Interview with Duffy
by Anthony Montenegro
The first Welsh female artist to achieve a #1 pop single in the UK in over 25 years, recording artist Duffy has recently arrived on the U.S. music scene as well. Emerging on the U.S. charts with the launch of her critically acclaimed debut album Rockferry, and propelled by the strength of her single "Mercy", she has enjoyed increasing popularity as familiarity with her music is on the rise. Already a sensation in the UK where she has received numerous awards, including an award for 2008 Song of the Year and nominations for both Album of the Year and Breakthrough Act, Duffy has taken her soulful pop sounds stateside, and the results have been equally impressive.
Beginning with her first live U.S. performance in front of a packed house at The Parish during the 2008 SXSW Music Conference, Duffy has continued to impress crowds with her live performances, playing an impressive selection of shows at landmark venues such as the Apollo Theater and some of this summer's largest music festivals, including Coachella and Virgin Mobile Festival. Her album Rockferry has gone gold and maintained a top 25 slot on the Billboard 200 chart for almost three months at this point, peaking at #4. Her music has also become a fixture on American television, being featured on television shows such as ER, Smallville, Grey's Anatomy, while her videos have become a staple on MTV and VH1. She also appears on the soundtrack for Sex and the City: The Movie.
Be sure to check out the best of Duffy's ringtones and ringback tones, including an exclusive live version of her hit single "Mercy" from her NYC Virgin Megastore performance!
Virgin Mobile spent some time with Duffy and caught up with her about her new album, her career, and her music.
VM: What, if any ringtones or ringbacks do you have set up on your phone?
Duffy: Once I felt like trying out some electronic gadgety stuff and I set up what I thought was Michael Jackson Billie Jean. It was gonna be my ringtone. I don't know what I did but I set it (and I'm really not technological, p.s., right), so I went on and I clicked it- Billie Jean, good. Then my friend rang me and she was crying, laughing, did you ring me as well, did you hear it? So it doesn't ring *sings* (she was more like a beauty queen) on my side; when they ring me they can hear it! I was really embarrassed so I wanted to take it off. I was having a lot of professional calls at that time about whatever and you don't want someone calling you and hearing Billie Jean. So I messed up, I'm gonna be honest with you.
VM: How did you first develop an interest in singing? What were your earliest influences?.
Duffy: That's one of the questions I've never really been able to answer. Why I actually do what I do... I'm expecting a light to come on or something to fall on my head for it to make sense! But I just do it. It's almost like it's the only thing I can do, I think. I'm not good at anything else. I don't know if I'm good at this! But I'm just rolling with it right now.
In terms of influences I just listened to the radio a lot when I was a kid. A lot of our weekends were spent indoors because there was miserable rain outside and I suppose it was a little bit of romance and escape in a way to listen to classic songs. In the UK we have different radio format. I don't know if you're familiar with it, but on the BBC they can play a record from 1940 to modern day and mix it within the same hour show so it still keeps the music alive and gives a really great sense of quality. It has to be quality stuff to make radio. And so I had that, and I think that was my initial connection with music. Romance, or something.
VM: How do your life experiences manifest themselves in your musical creative process, both in terms of lyrics and music composition?
Duffy: Wow that's a good question. I think who you are today reflects what you write--you know, I mean in life experiences. Music I had to learn very quickly. There was no second chance along the way. From the age of 15 to today, 8 or 9 years, I didn't really get a second chance. If I made a mistake I had to learn by it immediately and move on. And so I think I'm a little bit older in my music then I actually am in life. So I have these two sides of me that I battle with. There's the girl that's experienced in many ways. I don't know love and life experiences, and there's the other side that's completely aware of what I want in my music and my passions. So it's kind of unusual really and so I draw on that when I write. And I don't want to be the sort of artist who licks their wounds. I want to be an artist that inspires, and I think music should empower people so I try to merge those two elements of myself together. And that's what you get.
VM: The earliest US reviews of your music drew comparisons to artists such as Amy Winehouse. As emerging artists are often anchored to points of reference, what do you think is the best way to go about breaking preconceptions and establishing your own identity on the music scene?
Duffy: It depends. Sometimes it's one singer, it's another singer, I've been called them all. So at what point do you say to yourself you've just got to draw the line. It's kind of strange because when you release a record people assume that you have literally been born the day that your record was released. People don't really take into consideration that you have had 23 years on this planet with many journeys and different decisions and life lessons, and all this kind of shaping to get where you are today. They assume that you've just been born, and it's quite shallow really. It's not just a musical thing either, it's a personality thing. I think people forget that when you present yourself emotionally and quite vulnerably in music you actually are human, and you have a past and are your own person. It's kind of strange, it's weird. If I met a guy in the street who was wearing a blue shirt and then you were wearing a blue shirt as well, I wouldn't be like "hey you two were shopping in the same shop", you know? But for some reason in music there is this unusual approach that there are these categorizations. Its one of the most freeing, most liberating, most honest forms of art, but yet in the same sense it's the most confined in genre and perception. People can't seem to grasp something different.
