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Duffy: The Welsh songstress reveals how she nearly gave up her career
By Louette Harding (YOU Magazine, Mail on Sunday 6th Feb)
It is a frosty day and at the draughty house where we are on location for our photo shoot, Duffy is wondering whether we can light the oven and leave its door open for a bit of extra warmth. ‘My mother used to do that,’ she says in the soft lilt that comes straight from her home town of Nefyn, North Wales.
She sits down at the kitchen table, chattering away. ‘My dad ran the constitutional club – like a working man’s pub – in Nefyn, and with it came a house just across the way so he could run to and forth. The club was the hub of the community and really busy.
Then a year ago he decided to retire and the house was gone within a weekend. I never got to say goodbye to our beautiful wooden table like this one, where my mother changed our nappies, where my sisters and I cried about various boys, where we got drunk the first time, had our first cigarettes. When my parents divorced [in the mid-90s] I remember writing on the wall behind a curtain in the hallway, “I love you, Dad”, because I didn’t want to leave him. I remember thinking, “One day, Dad will find this message.”’ And did he? ‘Yes. I think he was quite emotional, because when he painted the house, he painted round the wording. And now the house is gone!’ Her saucer eyes widen, her hand flutters.
In person, the 26-year-old singer-songwriter has the same hunger to express an emotion or conjure a scene as she does in her evocative lyrics. It seems incredible that after her 2008 platinum debut album Rockferry – and its new-classic hit single ‘Mercy’ – she considered walking away from music. ‘Life had got so complicated. I found it difficult to operate in the music industry as a 25-year-old woman. I couldn’t make a decision because apparently I was very “tired” and “emotionally drained”. And what am I doing my job for? I’m not doing it to be adored or admired, to make money or be successful – I’m doing it to do something of excellence.’ She says this with childlike earnestness. ‘So I did think, “Maybe I won’t do this at all.”’ Instead, after a split from her former management, which she nevertheless insists was amicable, she teamed up with veteran producer Albert Hammond (who wrote classics such as ‘The Air That I Breathe’ and ‘When I Need You’) and released her second album, Endlessly.
A year previously, she had got together with Welsh and British Lions scrum-half Michael Phillips, who grew up in Carmarthen. ‘There are just so many things about us that are similar,’ she says. ‘And he makes me laugh. He’s devilishly handsome – and cheeky – and I just enjoy him so much, like a treat,’ she says, and my mind flies to one of the tracks on Endlessly called ‘Lovestruck’, which is about irresistible sex. ‘Hmm. There are elements of Michael in that song,’ she says, coyly. Michael stated in an interview that he has never been so happy. ‘I have the dream job and the dream girl,’ he declared. Is it the same for her? Characteristically, she swerves the easy answer to express the honest nuance.
‘It’s different for him, because he’d seen me in the press and had been telling his friends for years I was the girl for him.’ Really? ‘Yeah – going, “That’s my girl!” He said he bought Rockferry and knew that I needed him.’ She giggles. ‘But it’s different for me because I met him in almost a chance encounter [about which more later]. He was waiting for his moment.’
It’s easy to see why this blonde pocket Venus would haunt a young man’s dreams. She exudes both girlish frailty and kitchen-sink lustiness. She comes from a long line of glamorous women, though her mother Joyce put in a hard shift in the club. ‘To this day people say to my mum – although it must seem condescending – “You must have been gorgeous when you were younger.” My mum has olive skin, black hair, blue eyes, hourglass figure. My favourite part of the day was at 6.30 in the morning. Mum would be up cleaning the house in her high heels and skinny jeans and cashmere jumpers and my sisters [Kelly and Duffy’s twin Katy] would be asleep so I had that unadulterated adult moment with my mum, having breakfast together.’ Duffy (christened Aimée; Duffy is her surname) was a bit of a misfit, ‘totally overweight’. Did it bother her? ‘It worried my mum.’ Meanwhile, Katy was down the arcade shooting video opponents in her Bros T-shirt. ‘She tried to make me cool but I never will be.’
Duffy says her vivacious parents’ marriage was ‘an odd coupling’ that fell apart under the stress of three children and the 1990s recession. Joyce reconnected with a childhood sweetheart and fled Nefyn with the girls to be with him in central
Wales. They are still together. ‘I remember her packing her things on to the back of this truck and by the time we got to Pembrokeshire, she only had one high heel, one half of a twinset – everything had blown off the back. Months later, we still expected to see some of her heels by the side of the road when we went back to Nefyn to see my dad.’ She laughs. ‘It felt like the four musketeers embarking on an adventure. I commend her for that.’
Now, as a poetic lyricist, Duffy is grateful for the move to an English-speaking area when at ten she spoke only Welsh. ‘My friends would not be able to sustain a conversation in English at this level. My English would have been broken, my accent really strong, so I don’t know if my songwriting would have been any good.’ At the time, though, it was tough. Her stepfather’s alcoholic first wife lurked in the background, bitter that he had obtained custody of their four children, Duffy’s new step-siblings. When she offered an acquaintance money to kill him, the police bundled the whole family briefly into a safe house, which Duffy found ‘claustrophobic’. Dawn Smith served three and a half years and died shortly after her release.
