Duffy’s laughter instantly filled the phone.
“I just had the weirdest moment ever,” blurted the newly minted British pop star, who had been on hold, listening to recorded music as her record-label rep connected the call. “I’m singing to myself on the phone.”
How did she sound?
“To be honest, I thought the sonics were a bit off,” she said. “I thought it suffered a bit on the bottom end. But overall, I was quite pleased.”
The much ballyhooed 24-year-old newcomer is playful, innocent and disarmingly honest. Those qualities have been useful in combating the detractors who question her R&B cred and bemoan her rise to No. 1 in England with the retro soul smash “Mercy” and the album “Rockferry.”
“I’m not too precious about things, you know,” she said from Barcelona, Spain, where she was wrapping up a European tour two weeks ago.
“I can’t be something that I’m not. You don’t have to love my record, that’s fine. I know I’m going to grow and I’m going to explore many things. We all change.”
Some British singers have had harsh words for Duffy. “We’ve had Amy Winehouse, so now let’s have 10 of them and we’ll train them up,” said Alison Goldfrapp, the voice of arty popsters Goldfrapp. “That’s what Duffy is. I think she’s got an amazing voice, but she’s been trained to sound like that. It was a business plan.”
Some critics suggest that Duffy is to soul music what Norah Jones is to jazz - pleasing to the Starbucks crowd, but a shadow of the real thing. This past spring, the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Chris Riemenschneider called Duffy the biggest loser at the trend-setting South by Southwest festival: “Her cutesy soul music (that should be an oxymoron) was reminiscent of Joss Stone’s 2003 debut here.”
Cities 97 (cities97.com) DJ Brian Oake disagrees. He has been a big backer of Duffy, playing “Mercy” on his weekly indie/import “Freedom Rock” program for eight consecutive weeks during the winter.
“It didn’t sound like anything else that was coming out,” Oake said. “Even Amy Winehouse has a more modern vibe. Duffy seems more old-school, period. It’s got a sultry vibe; it’s a very funky song.”
He understands the backlash from the British music media, which like to build up a newcomer and then tear her down when she reaches a pinnacle. But he thinks the issue of R&B credibility is misguided.
“I don’t think the fact she’s Welsh or white or 24 years old should be a knock on her,” Oake said. “I think she’s talented. I think ‘Mercy’ is a fantastic song, one of my favorites of the year.”
Although Duffy played a few U.S. shows in the spring (including Harlem’s Apollo Theater and the Coachella festival), she considers this her first proper stateside tour. In many cities, she’ll sing at festivals with huge crowds, but she’ll open the tour July 31 at Minneapolis’ legendary First Avenue, which holds perhaps 1,500.
“It makes no difference whether it’s 50,000 or 1,500,” she said. “It’s a group of individuals who’ve gathered for music. I try to think of it like that rather than the fear factory of ‘Omigod, there’s 1,500 people - what happens if I mess up?’ It’s like trying to think of every kiss as your first kiss.”
Duffy’s first trip across the pond was a little daunting. In Austin, Texas, she said she was afraid to cross the road. “I was genuinely fearing for my life. And I had to ask these girls to come over and help me,” she said with a beguiling giggle. “I was like an old woman. It was new to me.”
WELSH ‘IDOL’ RUNNER-UP
Aimee Ann Duffy comes from Nefyn, a fishing village (population 2,500) on Wales’ western coast. Growing up without records in the house or even a record shop in town, she learned about music from the radio and her father’s tape of an episode of the 1960s TV show “Ready, Steady, Go” featuring the Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Walker Brothers (“The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”), Sandie Shaw (“Always Something There to Remind Me”) and Millie Small (“My Boy Lollipop”).
After her parents divorced (her dad still runs a pub in Nefyn) and mother remarried, Aimee started at a new school where, on the first day, the music teacher asked her to sing solo. A voice was discovered. At 19, she finished second on “WawFfactor,” a Welsh version of England’s “Pop Idol,” singing sweet ballads in Welsh. (Go to YouTube and search for Aimee Duffy.)
A Welsh rocker introduced her to Jeannette Lee, co-owner of the landmark indie label Rough Trade and former bassist for John Lydon’s (aka Johnny Rotten) Public Image Ltd. in London. Lee exposed Duffy to all kinds of new and old music and paired her with producer Bernard Butler, former bassist for 1990s Brit poppers Suede. As Duffy collaborated with Butler and several professional songwriters, four years passed between signing a contract and releasing “Rockferry.”
The rookie was clever enough to come up with the 1960s-sounding “Mercy” and its “yeah, yeah, yeah” refrain (perhaps an answer to Winehouse’s “no no no” in “Rehab”).
“I was so frustrated in this situation with a boy and I wanted so much to do something but I couldn’t, so I wrote a song about it,” said Duffy of the hit, in which she begs her man to remove the spell he has over her. “It was like a big tantrum. I was screaming. It was a release from the horrible control that somebody had over me, this kind of power and temptation.”
AMY, DUSTY AND SIR TOM
“Rockferry” has sold more than 1.3 million copies worldwide - it was No. 1 in England, Ireland, Greece, Switzerland, New Zealand and Sweden - before it was released in May in the States, where it debuted at No. 4.
Despite the impressive sales, the naive newcomer insists that she is more about art than commerce.
“I want to make a difference. I want to give something in this life, I don’t want to just be a taker,” she said. “I want to make music and try to search for beauty and quality and try and be honest and just be a good person along the way.”
Because of her success with both art and commerce, the 2008 upstart is often compared to 2007 sensation Winehouse - the Grammy-winning British siren who has a taste for mixing vintage soul, a modern vibe and too many vices - and Dusty Springfield, a blond Brit who had a flair for understated U.S. soul music back in the 1960s (“Son of a Preacher Man,” “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”).
Duffy, whose heavy eye makeup also evokes Springfield, bristles at both comparisons. With Winehouse, it’s more about timing than style, she figures. As for Springfield, she says, “it’s like a mysterious connection to the past that I just don’t find for myself.”
She’d rather talk about someone a little closer to home - Welsh icon Sir Tom Jones.
“What does he mean to me? He means sex,” she said. “It was very liberating. That was a Welshman doing that in the days when people were quite well-behaved, for lack of a better word. He was kind of cool, you know, he was kind of a bit punk. The guy is still going. He’s still probably got the sex drive of a 21-year-old. He’s a great bloke.
“I’ve never, ever met him. But I’ve got a feeling that introduction is going to happen.”