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Duffy savors fruits of success

by Robert Michael Poole

“Half of my quarter of a century belongs to music, so I never belonged to anything else,” says Welsh songstress Duffy. “I feel very able and ready!”

The blonde bombshell was in Tokyo for her first full-length live show in Japan — at Shibuya AX on March 17 — and is still basking in the success of her debut album, “Rockferry,” released in March 2008.

Three BRIT awards and one Grammy later, the old-school soul singer is the lady of the moment, with 5.5 million album sales to her name. Bouncing in to a five-star Roppongi hotel room with her sparkling smile, the 24-year-old proves far more contemplative and self-aware than first impressions might suggest.

“I’m traveling around more than I anticipated, but I am just about young enough to handle it. Give me five years and I’ll be complaining! Or I’ll have a private jet, a huge Duffy one with a games room and a recording studio so I can still be a creative!”

Still promoting her first record a full year after its release apparently hasn’t exhausted Duffy yet. “If I made a record to be in fashion — one that would be quickly outdated — then maybe, but I don’t feel like that. If I disappeared now for 25 years and came back, I think I could do a tour of these songs. I feel that they are me, so until I feel tired of myself, I won’t get tired of these songs,” she claims.

From humble beginnings in Bangor, North Wales, to standing on the stage of the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles in February 2009 may seem a nerve-wracking leap for some, but for Duffy, it’s just another of life’s challenges.

“You have to survive don’t you, like everything in life. We all have fears and have to let go, and have to accept that we are all equal; that you have the same problems as I do. Just because I sing in front of 6,000 people doesn’t mean that together they are one. We are each one individually, so even if I am meeting and singing with Al Green for the first time, he is still human with feelings and thoughts, happy days and sad days. So it’s about relating to the human within.”

Duffy had a tough childhood. Her parents divorced when she was 10, resulting in her and her sisters moving in with their mother. Then, at age 13, she was put into a safehouse by police when they uncovered a plot by her stepfather’s ex-wife to kill her stepfather allegedly using a hitman. Duffy ran away at 15 to live with her natural father, causing further discord in the family. All these experiences have kept her grounded and wary of anyone who considers themselves exceptional.

“You can’t (consider yourself exceptional) because it’s so detrimental and you’ll never learn anything,” she explains. “We are in this life alone. Don’t get me wrong, it is exceptional to be recognized globally. If you are Tom Cruise, life must be unusual to have kids and grandmothers recognize you, but you have to adapt, that’s just his role and what he is doing. I think he does it very well personally, if you look at all these people who see it just as ‘coping.’

“But you can see these people who are really high in a law firm and who see themselves as untouchable — who are they trying to kid? I don’t think anyone is an exception.”

In a recent interview, Duffy was quoted criticizing the behavior of American stars who felt themselves to be above the common man. Asked further, she explains: “Music is an unusual thing; if everyone could do it, they would. It’s cathartic, you are extending and externalizing yourself as a human. Certain artists have an ability to take over the listener — special artists like Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye or Madonna, they have an ability to run through your veins. But the one thing they relate to is humanity and vulnerability, so I can’t understand artists (who behave like exceptions).

“Music is a thing with no violence,” she continues. “There are no wrongs, it can never hurt anyone. You can hear violence, but it’s a delicate format of expression, so I can’t understand how it can manifest into a physical form where someone feels like an exception. It’s filled with possibility, and if you are good at it and become world famous, it is a big responsibility to have. It goes beyond your control and you are taken somewhere and you don’t know why, so you consider that you don’t belong in the world.

“Maybe you will meet me in 20 years and I will be considering myself an exception, maybe something massive happens to me, or maybe I will disappear into obscurity — that’s just the way life is!”

On her first visit to Japan for a showcase at Tokyo’s Ebisu Liquid Room in October 2008, Duffy gleefully greeted fans after the event, her modest and approachable personality showing no egotism, just a genuine glee that her own songs have touched people around the world.

“It becomes part of their lives. I’ve met surprising fans who say my record hasn’t left their car (stereo). When you are part of someone’s life, you can’t be an idiot and disregard what you stand for. They want to enjoy the pleasure of meeting you, so you have to be humble and respect that. But accepting compliments is not easy. I have never been good at receiving anything, so I try to apply some grace to it.”

It’s not just Duffy’s fans who have embraced her music, but musicians too — reaching out even across Asia.

At the Grammy Awards, Duffy was greeted by Japanese-American singer Utada Hikaru, who she recalls “had a black bob and was a very sweet-looking girl!” Meanwhile, the track “Warwick Avenue” from “Rockferry” was covered by another Asian superstar, China’s Jane Z, on her 2008 stadium tour. “It’s mad!” Duffy exclaims, “I’ve never heard great singers come from this part of the world. Jane’s gorgeous and she’s got a great voice!”

“When you write those songs, it’s a moment in time,” Duffy explains. “Like a diary, a reflection of all the things that you felt before are coming together in a moment of clarity. But once it ends, the songs aren’t about you anymore, they belong to someone else. It’s just a moment. It won’t last forever, so you can’t put your finger on it. Other musicians might want to cling on to them like children that they don’t want to let go of, but for me it’s not the case. It’s something I once felt and continue to feel on several different days.

“When I revisit it, if I feel some form of emotion that was written in that song, then it might come through again. So when I see someone else do it, it feels like I am looking at it belonging to them. For that moment, they are not singing my emotions, they are singing theirs. So it’s quite healthy!”

This year will see Duffy working on the followup to “Rockferry.” After the debut’s mammoth success, the pressure to deliver a second album that doesn’t simply replicate the formula of the first may seem a challenge. But while the past has kept Duffy well grounded, so she considers the future with equal pragmatism.

“I feel as though I have Dutch courage and can take people with me in my development. It’s all-consuming and comes totally from within, so you just accept it. If you didn’t, you would be too self-aware because you would never be fluid.

“It’s a big experience, the whole thing, and I am doing it all. I have to do it all. I am so involved and there is no separation, nobody sitting by my side and holding my hand. I’ve never been good at sacrifice; if I didn’t want to do it I wouldn’t do it. But I can’t pick the fruits off the tree that taste the best, I am just doing it all, eating them all — probably because I am greedy! It’s an all-consuming love!”

“Rockferry” (Deluxe Edition) went on sale March 11. In the interests of full disclosure, readers should be aware that the author works closely with Jane Z.