VM: In your experience thus far, how would you compare the reception your music has received from US vs. UK audiences?
Duffy: I think its really early days for me to be able to tell how it really will go. Although people ask me "How do you feel? You know your life's changed!?" And it still feels like day one. It's my first record and I'm just starting to get to grips with performing and expressing myself to a live audience and embracing this thing I kept secret for such a long time. And really I did; I kept my singing away from everyone I knew, and so it's kind of a very new beginning for my music in public. I really can't comment on whether I think its gone better anywhere else because right now I'm just following the music and it's still very early. But I will have to say that the American audience really does feel very welcoming and I don't know whether it's because soul originated here or because you guys are really open minded or what, but there's something here that I feel that I like!
VM: You are scheduled to play Virgin Mobile Festival in Baltimore on August 9th. How do you prepare a performance for a large outdoor festival differently than you would for a smaller indoor venue?
Duffy: Chuck Berry! I can't believe it! That's a good question, because it's very different. Everything you do is so different, you know? And that's what I found to be one of the hardest challenges in the beginning. One minute I'll be sitting with somebody having the deepest conversation I've ever had, bearing my soul, and the next minute I'd be on TV having a laugh. It's like I'm bi-polar, you know? One minute I'm happy and the next minute I'm sad. I couldn't quite handle it so I try to sustain a level, a comfortable, normal level for myself whatever I do.
So that's the same with live performing, whether its in a small venue, large venue, open space, the Apollo or on stage at Coachella or at SXSW. I just try to take the same approach, which is a level of honesty and be sincere, and use my instincts in the moment. You can never plan it, you just have to walk on stage and take that moment and see what comes. Because I think if you plan it and say "This is a festival and this is how I'm gonna do this" then you would probably fail. So I just try to be in the moment.
VM: Television appearances have had a pretty significant role in the development of your career. What are the positives and negatives you've taken from those experiences?
Duffy: You look slightly fatter! (laughs) Yea, but you know I'm female I'm not gonna lie to you, those things matter to me. One thing with television is--because like I said, I didn't really include my family or my friends for so many years--that it was something I did that was cool. I didn't really share it with anybody because if I did that would only put barriers in the way that would keep me from doing what I wanted to do. And so I thought "I'll keep it to myself and I'll do it, and that way everyone's happy". And I just did what I had to do to keep them happy on the other side, like college or get a job to seem like I was in a serious occupation. And so really they really didn't know what I did. And when they see you on TV there's an element of, this very--I hate to use the word old school, but, old school approach to it, like I've made it! You know, you're on the big screen, and so it's really nice, my family gets to see that, and it's a way of accessing people's homes, people's lives, you know? So I don't think there's any negative apart from that, but that's just me being girlie!
VM: You're garnered a fair amount of critical acclaim early on in your career, often cited in industry polls and reviews as one of the "next big artists to watch". Do all the positive accolades affect your approach at all?
Duffy: I think if you pay attention to anything in life you have to take the light and the dark. You can't just pick anything you want from it, its not that easy. So you have a choice whether you focus on it, or not at all. So I think that early on it was healthy for me to not get involved with hype and expectation and however amazing it is I just say to myself, "It's not why I make music". And my music went on going as is. I made music where there was no chance a girl like me from Wales could ever be in Times Square you know, no one expected that. So I just really made an honest record and that's all it is for me, about the music really. So I think I made the decision that really, that's what it's about.
VM: How did it feel to be the first Welsh female to achieve a number 1 pop single in the last 25 years? What is the Welsh music scene like today?
Duffy: The Welsh music scene... Well it depends, because Wales in itself is a country, apart from the UK. It has its own language, its own identity and the music scene there really doesn't exist. There really isn't a record label, it all comes from England you know. So as a nation with its own language it really doesn't have anything. So that's why I had to move away, there really wasn't the avenue for me to make music in Wales. And music really doesn't lend itself to the Welsh language, it's phonetically a bit of a bitch to ya know, squeeze into I Heard It Through the Grapevine by Marvin Gaye (laughs). But when you think about the artists who came out of Wales that actually sing in the English language you know we've been really lucky and we've got The Rugbys doing really well, The Boxer, so Wales is doing well right now.
VM: What artists have you been listening to lately? What records have impressed you?
Duffy: One in particular: MGMT Oracular Spectacular. I love it! I really love it! I'm getting more and more into it and I find it fascinating, these sort of young kids talking about becoming famous. I think it's just so sweet, talking about getting really drunk and falling in love at bars and marrying models, and divorcing them eventually, and forgetting about their fathers and mothers who originally they had this safe environment with. It's fascinating. It's almost like a documentary of dreams, which I really like!
VM: Everyone has a guilty pleasure band that they're somewhat embarrassed to be a fan of. What are yours?
Duffy: I mean they're not that bad, but I know for me it's got to be Fleetwood Mac. But they're really not super cheesy, I don't know if you would expect me to be a Fleetwood Mac fan, but I love it! Super, super great records, Stevie Nicks one of my favorite singers. That's not that bad though, is it?