Duffy takes an unexpected diversion on the road to second album’s release
If you believe in fate to engineer a situation that is just meant to be, then Duffy’s new album is a potent reminder of how life can move in mysterious ways, as Dave Owens discovers
ON my desk sits an iPod nano. It’s one of the smaller models in Apple’s impressively bewildering range of MP3 players.
Nothing remarkable in that then you would think. Except it contains a solitary album and one that a certain Welsh singing star’s record company is praying will emulate the success of her multi-million selling debut.
The security surrounding Endlessly, the hugely anticipated second album from Duffy is so tight that no advanced promotional copies of the album are available to the press.
Instead, ahead of my interview with the soulful chanteuse, I’m allowed a listen to the 10 tracks that constitute her much vaunted return on the aforementioned iPod.
This veil of absolute secrecy is a sure sign of Duffy’s rapid fire ascension to superstar status and indicative of a record company wanting to protect one of their prized assets, an artiste who raked up six and a half million sales of her stunning debut Rockferry.
Duffy laughs when I recount the story of her record company’s overly protective approach.
“Well, it’s good that people are looking after my best interests,” she giggles, in that delicate Welsh timbre that has become her trademark. “I guess I haven’t spent time working on my new album for it to become digital public property before it’s even out there.”
Sadly, the iPod’s delivery isn’t accompanied by two burly guards flanking the prized possession, however on first listen to the MP3 player it sounds like she’s struck gold again.
While not drastically rewriting Duffy’s winning soul pop formula, it does showcase several new sides. In the midst of the pomp of string-laden soul and the stomp of sassy brass there are stripped back acoustic numbers and songs that pulsate with electro beats.
But it’s a shock to discover that there was a point when Duffy wasn’t sure she even wanted to make another record.
“I thought about walking away, I really did,” she explains. “Not because I thought I’d done it. It’s just that I missed the simple things in life. Life had got so complicated.”
The girl from Nefyn on the Lleyn Peninsula, who had grown up singing for regulars in her father’s North Wales bar, had been propelled into a hitherto unknown world of stardom on both sides of the Atlantic, and a whirlwind touring schedule which meant she had little idea what country she was waking up in from one day to the next.
“One incident that has stayed with me is trying to speak Spanish on a French TV show. That was embarrassing as I didn’t know I was in France,” she recalls. “At the end of that cycle (of touring Rockferry) I needed to be reminded of what I was here to do.
“I forgot for a while what my job was, what my role was. I’m not a model. I’m not a celebrity. So who am I? It all gets so complicated. Holding onto your integrity is really difficult.”
Getting off the promotional treadmill that saw her dizzying elevation to the pinnacle of pop stardom, Duffy needed to take a break, to step back and evaluate her next move.
Unsure how to progress and what her next move should be, fate intervened in the unlikely form of 66-year-old Albert Hammond. Or, more precisely, Albert Hammond’s wife.
“He was in his house in LA one day and his wife went ‘Albert! Albert! Look at this girl on TV, she sounds like a black woman!’ And he looked and went ‘Oh my God’.”
Duffy is gleefully retelling the story of how the genesis of Endlessly came to be, still smitten by the memories.
London-born, Gibralter-raised Hammond is the father of Albert Hammond Jnr of New York indie icons The Strokes.
He’s also the songwriter famed for penning such classics as The Air That I Breathe (The Hollies), When I Need You (Leo Sayer), Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now (Starship) and One Moment In Time (Whitney Houston).
More importantly, he hadn’t been involved in the music industry for a decade, but when he saw Duffy singing Stepping Stone on US show Saturday Night Live he was intrigued.
“He asked to meet and I had no idea about his background,” says Duffy. “He said, ‘I’ve got this song title Don’t Forsake Me.’ I said, ‘That sounds like the soundtrack of my life’!”
“At that time in LA, there were always massive parties,” she adds. “So I had a choice, I could either go dancing with Hollywood or go and hang with Albert, So I went to Albert’s house, and his wife made me tea.”
Despite his legendary status Duffy wasn’t perturbed. Hammond had worked up some music for Don’t Forsake Me, but the Welsh songstress knew her own mind.
“He’s 66, he’s the most esteemed songwriter and I had the balls and the audacity to start ripping it apart,” she laughs. “I look back and think ‘How rude!’ But I knew this was a song that reflected some elements of my life. Albert was like, ‘Brave kid. Well done’!”
Incredibly, underlining the bond between the two, ideas and songs flowed quickly.
“We did a few days in LA, a week in Spain, a week in London and it was done swiftly,” Duffy recalls. “We had these songs and in my heart they sounded so charming on acoustic demos. And that is what I needed to hear.
“No complications. You know, there is such a thing as working too hard, when everyone does too much you can kill something. But this was just Albert and me having fun.”
Hilariously, given the age difference, it appeared that a rejuvenated Hammond was having more fun than 26-year-old Duffy.
“It was 4am, I remember looking at him thinking, ‘You’re 40 years older than me. I do not know where you get your energy from’. He’s dancing around and I’m thinking this shouldn’t be me being the disciplinarian, it should have been the other way around.
“I’m like, OK, focus, ‘Albert, I know you’re dancing, but what we need to do now is record the second verse’!”
An intriguing adjunct to the album’s creation is the addition of Philadelphia hip hop icons The Roots to the playing roster.
Spotted by Hammond and recommended to Duffy, she was astonished that the hand of synchronicity was again on her shoulder.
Four years earlier she’d walked into London’s Jazz Café and watched the same band DJ. She’d been blown away and given Roots founder Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson a CD of songs that became her mega-selling debut.
“Albert insisted I phone LA Reid (the boss of Island Def Jam Music Group of which Duffy’s US label is a part) and ask for a favour. Could he set up a meeting with The Roots?”
In keeping with the rapid fire recording process, it was arranged within 48 hours.
“I said to Ahmir ‘I gave you a copy of my CD all those years ago – you never called me back’. He said, ‘I’ll dig it out now!’
“It was almost as if it was always going to be done this way,” Duffy adds. “All these songs had been welling up inside me for years.
“Now I’m just looking forward to being amongst people again and hearing myself in the background of their lives, whether in the car, in a disco or on in your living room!”
How about following up such a hugely successful album as Rockferry, does this cause Duffy sleepless nights, I wonder.
“No not really, you can’t be so cruel on yourself,” she muses. “I’ve never really thought about that. You have to think in the moment and not worry about the past or the future. The rest of it is in the hands of the gods.”
Endlessly is out on Monday, November 29. A single Well, Well, Well is out this Monday.