Duffy airily says ‘Who knows?’ (I get the feeling she is cautious about trampling on her
step-siblings’ feelings here) when I ask how much this sense of threat contributed to her growing unhappiness. She says mainly she was miserable in her shared bedroom in the centre of nowhere. At least Nefyn was within reach of Liverpool. ‘I wanted to be closer to a place where I could make music. And there were nine people in our house. In my dad’s house there was just him and he was barely there, so I had room to walk around singing and not get laughed at.’
Plus, he was going through ‘a second youth’ with a girlfriend and parties for which ‘he let us stay up late’, while Joyce banned her girls from going to bars and discos like their friends. ‘Go when you’re 18, in your prime, not when you’re 15 so all the boys get used to you,’ she argued, dodging the real issue with a euphemism. ‘She wanted us to preserve our – I don’t know – our introduction to the world,’ Duffy says. ‘Well, I wanted to be introduced earlier.’ So she sneaked back to Dad’s – ‘My mum and I didn’t speak for months’ – and partied with reckless abandon. ‘From 15 to 18, I did everything from body piercing to going on 48-hour binge-drink beach parties, to stealing someone’s boat late at night and rowing it from one place to another when we were drunk, to jumping on a milk float at 4am for a lift home.’
Joyce’s side of the family were tutting sadly over this. ‘A lot thought I’d made a tragic mistake.’ One aunt told her she’d end up a single mother on benefits. Duffy’s album track ‘Keeping My Baby’ is sung from the point of view of a pregnant girl, and it’s only while we’re talking that Duffy makes the connection between the lyric and her aunt’s unfulfilled prediction. Her lyrics sometimes mystify her. Only recently, she worked out that another track, ‘Too Hurt to Dance’, was about her best friend during her years in Pembrokeshire. ‘She’d lost her mum aged ten. She told me they played “Unchained Melody” at her mum’s funeral. I now realise my lyric comes from seeing my friend at the school disco, shaking, her face in her hands, while the other kids were smooching to this song.’
Duffy is too easily hurt to this day. As a singer and writer, she wants to retain her sensitivity but is wounded by every barb aimed her way. ‘I wish I had an alter ego but there is no separation.’ She puts her trust in her intuition and seems to have a firmer sense of self than she did when her previous managers discovered her, aged 20, when she was singing in clubs after achieving second place in Welsh television’s version of The X Factor. Her iron-filings-and-velvet voice was her obvious talent, but they also recognised that she was a talented songwriter who needed slow-burn guidance over four years, culminating in Rockferry. ‘I was crudely ambitious, nervous, insecure yet confident, and they helped me find who I was and how I was going to introduce myself to the world,’ she says.
Her idols have tended to be famous singers or famous blondes who ended badly: Edith Piaf, Marilyn Monroe. ‘They weren’t happy-ever-afters,’ she broods. But now she is fixing her hopes on Julie Christie, ‘successful and happy for years with her partner. There has to be a balance. I have to believe in that.’
So how did she meet Michael? ‘He was doing a British Lions tour. At the end, the organisers asked the players what they wanted – a trip to the Caribbean or whatever – but Mike said, “I would love it if you could organise a date with Duffy.” And then I got a note which said, “We represent Michael Phillips and he has asked if you’d like to go on a date.” I’ve had a few of those. I’m not going to lie and pretend this came out of the blue, but because he was Welsh, I YouTubed him. He was doing an interview for the Lions and he was giggling. My friends egged me on, by the way, and my sisters. So I rang him and said, “Is this Michael? It’s Duffy.” And the first thing he said to me was, [deep voice] “Oh, ****ing hell!” I said, “Is this inconvenient?” I thought I could handle myself but I just crumbled. I put the phone down and then I rang him back. I said, “I messed that up. Can we start again?”
‘Anyway, we met the day after his birthday. I was so nervous, I went round the block five times. I’d picked this quiet restaurant in West London. I’m friendly with the owner. She opens the door and says, “Duffy! I put him upstairs!” So I go upstairs and I look at him and I had this feeling like, “Hello you; hello again.” We didn’t eat a single thing all night so after a couple of glasses of champagne we were smooching, sitting outside covered in quilts [I’m imagining a roof terrace], and we didn’t leave till 3am when he got a taxi back to Cardiff. And that was it. Without sounding corny, the closest I’ve got to a home is Michael. When I’m with him, my shoulders drop and I can breathe.’
He lives near Cardiff Bay and it sounds as if she is more regularly there than at her own new house in London, which she tells me is just ‘a place to put my bags’. Her sisters live close by, though, and Katy acts as her factotum. ‘She organises my life, takes my dog for walks, listens to me, reassures me. We’re like a little partnership though we’re not alike one incy-wincy bit.
‘I need great people around me,’ Duffy adds, talking partly about the pleasure of collaboration on Endlessly. ‘When you write songs, if you’re open and honest and trustworthy, there’s a sense of liberty. When you make an album you take these songs like treasures in a satchel, or a bag of magic, and collaborate with a large group of people.’ She says she was just a girl when Rockferry launched. ‘I don’t think I’m so vulnerable now. It was as though I used to long for life and now I have life; the participation has made me shake off the girl.’ And she adds firmly, ‘I’m not here to be a Barbie doll; I’m here to make music.’