. What did I want?’ She pauses. 'But then I still don’t really know what I want. I just take every day as it comes.’
Aimée Ann Duffy is tiny – a Kylie-sized 5ft 3in in her little black ballet pumps – with long, blond hair and such a lyrical turn of phrase that it’s easy to forget that English is her second language. Today, she is wearing a demure grey pinstriped skirt, a black twinset, and the pallid complexion of someone who has spent most of the summer in recording studios. 'We were here till three in the morning yesterday,’ she grins. 'Look at my studio tan!’
I’d assumed that Albert Hammond, her co-producer on Endlessly, her new album, would be there overseeing things with her. But it’s just Duffy and the mix engineer, and it is clear from the rapport between them that she’s not flitting in and out while he works. She’s a perfectionist, she says, and couldn’t imagine leaving her music to anyone else.
'Wouldn’t it be amazing to wake up in the morning, have a cup of tea, sit there with the dogs and have a cigarette with my bathrobe on? Then I’d just roll in, and the song would be finished. But for me, this is all I care about. I keep a tight rein when it comes to quality control.’
She plays me a handful of finished tracks, bobbing up and down in her chair while they play. Fans of her debut album, Rockferry – which has sold an astonishing 6.5 million copies worldwide – won’t be disappointed. These tracks feel more mature, and also more raw – some of the vocals are still the demos she recorded on her iPod – but they still have the same sassy, soulful pop hooks.
The first single, Well, Well, Well, is an instant classic like her 2008 breakthrough hit Mercy: a stomping, Northern Soul-style pop song you’ll hear once on the radio and feel you’ve known all your life.
Her fame came suddenly, when she was 23. Mercy went to number one in 10 countries, and went top five in the US charts. She was on planes all over the world, doing interviews and talking about her overnight success. 'It was difficult, because people thought I was born that day, you know? But there were a lot of trials and tribulations to get there.’
The tribulations began with her parents’ divorce, when Duffy was 10. Soon after, her mother, Joyce, reconnected with a childhood sweetheart, Philip Smith, and moved with her daughters to his home in Pembrokeshire.
'My mum was really hot,’ Duffy says fondly. 'She looked like Helena Christensen. She’s always been totally stylish, really strong. People love her. So she was always a big personality in the town. And of course, her leaving was quite scandalous. We left in the night. But she made it seem like an adventure, a new beginning.’
Soon after they were married, Duffy’s new stepfather won custody of his four children from his ex-wife, Dawn, an alcoholic. 'It was like, “OK, here are your siblings. Now you must love them.”’ There were fights at first, Duffy says, and money was short. But in the end they all rubbed along.
'Kids are brilliantly resilient. All you want is a toy, a Mars bar, a good television programme on to watch, and a little bit of fun. And we had a dog. A huge alsatian called Sly. We used to go rambling into the fields all day long, and the dog would come with us. She was our best friend.’
She says 'we’, she stresses, because she went through none of this alone. She and Katy are not identical twins, and their characters are very different, but they were always in it together. When they were 13, the family was taken briefly to a police safe house because Dawn had tried to hire someone to kill her ex-husband.
She was eventually sentenced to three and a half years in prison, and she died in 2002, not long after being released. 'Children take it as it is. They don’t over-think it. They don’t care. It is what it is. Life was a roller-coaster, and you just held on tight and took it as it came.’
Their new home was only 150 miles from Nefyn, but it was in an English-speaking area, and as well as adjusting to a new family and new lifestyle, she also had to cope with speaking a new language. She still finds Welsh, with its more limited vocabulary, more relaxing to speak.
'In Welsh, you can’t misread anyone. The simplicity of the language means you don’t really get any hidden meaning, any inflections in the words or ambiguity. I became more complicated when I started to take on the English language. I’d spoken and thought in Welsh until I was 11. And suddenly I had to shift.
'It was a blessing in disguise because I now write my songs in English, and I can engage properly and communicate in English. But I couldn’t even read it until I was 11. Although the moment I started doing English, I excelled in it. I’d get all my teachers saying, “If only you didn’t go behind the bike sheds and smoke and miss lessons, you’d actually be really good at this.” I didn’t take education seriously because I always knew what I was going to do, so to me it was just passing the time. I stuck with it for my family.’
Nefyn was only a train ride away from Liverpool’s music scene, but from her new home in a remote part of west Wales, it took five hours even to reach Cardiff. When she was almost 16, Duffy packed up her things and ran away back to Nefyn, to live with her father and pursue her dream of making music. 'That was ballsy,’ she says now. 'Although it hurt my mum, and I regret that.’
In the next few years, she did her A-levels and started a degree course in Chester with the amorphous title 'Culture’, although she dropped out in her second year. There were numerous bands, songwriting partners, one-off projects.
In 2003 she entered a Welsh television talent show, Wawffactor, and came second, releasing an EP of dreamy Clannad-style Welsh songs the following year. She had a residency singing in a jazz club, worked in her father’s pub and as a waitress, and grabbed every opportunity that came her way to make music, even though that meant 'dealing with a lot of slimeball weirdos who wanted to exploit me’.
