Inventing new dreams: Duffy, 2013

Long before she was famous – before Rockferry, “Mercy”, “Warwick Avenue”, Grammys and Brits, world tours and Number Ones and millions of albums sold across the globe and not a dry eye in the house – Duffy was a waitress at a French place in cobbled Chester, in the north west of England, her first step to escaping the fishing village of Nefyn, North Wales.

It was called “Chez Jules”, the restaurant where Duffy landed in England – still is, in fact – and at the time it was run by two handsome men who called their vivacious employee “mini-Blondie”: a tiny small-town bombshell with a pile of Bardot hair covering a head full of dreams.

She lived nearby the restaurant, sharing a flat with a pair of Italian brothers who would put grappa in her morning coffee, to set her up for the day, much to their amusement. On Tuesday nights she’d sing in a local jazz club. With a modest but swelling fan base, Duffy was happy. She was living. She was 20 years old.

“I loved it!” she remembers. “You had cash in the bank. You were earning. You’d walk down the street with the world at your feet and you’d get wolf whistled. You’d feel like a million dollars.”

We’re sitting, talking, in the rustic garden of an Italian restaurant in London, on a beautiful summer’s day, sipping Prosecco. As ever Duffy is chatty, elegant, classic and sexy in a tight cashmere sweater – nowadays she is more Sophia Loren, not so Dusty Springfield.

Her hair is black, but her eyes are still ocean blue, she is bold and shy, the confusing Duffy mix of vulnerability and strength we know so well, and those blue eyes that melt your heart shine right now at the memory of this early independence: “I was free,” she says simply, her hands cupping her glass.

It wasn’t just that she felt good back then. It’s that she was in an easy position to make other people feel good, too. “You get that satisfaction as a waitress, you know,” she says. “You make people smile somehow. You look nice. You’ve got your hair and make up on, your little black skirt and your white shirt and you feel amazing. Whether it’s someone’s birthday or their anniversary, you can really make their night.” In a way, that’s why she got into music in the first place: “Because if you can make one person’s day a bit better, then that’s it.”

For all her success, the young and tender Duffy never suffered delusions of grandeur. She never sought admiration or fame for its own sake. She was the slowest overnight success in history: she’d been perfecting herself for years before she broke through – making other people’s nights, one person at a time.

But when she did make it, she really made it. Rockferry, her irresistible collection of blue-eyed pop-soul songs, released in 2008, was four years in the making, but well worth the wait. It sold 8 million albums. It was number one across Europe and America. Duffy was nominated for three Grammys, and won for Best Pop Vocal Album. She was up for four Brits and won three, including the most prestigious: Best Album. This was the stuff dreams are made on: the arrival of a superstar. That year, the sweeping strings and her utterly distinctive resonance filled the airwaves.

“Mercy” and “Warwick Avenue” were inescapable, as was that extraordinary voice, yearningly soulful: it was Duffy.

Suddenly, she’d gone from making a few people’s nights, to making many millions of people’s nights. The stages were bigger, the days were longer, the noise was louder. Duffy, alternating between joy and dismay at her new situation, found herself at a crossroads. Her circumstances were unfamiliar, and in some senses unwelcome, and Duffy retreated, returning briefly with a follow-up album, Endlessly.

It was an unlikely record, a collaboration between a freshly minted British pop star, a legendary but long dormant songwriter and producer, Albert Hammond, and an acclaimed hip-hop band, The Roots. Endlessly was a record to be proud of, heartfelt and committed. Duffy released one single from the album, “Well, Well, Well”, in November 2010, and then promptly disappeared, leaving the memory of her final appearance: plastered all over the covers of the papers, sweeping the floor at the Brit awards, like a night at the Oscars.

“I took a step back,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m going to slow all this right down”, shrugging her little shoulder she sighs prophetically “It’s only in the silence you can hear the truth, so I had to turn down the noise.”

She had felt, she says, “Like I was losing sight of what all this was about. It all got so complex, such responsibility. I was serenading people to sleep, not running NASA. Suddenly I was a product, an enterprise, a businesswoman. But mostly I wanted to be human”.

Not so long ago, Duffy went home to Nefyn, this time ostensibly to have her photo taken on the beach where she grew up.

Standing on the sand she looked out over the headland – the same view, unchanged, that she gazed upon so many nights growing up, with what she describes now as a “crucifying longing” for escape and adventure.

“Back then that view was such a dense, flat picture,” she says. “I didn’t know how I could get over that horizon”.

“Not a single stone on that headland has changed,” she says, “but now, it looks to me like I could easily put my hand through the picture I once gazed at with such sadness. I can reach through it, I know what is beyond”.

Instead of fragile, although petite and delicate, Duffy feels powerful. Instead of yearning, she feels settled. Most of the time, anyway.

What conclusions has she reached?

“Some people build things,” she says, “ . . . whilst some people smash things apart. Everybody has their own pleasures. I’ve found my pleasures in making compositions, writing words.”

Duffy, her Welsh accent a mix of strong and mild depending on her expression says curiously, she’s been learning to take responsibility for herself, for her own emotions, perhaps for the first time. As a result she is, she thinks, as happy as she has ever been. “Now people comment on my dimples again rather than my frown” She squints her eyes and sweeps her hair taking a moment to ponder on that exact idea” You know, my friends are like: ‘We haven’t seen those dimples in a few years”. She laughs.

And now, with the dimples in tow? “I’ll make my next move. Exactly what that move is, I’ll have to ponder further,” she blushes. “It’s the longest chess game I’ve ever played, but I promise my next move will be good”.

So . . . you won’t disappear forever?

After a little reflection she nods, “I think you’ll see me again…”

Playful, kittenish, but also deadly serious, our afternoon filled with musing, laughing and honesty, comes to a close.

Duffy looks up through her eyelashes, with piercing philosophical femininity and intelligence she adds, what sounds like the line to a song, “If I’d lost myself and you were to see me, I hope you’d tell me to wait, because I’d always be coming back”.

– Alex Bilmes