Duffy, the soul queen with steel
She topped the UK charts, cracked the U.S. and sold seven million albums. She also won a Grammy, three Brits and an Ivor Novello before buckling under the strain.
At least that was the story. It was a good one, too, casting our heroine as a wide-eyed innocent from the Welsh seaside who failed to cope with fame. The only problem was that it wasn’t actually true, those impressive sales figures aside. Duffy is a tough cookie and took success in her stride.
One tough cookie: Duffy insists she hasn't been tortured by fame and clams she has been ruthless
Now 26, the singer from Nefyn, Wales, is happy in her personal life — she has been with boyfriend Mike Phillips, the Welsh rugby star, for over a year — and is about to make her musical return with new single Well, Well, Well and her second album Endlessly.
Reports of her fragility, it seems, have been exaggerated. ‘It’s something I deal with,’ she says, speaking with a strong Welsh lilt. ‘People think I’m a vulnerable little girl sent around the world like a puppet.
‘They think I’ve been tortured by fame. But I knew what I was getting myself into. I’ve never said this before, but I’ve been ruthless. I moved away from home and never looked back. People see this 5ft 3in blonde and think I’m not in control. But I’ve had to make some big decisions.
‘Why do we always reduce pop stardom to doom and gloom? I’ve had the time of my life. I’ve shed a few tears along the way, but no one should feel sorry for me.’
Duffy pauses, before reflecting: ‘Maybe it’s part of the package. I’m a sensitive singer. Maybe you can’t have that without people expecting some baggage.’
There is certainly plenty of sensitivity on Endlessly, which stays faithful to Duffy’s blue-eyed soul roots. In the two years since her debut album, Rockferry, the UK charts have been taken over by machine-engineered pop and electro-driven rap. Duffy didn’t even think about joining that club. Her love of retro-soul and classic Sixties pop was too strong.
‘I don’t fit in with the electro movement, so I’ll just have to stand by what I do,’ she says.
Despite that, her new album, out on November 29, pushes her sound forward. Tracks like Keeping My Baby and Well, Well, Well have familiar, brassy flourishes, but the swirling, disco-pop of My Boy and the saucy tone of Lovestruck are a sassy departure.
As with her debut, though, it is the ballads on which Duffy shines: Breath Away and Don’t Forsake Me could become signature tunes to rival 2008’s Warwick Avenue.
The biggest surprises come with her choice of collaborators. Veteran British singer-songwriter Albert Hammond co-writes, while acclaimed Philadelphia hip-hop act The Roots provide a tight, funky backing.
The latter, widely seen as America’s best live dance act, have already had a busy few months, backing John Legend on his new album Wake Up!, but Hammond, 66, has been out of the limelight for over a decade.
Best known for his 1973 hit The Free Electric Band, his only recent claim to fame is the fact he is father to Albert Hammond Jr., guitarist with indie-rockers The Strokes. So, what prompted such an unlikely pairing? According to Duffy, Hammond ‘intercepted’ her career after catching her on U.S. show Saturday Night Live.
‘I hadn’t even been thinking about my next move, but he saw me and made the call. He is the age of a pensioner, but wears a leather jacket.’
The partnership got off to a rocky start. ‘We met and had a drink, but I wasn’t taking in what he was talking about,’ says Duffy. ‘He was rambling on. Then he mentioned a song, Don’t Forsake Me, and the title stuck. I immediately wanted to write it with him. So, the next night, I went to his house in LA. His wife made me a cup of tea and told me she liked the way I dressed. She said I wasn’t like “those girls on MTV in their bikinis”.
‘But, after Albert played me the song, I went away and wrote my own melody. He couldn’t believe I had the audacity to rip his song apart — but it had to be a reflection of my life.’
That life has taken Duffy from an itinerant childhood in Wales, where she was born Aimee Duffy, to Hollywood and London. Raised on the Llyn Peninsula, she moved with her mother and sisters to South Wales when her parents divorced, only to head back alone to her father when she was 16.
Her pop career has been equally nomadic, incorporating a year working with a songwriter in Switzerland and an appearance on a Welsh TV talent show. But, if her 26 years have been a roller coaster, Duffy’s unorthodox journey is reflected in her artistry and her drive.
‘I can’t explain why I’m so single-minded,’ she says. ‘Maybe I’ve been running from something all my life. I can’t explain why I left home. All I know is I’m still searching.’
Well, Well, Well is out as a single on Monday. Duffy’s album, Endlessly, follows
on November 29.