Duffy comes from North Wales but has a voice straight out of Muscle Shoals circa 1967. The young singer has her fantastic debut single “Rockferry” released on December 3rd, and it’s got a great Southern Soul groove.
Produced by Bernard Butler, you can watch her in action on Later With Jools Holland tonight (November 23rd). With an album due out next year, and an extensive UK tour in the pipeline, 2008 may well belong to Duffy. Clash caught up with her for a quick Q&A just after she had finished filming her performance.
Jools Holland tonight, an appearance on mainstream TV with stardom awaiting. Nervous?
Blues isn’t really part of our culture in Wales
I am actually yes! That was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Nothing prepares you for that. You wait your whole life for something like that to happen, then you go through it so soon into your journey. I wasn’t emotionally prepared for it and it was really overwhelming but I enjoyed every minute of it.
Back to the beginning – when did you first start singing? From an early age or were you a late developer?
It’s always been a part of me but I’d never really announced it, I kept it quite private because I was growing up in the middle of nowhere in Wales. For years and years I never told anyone, until I was about sixteen and my friends started encouraging me. We’d go and bunk off lessons, being naughty and having a cigarette in the toilet, and they’d want me to entertain them. There were things in my life that made me feel I couldn’t tell anyone, so while its always been around being able to sing was something that I kept quiet.
You have a very unique, gritty style. Was this something you have worked on to develop, or did it come naturally to you?
My voice has always been there but in the past two years I’ve had to understand it a bit more. The truth is I have a different range that I can sing in and I think it comes through on record. I don’t think I stick to the one aspect of my voice, though – sometimes I’ll use a different part of my voice. I’ve come to understand my voice more, cutting away the rough edges if you like – though its still rough!
You’ve been compared a lot to Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield, both giants in their field – is this something you feel intimidated by?
Yes. I find it absolutely, mind-blowingly frightening! They’re just massive: for me, they’re the best of the best. Its just scary, I mean I’m at the start and they’ve had so much experience. If people say that in ten or fifteen years time I might be able to enjoy it, and feel that I’d earned it. But how could I ever live up to that right now?
Soul music is obviously a huge influence on your voice. How were you exposed to soul? Parents’ records collection?
No not at all! Blues isn’t really part of our culture in Wales, its more classic, in the sense of singing competitions. I didn’t really enjoy that, I got kicked out of the choir, you know – because I didn’t fit in – and that made me a bit more private about what I do. I obsess about soul, I love listening to obscure soul, where the delivery is quite painful and the song is deep and emotional. But I’m always learning about soul music, someone could play me an Aretha Franklin or Supremes song that I’d never heard before. For me, that’s quite exciting because I’m always listening, always learning.
The single “Rockferry” was recorded with Bernard Butler. Were you familiar with his music at all?
You know what – when I met Bernard I didn’t know who he was! He was just some guy in the office at Rough Trade, and the label introduced us. I had the song “Rockferry” and he fitted chords to it, and the more we worked together the more I thought “oh my God this guy’s amazing!”. My admiration for him has just grown out of appreciation for what he’s done for my life.
There’s been a long gestation period for this album, apparently it took over two years to write and record. How did your ideas change in that time?
…in the past two years I’ve had to understand it a bit more
Well at the start no one knew I was a songwriter, so I was having songs written for me which just didn’t seem right. It wasn’t until I was encouraged to write my own material that we really found out who I was. At the beginning we were searching to find out in what capacity I was going to make a record. Then we struggled a little geographically since I was living in North Wales, so a year was spend just trying to get things together. But about a year and half ago I moved to London and that time has been really, really productive.
I write alone sometimes. I write melodies, and sometimes the song, and sometimes go into the studio with the song fully written. Or sometimes I’ll just go in and we’ll have no idea, we’ll just try to see what happens. So there’s never any preconception before we go into the studio – though nine times out of ten I’ll have something up my sleeve.
There’s a clip on Youtube of yourself and Bernard rehearsing, with you singing the same line over and over. A personal technique, to get into the character of the song?
We wrote that song two years ago and we couldn’t remember it! We were at Edwyn Collins’ studio and of course we have to get it right first time because we were recording straight to tape. I couldn’t remember it and Bernard was trying to remind me, so we were both just humouring each other. And of course, in the end, the first take was was the one that made the record – so it was very much of the moment. I couldn’t even remember I’d recorded it!
“Rockferry” is a great single. What more can we expect from the album?
At first it felt un-natural to sing in a studio, but I focused and relaxed and in the end enjoyed the experience. I was working closely with Rough Trade, and at first I had little confidence, maybe a bit untrusting due to my experiences in the past. At eighteen I felt quite battered and bruised, I had done everything I could to get to where I want to go. But when I started working with Jeannette (Lee) I began to relax, and went on a journey of discovering music. I had never fallen in love, really, and had to discover what love was. I think North Wales is my version of Southern soul, because its really green and slow-paced which influenced a lot of my earlier songs. But as I got to the city, my tempo was upped and I felt a bit more strength in some areas. My songs became more about society. “Syrup and Honey” is about how people who love each other, family or otherwise, can’t find the time to be with one another. No one song defines me – the whole record does. I can’t wait to develop as an artist.
From what you’ve said the Rough Trade influence has had a profound affect on your career. How did this relationship come about?
Well Jeannette Lee heard me singing on some demos, then I went to the pub with Jeannette and Geoff Travis. They got me down to London, and I wasn’t sure who Rough Trade were! I didn’t know who Bernard was, I didn’t know who Rough Trade were, I didn’t know all this great music. We sat and hat a chat and it was an instant connection, really. I came down and did some recording, and it felt as if Jeannette wrote each song with me, she was so supportive. Some of the most special times in my life have been the days when I’ve phoned Jeannette and she told me she loved the song. They’ve supported and encouraged me so much that without that I don’t think I’d be the person I am today.
Are you set for a tour next year? Any Scottish dates?
We’ll be doing loads! Actually, I’ve just got my diary through its amazing, we’re going to be so busy! We’re starting in January and doing a residency at the Pigalle club, in London. Last year me and my friends stumbled onto Prince’s backing band playing there, and I was swear it was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. It was like Detroit in 1958! The band were amazing, people were on stage it was mind-blowing. Ever since then I’ve been desperate to play there, its the closest thing to Detroit in London.
Finally, favourite soul singer?
Bettye Swann. So sensitive yet so strong, the perfect combination.