What Duffy Has Learnedâ??and What She’s Still Learning
Published December 10, 2010
PHOTOS BY JENNIFER ROBBINS
Welsh-born singer-songwriter Duffy exploded on the music scene with 2008’s Rockferry. Amidst an influx of English songstresses, she stood out for her hypnotic voice and creative nod to retro style. Two years and a Grammy award later, she is continuing her journey here with her second record Endlessly, a powerful and soulful pop album of dance tunes like first-single “Well, Well, Well” and ballads like “Too Hurt to Dance” for when you’re, well, too hurt to dance. We sat with Duffy on the tip-top floor of her record label, overlooking all of Manhattan—which contributed to the uncanny feeling that for Duffy, the sky’s the limit.
DUFFY: Where are you from?
KATIE RUDIK: Interview. Moscow. But Interview.
DUFFY: Moscow? Wow, I can see it now you say it.
RUDIK: Welsh, I can see that.DUFFY: Really? Can you?
RUDIK: You don’t think?
DUFFY: No, what’s the Welsh look? I love that. I get told I look like I’m from the north of England. It’s all the same world. I think in America, people don’t realize that Wales is a separate country. It has its own language!
RUDIK: I know! Do you speak Welsh?
RUDIK: Do you sing Welsh?
DUFFY: Umm… do I sing Welsh? I do, I used to sing in Welsh. But the language, it lends itself more to opera music, more like orchestral. So as a kid, I didn’t really fit into that. I was a total misfit, although I came from a disciplined way of holding yourself. It was like music had to be learned and I couldn’t learn it. I couldn’t play piano or anything like that, so it really wasn’t my world. It was quite strange, really.
RUDIK: And you feel like you have the freedom in English?
DUFFY: Yeah, as well, I used to listen to a lot of American music just on the radio, from Patsy Cline to Marvin Gaye, all the greats from that time, Elvis Presley. So yeah, I belonged somewhere else, I think. American music has always been a huge, huge influence on my life and that’s why I think, I don’t know what it is, but people associate me with “black music.” I don’t really know what black music is, I don’t think there really is such a thing today. I think years ago maybe there was something, a Motown movement or whatever, that lent itself to that.
RUDIK: You definitely get a lot of soul. Which is just a way to describe your voice really, soulful, but I think people classify that as a music too.
DUFFY: Yeah, like a genre.
RUDIK: Right. So, your album just came out here.
DUFFY: Yes, yesterday.
RUDIK: Is that a moment? Do you feel anything when that happens?
DUFFY: I definitely feel that everybody in America is really nice to me. I notice that, I notice that there is kind of a warm front. There’s a sense of excitement around what I do. I can’t quite explain it. It’s very different to everywhere else I go. In Europe, I think maybe I’ve become too successful to encourage intrigue. I’ve become just this success story, but in America, you’re still getting to know me, so I very much feel like a darling.
RUDIK: Is it contagious, the excitement? So you feel it?
DUFFY: Yeah, I do. I work with the most amazing publicist here, and all the people treat me really well, and I think you underestimate how important that is, in your job, how nice it is to work with good people who make you feel good about yourself. And no bravado, I’m not talking an entourage here, I’m just talking a really great atmosphere, you know? I think American people are quite upbeat. There’s kind of a notion of positivity here, which I enjoy.
RUDIK: Are you nervous about the “sophomore slump?” People are typically really critical of a second album and follow-ups.
DUFFY: I guess so, but cynical people know the price of everything and the value of nothing. I can’t help it if they’re born that way. That being said, for me, this isn’t just the second phase. This isn’t just the second record. This is my life. This is it. I am continuing. I feel as though I’ve been through too much to become overwhelmed by the chapters in my life. They’re just chapters, but the story I’ll be telling…
RUDIK: It’s going to be a long book?
DUFFY: [LAUGHS] Yeah, maybe. You may have to put it down halfway through for a rest.
RUDIK: It’s been about two years now since Rockferry.
DUFFY: Rockferry was released in 2008, so yeah, I’ve been making a record, it’s been a year, it’ll be two years since I was last here in America.
