Interview: Duffy, singer

A FEW hours before I'm due to meet Duffy she's perched on the sofa of BBC's Breakfast show like a tiny yellow-plumed bird on a wire and there's a moment which seems to sum her up, or at least encapsulate what we think we know about her.

Bill Turnbull, the mammy's-turned-him-out-awfie-nice presenter who's clearly mildly smitten with the seven-million-selling Welsh retro-pop sensation like so many men before him, asks her to sing the hollering beginning of her current single and, even though it's before 9am and there's no band, she obliges.

"Well, well, weh-ull!" Bill is so impressed he requests an encore.

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"Well, well, weh-ull!" When he asks her to sing it a third time there's hesitation, but only for a split second. Sweet, vulnerable, eager to please, mildly exploitable but ultimately, because the performance is bang-on, brilliant. Isn't that Duffy? Well, after my allotted hour in her company, I'm not sure. There are times when the thumbnail-sketch seems pretty accurate but others when she's strong and in control. "Not once in these past three years have I felt like a puppet," she says firmly. Then she'll appear to contradict herself again by explaining how she's no choice about whether she sings for a living. "I have to do it, I am it. There's no holiday from being me, it's something that won't let go."

In person, Aimee Ann Duffy, 26, from Nefyn, north Wales (population: 2,600) is just like in the photos – as if Carol White from 1960s flicks Cathy Come Home and Poor Cow had presented her local crimper with a movie mag and said: "Do me like Brigitte Bardot" – but if anything she's prettier. Welsh is her first language – she couldn't read English until she was 11 and when I ask her to list some of the characteristics marking people of the Principality, she says: "Passionate, happy, volatile, content, simple – and I admit to all of the above."

Duffy's debut album Rockferry was a stunning success. The Duffy formula – a bit of Dusty, a whiff of Northern Soul, khol-pencilled eyes and a wiggle – wasn't broke but she's fixed it for follow-up Endlessly, dispensing with her co-managers and also standing down producer Bernard Butler. Here, the new musical director is Albert Hammond.

The veteran choonsmith's poppier sensibility is offset by the hiring of classy hip-hoppers The Roots as her backing band, but still, wasn't she worried about the risks? "Albert has sold 150 million records; he's the man who wrote When I Need You and after that song's sentiments nothing more needs said. He didn't treat me like a superstar; to him I was just a kid with a voice. He told me I reminded him of the girl in an old movie, Tammy Tell Me True. But he made me feel good about myself, that I had potential."

Now this sounds odd. Why did seven-million-selling Duffy think "potential" was missing from the equation? I ask her if she lacked or had misplaced confidence; the stresses of fame having supposedly taken their toll. "Confidence?" she ponders, as if there isn't a Welsh equivalent. "I think confidence is the idle man's version of arrogance." Then she says: "Maybe people will be really surprised to know that I'm always waiting to be rescued. From what, I don't know, but when I met Albert I knew he could rescue me. Don't you walk through your life wondering at certain times if someone's going to come and put their arms around you, make everything a little easier?"

Tammy in the movie was a nave 18-year-old from Mississippi; Duffy didn't have time to be nave given that her mum left her dad for a childhood sweetheart when she was ten and her new stepfather brought along four kids – then his ex tried to hire a hitman to kill him, forcing Duffy and her siblings into a police safe house. She won't get specific about her music biz stresses – "Some day I'll tell you about them," is all she says. I ask if she manages to draw strength from those childhood dramas and she turns back into tough-enough Duffy. "I don't really do problems and I'm not a victim. The things that happened when I was a child were not of me. Music is me, I'm the singer."

Give me a happy childhood memory, I say. "Me and my friends having to catch the milk-float home and pretend to our parents we'd been in bed for ages – though all we'd been doing was drinking cheap wine down the beach. My mum – really hot, looked like Helena Christensen – used to tell me: 'Don't be like the other girls going to nightclubs when they're 15 so that by 18 all the boys know who they are. You're special, don't ruin yourself.'"

Living four hours from Cardiff and with no money for records, shopgirl and fish-factory worker Duffy was desperate to sing but knew nothing about the music industry. Bernard Butler remarked that she "managed to grow up without any concept of cool" and her first mentors set about educating the tiny protg who thought there was a famous producer called Bill Spector. "To be honest, I'm still none the wiser," says Duffy. "I've only just discovered Joy Division, heard Depeche Mode's Enjoy The Silence and fallen in love with Edith Piaf. And I've still only ever been to four gigs, although at least one was the Strokes so I could impress Albert."

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Sometimes she worries about her lack of cool, her lack of poise ("I never come across all intelligent and wise") and the absence of scandal in her life. "Maybe, instead of going back to Wales for a good old session with my mates, getting drunk and crying, I should do that in Oxford Street, in full view," she says, in what sounds like a dig at Amy Winehouse. "I do get frustrated with this image of me as the pretty blonde, the good girl, but I didn't set out to be known for my personality or my problems – I'm here to sing."

She has another go at explaining why she's compelled to sing. "It's like trying to deny you're in love. Have you ever been, I mean truly? If you have, then you'll know that stopping yourself is impossible." When she talks like this you can understand why Albert Hammond and indeed Bill Turnbull want to throw a protective arm around her, though this function is currently being carried out full-time by Welsh rugby star Mike Phillips.

"It's great to have someone to have and to hold," she says, "and to squeeze. It's nice to be in love and to know, with 2011 already mapped out for me, that I'll still be able to have fun. The other night I was back in Wales with him and his rugby pals – fierce boys who like a laugh with one always getting his kit off – and they blindfolded me at the CD player and made me sing every song, stuff I'd never heard before like: 'Here comes Johnny Reggae, lay it on me.'"

Displaying incredible restraint, I avoid asking her to sing it again. v

Endlessly (A&M) is out now

The is article was first published in the Scotland on Sunday on December 5, 2010