By: Cara Carriveau
Duffy Biography from her official Facebook page
Number 132 fifth avenue is an address with a certain ring to it, but the location for Duffy’s photo shoot turns out not to be a swanky uptown Manhattan apartment block, instead this is Fifth Avenue W10, and we’re in a poky, unoccupied, end of terrace house in suburban west London, it’s interior apparently untouched since the seventies.
This is a world of vinyl and Formica, wood chip and linoleum. Two up two down and as the time of writing on the market for a £500,000.
“To be honest, I grew up in a house like this” Duffy says, “You come here and you laugh and go, ‘ooh, how kitsch” but my dads house in Wales is exactly like this. The skirting boards still look like that. It’s only a small minority that live in the slick modern world.”
As of just the other day, Duffy has herself joined the small minority. She is 2008’s chart sensation, a small girl with a big voice whose blue-eyed pop-soul has been inescapable since the beginning of the year “I’m starting to get a grip on it”, she says of her new founded fame ‘A few weeks ago I had a weird feeling where it was all too much. And I just thought ‘I can do this’, and that I’ve got nothing to winge about”.
The shoot finished, we’re talking in a small rather forlorn, upstairs bedroom, Duffy punctuating her conversation with drags on a Marlboro light, flicking breath into a shot glass half-filled with clear liquid.’ Hope its not sambucca’- she says, her accent a creamy Welsh, “don’t want to set the house on fire”.
She confesses to having felt daunted by the prospect of posing for Vogue. “I don’t really understand anything about fashion,” she says. “I’m a little bit out of my depth”. But she assures me, she’s enjoyed herself much more than on other shoots she’s been on. On one occasion a stylist offered her PVC cat suit to wear “I was like ‘are you kidding me’? Have you seen these lady lumps”?
A mile a minute chatterbox, immediately warm and conspiratorial, Duffy is pretty and perky with Bambi eyes and a Bardot pile of blonde hair. Lady lumps notwithstanding, she’s a delicate little thing, an almost-24-year-old who could comfortably pass for only just 19.
She’s just finished having her make-up done, for a night out with the girls, and changed into jeans and a stripy top. “I don’t know much about labels,” she confesses. “As long as you look good…”
The story of how Duffy got from there (a small house in tiny Nefyn, North Wales) to here (top of the pops)- has already been the subject of much myth-making, and when the facts don’t quite fit the legend, it’s customary to print the legend.
But Duffy would like to make some minor alterations. Legend has it that Duffy grew up so insulated from contemporary culture that her only exposure to pop music was an endlessly replayed VHS recording of the groovy sixties TV show Ready Steady Go!
This theory neatly explains her apparent musical preoccupation with the mid-sixties and the rather demure, period-appropriate look of her album cover and videos (take your pick of references there’s Julie Christie in Darling; early Marianne Faithfull; even a fair-haired Cathy McGowan of Ready Steady Go!).
All of which would be fine and convenient, if it were accurate. In fact Duffy has no idea if it was Ready Steady Go! or some other program on that tap.
She does know that The Rolling Stones were playing, and that she was transfixed by the singer. “Very kissable lips”, she offers before asking me to point out that it’s Mick Jagger Circa 1965 that she fancies, rather than his current incarnation ‘That would be a bit weird’.
But the video doesn’t tell the whole story. “I did hear other music,” she says, slightly incredulous. “I wasn’t totally cut off, I like Eighties pop. I like David Bowie,” She hums ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ as proof. Rockferry, her enormously successful album, has been routinely described as “timeless”, which is perhaps another way of saying “retro”- and certainly a debt to the British female singers of the Sixties is evident.
Duffy has been likened to Sandie Shaw, Petula Clark and Lulu, but the most relentless comparison has been with Dusty Springfield, another panda-eyed white-blonde torch singer with husky vocals.
On the other hand, it also can’t have escaped many people’s notice that Duffy (not Dusty) has archived extraordinary popularity in the wake of a similar triumph for Amy (not Aimee) Winehouse, another young British singer with a revivalist style and sound.
