Before you sigh, "Oh, no, another one?" do not confuse (Aimee Anne) Duffy with the recent glut of girl singers infiltrating our ears from across the Pond. This Welsh belter has been riding the tops of the Brit pop charts with a collection of '60s-inspired songs and a hybrid Dusty Springfield-Cilla Black-Darlene Love-Ronnie Spector voice that effortlessly drowns out any competition. We speak to her on the eve of the U.S. release of her debut, Rockferry (Mercury).
ANITA SARKO: How tall are you?
DUFFY: I'm 5-foot-3. How tall are you?
AS: I'm 5-foot-3½. [laughs]
D: Really? Well, a lot of people think that I'm taller than I am. About two weeks ago, this girl came over to me and said, "Wow, you're so beautiful." And she looked at me, she sort of looked at my body, and went, "But you're not skinny, are you?" [laughs] I was devastated! I was like, okay. Well, you know, I'm quite a meaty little thing.
AS: You don't look meaty onstage. . . . Your songs all seem to be kind of, like, smoochy, uh, love songs about heartbreak that people would have been making out to in the basements in the '60s.
D: [laughs] I do write songs about love, but, 'cause I'm 24, I don't really know love that well.
AS: Ah, you know love.
D: Well, I know disappointment.
AS: [laughs] That's love-
D: And regret. I got to a point in my life when I'd done loads of things I regretted. I made all the wrong decisions.
AS: Oh, like what?
D: I was trying to fill my life with all these projects, hoping that one of them would succeed. I was like a cheating girlfriend. I was cheating on all the bands with other bands, and I was trying to manage everything.
AS: Yeah, but that's the old story about, you know, you throw shit against the wall and see what sticks.
D: Yeah, to a point where you need to know what you're not good at to eliminate the bad things in your life.
AS: What did you originally think that you would be good at that you eliminated?
D: Well, I mean, I wanted to be an artist, even at the age of 15, and people used to laugh at me. It was the late '90s, the time of pop stars and navel-dancing, where you were showing your midriff. I wanted to be a real singer. I was always working with older men, and, uh—
D: That was really hard, because I just felt like I didn't have enough strength, and I was really weak-willed and my skin wasn't that thick. So I just kept getting confused, and let down, and I was always running away from something.
AS: Did you find that older men would offer to help you, and then realize that, in fact, all they were doing was trying to exploit you?
D: Yeah, sometimes. And there'd be conspiracies going on behind my back. They were trying to sell me onto somebody or they were making a deal behind my back. It was just awful. My teens were really horrible in that way. And I didn't include my family. I still don't include them. They're really proud of me but I distanced myself. The only person I have in this is my manager [Jeanette Lee, co-owner of Rough Trade Records].
AS: So why did you feel the need to distance yourself from your family?
D: When I was 15, everyone told me not to [pursue my music career], to the point where I had a lot of silence in my life in terms of who I talked to about anything. So I moved away from my mum's house, where I had a full family of sisters and stepsisters, and I went to go live with my dad, because with my dad, I could actually get a little bit of peace and quiet.
AS: So you were waitressing at that point?
D: Yeah. And I was in college, as well.
AS: Really? What were you studying?
D: Culture. There was one woman who kept picking on me at the college, and she'd call me into her office. I was waitressing; I was trying to keep my college studies going. So I was so tired, and she'd call me in the office and reprimand me, and sometimes I would cry because I just didn't have the energy to battle, you know?
AS: Well, there's the old saying, you know: Those that do, do. Those that can't, teach.
D: She was an actress. She was teaching drama, so she hated the fact that I was a singer.
AS: She hated the fact that you were doing what you wanted to do.
D: Yeah, and it was horrible. I don't want to get all feminist and say, "You know, we should be supporting each other," but that woman asked me, "Do you find that there's a lot of competition between women in the music industry?" She's so lucky there were a couple of other people around. I really would have embarrassed her and said, "Excuse me, you're a woman, and you're asking me if women find it difficult because we are arguing in the music industry." I felt like this was an insane lack of support.
AS: Yeah, and it's stupid. I remember one time I was on a panel. So the first question was for me. It was from a girl in the audience, and she said, "Do you find it difficult being a woman in a situation that is normally male-dominated?" And I said, "You know something I can't understand? Women have hands, so they can pick up a record, and they can put it onto a record player. And the last time I checked, we have eyes, so we can actually see the records and see where they are. And the last time I checked, we have brains. So we can figure out whether we like something or we don't like it, or whether it's right for the time, or whether it's wrong."