Sunday, April 20, 2008

Duffy: Rockferry

  The most hotly anticipated album release of this New Year comes not from someone rammed into the collective consciousness by their media ubiquity. Duffy is an unknown quantity at this point, having performed but a small number of gigs, mostly in support of The Magic Numbers, and having only just begun to be seen on TV, most notably with recent appearances on Jools Holland's Later and New Year Hootenanny.

  Yet her soulful voice has already beguiled many of the nation's musical tastemakers and news of its beauty and of the strength of her songs is spreading by word of mouth even as you read these words. Radio One's Jo Whiley chose Duffy's title track and album taster `Rockferry' as her Single of the Week in late November, further adding to the momentum. Now, as the comparisons fly (Dusty Springfield has emerged as the favourite), it's time to discover her for yourself.

  Duffy was born and spent her childhood years in the north Wales coastal community of Nefyn, a place too remote to be driven by style wars or opposing music factions (the nearest record counter was a bus ride away and only stocked the Top 40). The upbringing she describes is one in which everyone had to rub along together, making do and mending, accepting each other and their tastes without prejudice.

  Having no CD collection of her own, her first real musical memory is of walking into the kitchen unannounced to find her mother and stepfather dancing to Rod Stewart. The first steps she took towards defining her own personal identity came when she borrowed one of her dad's VHS tapes of the `60s TV show `Ready, Steady, Go!'. "It had The Beatles, the Stones, the Walker Brothers, Sandie Shaw and Millie singing `My Boy Lollipop'. So sexy and exciting! I played it again and again until finally it disintegrated." Says former Suede guitarist and record producer Bernard Butler of this artlessness, "Duffy managed to grow up without any concept of what was cool or current, what she should or shouldn't like, how to behave or even how to sing. For her, coming to London at all was the stuff of fairytales."

  "And to come here to write songs with some random bloke who'd been recommended to her, me? It meant taking two buses and then two trains and took all day. Then she'd do the same in reverse to get home, playing the music she'd just made to old ladies she encountered on the journey. It's hard for cynical music industry types to get their heads around just how far removed she was from our world, geographically and in every other way. But what you've got as a result is someone who acts and sings completely and unselfconsciously from the heart. That's a rare and magical thing."

  Butler was introduced to Duffy by Rough Trade's Jeannette Lee who,in August 2004 and after hearing demos recorded in this or that mate's home, became the singer's mentor and manager. For Duffy, to have not just a friend but also point of both safety and reference in the strange new world she found herself in was crucial to her own musical development and sense of self.

  "People keep saying to me, `You've made a great record' but I can't take that in because I didn't do it on my own. Jeannette and I made `Rockferry' together and she's been with me every step of the way, broadening my horizons, introducing me to people I can trust." Butler was just one of them: having written the glorious, chorus-free, utterly hypnotic `Rockferry' together at the beginning of the project, they then worked on a further three of the ten tracks on what is already being talked about as 2008's most important debut release. Jimmy Hogarth & Steve Booker are the other collaborators on this classic-in-waiting.

  What can you expect to hear? The title track and album opener, as atmospheric, slow-building and idiosyncratic song as you could hope for, leads into a collection of original material that some might call retro in feel (those Dusty flavours, that girl group vibe) but which Duffy herself prefers to identify as classic. You'll find arrangements as sparsely effective as those against which Dionne Warwick told her Bacharach & David-wrought tales of heartbreak in the early 1960s. You'll find lush choruses and swooning hooks (as perfected by the late Miss Springfield and various distinguished others). But this is far from pastiche.

  What you'll find instead is irrefutable evidence of a significant new talent, and one that has developed in splendid isolation, not in reaction to market forces or the input of focus groups and industry experts. Duffy is the real, unspoiled original deal. "People keep asking me where my voice comes from and the fact is I don't know," says the brightest new star of 2008. "Why are your eyes the colour they are? It's no answer at all but it's the only one I have." (Extract)

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