” If it’s not (Winehouse) then it’s the new Lily (Allen) or the new Corinne Bailey Rae, says Duffy.” I’ve had it all, I’m the new everything. I’ve been called the new Britney Spears. Like,what? I’m just me”.
Has she met Amy Winehouse? “ I have met her, but I don’t know if she met me, if you know what I mean.”
All this might come across as rather churlish, but Duffy’s success has not been overnight, and her career has not plotted simple path from precocious schoolgirl singer to pop star. Her childhood and teen years were “chaotic”. Her parents, John and Joyce, divorced when she was 10 and she moved from the seaside with her mother and siblings (she has an elder sister Kelly and a twin, Katy) to Letterston, Pembrokeshire- “a beautiful place, but really remote”- where they lived as part of a large extended family, with Joyce’s new husband, Philip and his children from a previous relationship.
The tabloids have had some fun recently with several stories about this period in Duffy’s Life. “Voice from Heaven, Family from Hell” bugled the Mail on Sunday recently, ready as ever to welcome a new British talent generously into the fold, when it discovered that Philip’s ex wife was jailed in 1998 for plotting to murder him. All of which was too much for Duffy, and after five years in Pembrokeshire she moved back to Nefyn and her dad, who runs the local constitutional club.
From 15 to 19, as well as working at the club and in various part-time jobs, plus attending college in Chester, she was trying to break into music, singing in local bands.
She paints a rather happy, not to mention frustratingly opaque, picture of this time. “It was just me and my dad,” she says. “He was out working every night. I’d cook and clean and go to college or my day job. I started getting boyfriends, a lot of them into drink and drugs. I was quite extreme, I had piercings and short hair. I did a lot of things in my teens that I really regret.”
At various stages during her teenage years she became involved with older men- “always older men”- who promised they would further her career.
“It was dangerous really. Everything was always going on around me. All bullshit. All these people were trying to control me at every stage, and I was always trying to run away from them. I just wanted to play a part in music. That or die trying.”
In 2003, to her everlasting embarrassment, she entered a Welsh language TV talent contest, Wawffactor, and came second. “That was a nightmare,” she says now. “The saga of getting through every week. You didn’t even win anything at the end!”
Her big break in music, however, came when she was introduced by a fellow musician to Jeanette Lee, the co-founder of the fabled indie record label Rough trade, Lee became Duffy’s manager, this introducing her to Bernard Butler, the respected producer and former Suede guitarist.
On their first day together they wrote “Rockferry”, the album’s lustrous title track. In October, it will be four years since that day.
Duffy has been allowed an almost unheard of ‘grace period’ in which to home her craft. The result is that, under the tutoring of Butler and Lee, she has matured into a confident and accomplished young woman. It’s only when discussing the details of her private life that Duffy becomes a tiny bit reticent.
She will allow that she lives in North London with two cats. And she’s happily single. “I’ve got this thing which my dad calls the glad-eye,” she says when I ask if she’s looking for love. And she offers a saucy raised eyebrow in demonstration. “Like I’m looking through the shop windows. Having fun.”
For the moment, much of her charm still derives from her wide-eyed, small-town enthusiasm. But Duffy is nobody’s fool.” People ask me, am I naive?” she says. I’ve been in London for two years. I’ve had time to grow up a lot, I understand a little bit more about the world now. It’s not like I just won the lottery and here I am.”
What does she think she’d be doing now if she hadn’t been lucky enough to meet Jeanette and Bernard? “I’d be doing this,” she says definitively. “I can’t do anything else. If I wasn’t sat here today, I’d be biting my nails in Wales.” Pause. “That rhymes!”
I tell her it sounds to me like a ready-made lyric. She doesn’t look too convinced. Duffy doesn’t need any help with the songs, thanks very much.
By Alex Blimes.
Cara’s Basement (Official): http://www.carasbasement.com/
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