RUDIK: Was that a break from the craziness, or were you working, diving into Endlessly?
DUFFY: Umm, a break. I don’t really know, I never had such a luxury, really. I can’t really holiday from myself; I can’t really break from what I do, it just is. So what am I to do? I guess I had to make important and large decisions about who I was going to be in the next phase and who I was going to seem like. And that’s all it is, it’s just perception.
That break thing, that time, I definitely lacked the force of protection around me. I lacked that. I lacked somebody helping me, helping me think about things. Sometimes you’re just this little puppet, doing this global machine, and who was to really think of what I needed? Who was to think of the fact that I had to make music? It would be like expecting a horse to run all the time and not ever just walking it. And so I had to have that break, you know.
But thankfully, I enforced it myself. I was the one that said “No, this is it. I’m going to draw the line.” And I am a control freak by nature, so I was like, “This is the line and I’m closing the door now, and you’re not allowed to come in—any of you. At all. And I will go away. And I will come back when I am ready.” I needed to do that, otherwise how was I to feel that my life was my own? How was I to feel that I was in control of what I was doing? How was I to feel that I was contributing to my success? To my anything? I felt like a second party observing my life rather than being in control of it.
RUDIK: That sounds so refreshing, to have been able to continue your career after being able to clear your head and process things and experience things.
DUFFY: Yeah, I don’t even know what people are looking for. I don’t think they know what they’re looking for anymore.
RUDIK: You worked with The Roots on Endlessly‘s first single, “Well, Well, Well.” Are there any other collaborations on the album?
DUFFY: I worked with Albert Hammond, the father of The Strokes’ Albert Hammond. We co-wrote the whole album together. He is like the coolest guy in the world. He’s 66 years old, he wears Converses and a leather jacket and skinny jeans. He’s written some of the most outstanding songs and has sold the most amount of songs, you wouldn’t believe.
RUDIK: Sure, he wrote “Don’t Turn Around,” which I love. And oh, “The Air That I Breathe” from so long ago, like in the ’70s. Oh, gosh not “so long ago.”
DUFFY: Yeah! Were you there then? Wow, what beauty cream have you been using?! [LAUGHS] I know you can’t merit someone on their work—I’ve met loads of assholes who are amazing at what they do, but they’re assholes. But Albert is amazing at what he does, and he is not an asshole. [LAUGHS] He is actually the most amazing person I have ever met, and his success is off the scale. And everything again, just seems so trivial. It makes me realize that it’s all bullshit.
RUDIK: Was he like a father figure for you, a mentor?
DUFFY: Yeah, he made me appreciate the substance of what it is.
RUDIK: Are you media-savvy? Do you follow the news and keep up on technology and things?
DUFFY: I had media training once.
DUFFY: I didn’t really enjoy it.
RUDIK: Well, I’m curious about the Duffy app. That looks like we get you right in the palm of our hands. Do you know what’s in that?
DUFFY: No! Is it up yet?
RUDIK: No, not yet.
DUFFY: No, no, okay, okay, I was going to say, fuck, you leaked it! Like, no way! Without approval?! [LAUGHS]
RUDIK: No, no.
DUFFY: I like to create my own world. It’s safer that way. That being said, I have dabbled in these things. I did go to media training with this woman who cost like $1,500 an hour!
RUDIK: What do you learn in media training?
DUFFY: Where to put your “I” line so they don’t say you’re lying, how to avoid questions you don’t want to answer. I just felt ill. I felt creepy. I felt dirty, you know? I left and I was like pfft, never again. Yuck! You know, I thought, I’m not a friggin’ politician. That being said, I think I’d be pretty good at it! I’m not going to lie to you. Given half the chance. And then I had singing lessons once when I was 21. Somebody thought it was a good idea. And again, I went and I felt kind of creepy. Just creepy you know, blaaaagh, blaaaagh, the guy like urghh on the piano, and I’m like errr you’re so horrible, errr look at you trying to teach yourself something! Ughhh, it’s so vulgar! So yeah, I’ve had like two of those experiences. I wish I was, you know? But I definitely tell you what I want you to know.