Her breakthrough came when she was introduced to Geoff Travis and Jeanette Lee of the indie label Rough Trade, who became her managers. They gave her some money, and sent her away to write songs. 'We worked for four years before the album even came out. They were cool. They gave me Betty Swann and Van Morrison records, they had young staff who wore skinny jeans. I was able to really find myself.’
It is sometimes assumed that Rough Trade not only managed Duffy, it also created her. She says this isn’t so. Mercy, she points out, was written with Steve Booker, who lived on the same street in Nefyn. 'They were like, “Go on, make the record you want.”’
Last year Duffy parted company with Travis and Lee. She is generous in her praise of them and vague about the reasons. 'When I met them, I was a girl,’ she says. 'We made a great record together, but then as we went through the journey, I realised that I wasn’t that girl any more.’
Her creative partner on the new album is Albert Hammond, a New York-based British singer, songwriter and producer whose songs have been performed by the Hollies, Leo Sayer, Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson, as well as having hits in his own right with songs such as It Never Rains in Southern California. He is 66, Duffy is 26, but she describes him as one of her best friends. (One of her other close friends, incidentally, is her hairdresser, who is 59.)
After calling LA Reid, the head of the Island Def Jam Music Group, of which her US label Mercury is a part, and asking him to intervene on her behalf, she also managed to secure the acclaimed Philadelphia-based hip-hop outfit the Roots as her studio band. Four years ago, she laughs, she went to the Jazz Café in London to see them DJ, and handed one of them a CD with a demo of Rockferry on it. 'He probably used it as a Frisbee or something!’
A while ago, Duffy got a call from Hollywood. She won’t tell me the name, only that it was 'a big director, one of the biggest’. He was offering her a film role, but she wasn’t ready, not yet.
She has, though, taken a small part in a Welsh language film, Patagonia, which is making its debut at this month’s London Film Festival. It tells the story of a young Welsh couple on a road trip in Patagonia, where there is a small Welsh-speaking community, and of an elderly Argentine woman who goes to Wales in search of her roots, taking along her young nephew, who ends up having an affair with Duffy’s character.
'It was paying respect to my past, because I used to be a misfit like her.’
Duffy must be fairly wealthy by now, but she is not one for showing off. When she won three Brit Awards at the start of 2009, she didn’t go out on the town afterwards; she went to stay with her friend the hairdresser, sleeping on her sofa. This friend has been her rock, she says, the person she called at 3am when she was out on the road alone.
She gave one of the Brit Awards to her mother, and the other two are locked up in a chest in her house in one of the greener suburbs of London, with the Grammy she picked up the same year.
'I didn’t want to keep them on display,’ she says. 'It feels a bit much.’
I ask what indulgences she has allowed herself, and she says she has bought two beagles, called Georgie and DC. The day she first heard Mercy on the radio, in Paris, she also bought herself a vintage Cartier watch to celebrate. She had 'Rockferry' engraved on the back, and now she has bought herself 'a more modern and twinkly’ Chanel watch which she plans to have engraved with 'Endlessly'.
But in general she doesn’t go for designer clothes because of her petite build, preferring to sew her own or have them made for her. She doesn’t drive – 'I’m dangerous!’ – so she hasn’t bought a car. And she doesn’t consider her house in London her home. 'It’s a place I go to. Home is wherever my suitcase is.’
She still goes back to Wales every couple of weeks, and I suspect it is no coincidence that her boyfriend, the Wales rugby star Mike Phillips, grew up 20 minutes away from Nefyn. They have been together a year, and she is clearly smitten.
'We speak Welsh to each other. And we think we might have met when we were younger. From our first date I really felt like he was the one for me. And we’ve been inseparable since. He’s so chilled out. He’s the coolest guy on the planet. Completely in control of his life, and really strong. He’s so steady. He keeps me safe.’
At one point, she tells me about going to New York to record her album earlier this year. On the way into Manhattan from the airport, she started talking to her driver, telling him her life story. They were getting on so well by the time they reached her hotel that he parked up and they carried on chatting.
She didn’t think she’d see him again, but one night he came to pick her up from the studio in the early hours, in a stretch limo. He’d driven it to a premiere earlier, and kept it on for her. 'So we went round New York, beeping the horn, people waving, with Albert and me sticking our heads out of the window. And I looked at Albert and I said, “I’ll remember this for ever.”’
She is so full of joy telling this story that it almost seems churlish to point out that if she wanted to, she could afford a limo every day.
'Yes, but I don’t really do flash things,’ she says.
'I remember when we were 18, me, my sister and all our mates in Nefyn, we hired a limo and took it round Caernarvon and Bangor. That was a big deal. We spent all our birthday money, every penny of it. We all put it in together, six of us girls, and one bottle of champagne between us. It was amazing! We had it for the whole night.’
She likes the good things in life, but not all the time. 'Don’t get me wrong, I love brandy, and cognac is my fave. But I don’t want it every day.’
'Well, Well, Well’ (A&M) is released on November 21, the album 'Endlessly’ on November 29