Duffy is back. After The Grammys (nominated for three, won for Best Pop Vocal Album), The Brits (nominated for four, won three including Best Album), 6.5 million sales (virtually unheard of these days), not to mention going to Number One all over Europe and properly cracking America, it would have been reasonable to think she might return with ‘Rockferry Part Two’. In fact, she’s done nothing of the sort. Released this November, Duffy’s remarkable second album, ‘Endlessly’, shows several new sides to one of our most successful soul singers. “I’m not the same as I was back then,” she says. “I was just a girl back then.”
‘Endlessly’ simultaneously showcases songs that are more uptempo and dancefloor-friendly than anything the 26-year-old from Wales’ Llyn Peninsula has done before, as well as stripped-back, acoustic-led numbers that feature Duffy at her most philosophical. “At one point I thought ‘is this going to be an indie record?’” she laughs. “That’s what it was beginning to sound like.” Lyrically it’s more empowered, heartfelt and worldly-wise, but also saucier (‘I’m his lover/ Not his mother’ are the first words we hear) and more fun. “I think one can be a little bit afraid of being frivolous with music, of being tongue-in-cheek,” she says. “Sometimes it really is just about having fun.” But she hasn’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater – the sweeping strings and the sassy brass we know from ‘Mercy’ and ‘Warwick Avenue’ are still on there. But this is very much ‘Chapter 2’. Ten songs recorded in three weeks with esteemed songwriter Albert Hammond (famed for such mega-hits as ‘The Air That I Breathe’, ‘When I Need You’, ‘It Never Rains In Southern California’, and others) and performed by The Roots, it’s going to surprise people.
Remarkable, given that Duffy wasn’t even sure she wanted to make a second album. “I thought about walking away, I really did,” she says. “Not because I thought ‘I’d done it’. It’s just that I missed the simple things in life. Life had got so complicated.” By the end of months on the road touring ‘Rockferry’, becoming properly famous in America, doing The Grammys, even having a Welsh daffodil named after her – Duffy was at a crossroads.
“At the end of that whole cycle I need 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, you know? Having anything you want... It’s really unhealthy.”
Unsure how to progress and what her next movements were to be, fate intervened in the unlikely form of 66-year-old Albert Hammond. Or, to be more precise, 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 was performing ‘Stepping Stone’ on Saturday Night Live. Hammond hadn’t been involved in music for a decade, he hadn’t wanted to (perhaps he figured he’d leave that to his son, Albert Hammond Jr, of The Strokes) but he was intrigued. “He asked to meet. I had no idea about his background once again (similarly she didn’t know Suede when she met Bernard Butler). And he said I’ve got this song title ‘Don’t Forsake Me’. I said ‘That sounds like the soundtrack of my life’.
“Around that time in LA, there were always massive parties,” continues Duffy. “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.” Hammond had worked up some music to his ‘Don’t Forsake Me’ title, but Duffy wasn’t so sure (here’s one singer who certainly knows 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,” Duffy 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’.”
From then on the songs came quickly – remarkably so, given the four-year gestation period of ‘Rockferry’. “We did a few days in LA, a week in Spain and a week here [London] and it was done swiftly” Duffy says. “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 it was Albert and me having fun.”
Half the time it seemed that Albert was having more fun than her. “It was four in the morning, 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; he’s championing everything. It shouldn’t have been me being the disciplinarian! It should have been the other way round. “I’m, like, okay: focus: ‘Albert, I know you’re dancing, but what we need to do now is record the second verse!’”
The two became firm allies. Albert’s wife even chipping in with fashion advice – approving, as she was, of Duffy’s demure, 1960s-influenced, wardrobe. “She says to me, ‘I like the long skirts’,’” Duffy says. “When they turn on the TV, people of that generation, they’re not used to seeing pop stars with no clothes on. They find it quite offensive!” she laughs.
Along the way Albert had spotted another musical inspiration on the Late Night With Jimmy Fallon show (“I think he must watch a lot of TV,” giggles Duffy. “It’s where he gets all his ideas from”), a band HE was unfamiliar with. She feared the worst. “I know his son’s in The Strokes, and he’s probably got good taste, but I thought they were going to be some Nashville ‘dang-dang-dang’ band!” In fact, the group on TV were Philadelphia hip-hop legends The Roots – widely regarded as one of the greatest live bands going. Duffy was stunned. Four years ago she’d walked into London’s The Jazz Café with Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis and watched the same band DJ. She’d been blown away. She’d even given Roots founder Ahmir ‘?uestlove’ Thompson a CD of ‘Rockferry’. So Duffy (after Albert’s insistent prompt) called up LA Reid – “ 2am, with my hand shaking on the phone!” – the boss of Island Def Jam Music Group, of which her US label Mercury is part, and asked for a favour. Could Reid set-up a meeting with The Roots? Within 48-hours it was arranged. Duffy and the band hit it off immediately. The Roots’ tight live sound, a world away from the machine-driven pop that makes up most of the Top Ten these days, was the final piece of the ‘Endlessly’ puzzle. “I said to Ahmir ‘I gave you a copy ‘Rockferry’ all those years ago – you never called me back!’ He said ‘I’ll dig it out now!’”
You might not have put Duffy together with The Roots but then you might not have put Duffy together with Albert Hammond, either. To be truthful, neither would she. Yet together they’ve come together to make a remarkable record – a more-than worthy successor to ‘Rockferry’. A record that’s not going to alienate any of Duffy’s old fans, but is going to win her plenty of new ones, too.
“It was almost as if it was always going to be done this way,” Duffy says, wide and blue eyed. “All these songs have been welling up inside me, all these years. And we did it. I just stuck with the Godfather of songs, my friend Albert”.