I’m not usually the type of person that bothers much with commercial music. Most successful commercial music is the result of hype and marketing, rather than talent. This is nothing new in the music industry. Much of the success of many punk and post-punk groups was due to puff pieces and hype in the music press. Their talent was minimal, so friendly music journalists were dispatched to write articles praising these groups. However, the artist this article is about, has talent in abundance. She possesses one of the most soulful voices in the music industry, and her debut album was a huge commercial success, selling six million copies worldwide. When I was first alerted to this singer, I was immediately taken with the quality of her voice. Even before the release of her first album, comparisons were being made with the late Dusty Springfield. Duffy is the artist in question, and the album is Rockferry, her debut album.
Duffy was born Aimee Annn Duffy, in June 1984, in Bangor Wales. She grew up speaking Welsh, but quickly learned to speak English, as even then, she wanted to be a singer. She recalls writing songs with her twin sister and older sister, as a child. After her parents divorce, when she was ten, her home life was, to say the least, turbulent. Her musical inspiration came from watching videos of the 1960s’ television program Ready Steady Go. Duffy’s love of soul music stemmed from watching a Whoopi Goldberg film Sister Act. This also inspired her to become a singer.
Duffy’s career followed a familiar pattern to many artists. She joined local bands and sang with them. Duffy even spent a year in Switzerland working with writer and producer Soren Mounir, using the name Souego. On her return to Wales, she went to college and it was there, a lecturer gave her some good advice. He told her go on the dole and become a singer. This she did, joining bands, and building up a local following in a local jazz and blues club. She even entered a talent show on Welsh television. Expected to win, she came second. Later, she said it was an unhappy period in her life. Her next foray in music was recording a three song EP in Welsh. in 2008 it would give Duffy a number one hit in Wales.
Her big breakthrough came on meeting Jeanette Lee of Rough Trade Records in August 2004. Lee arranged a meeting with Bernard Butler, ex guitarist with Suede, now a record producer. Butler proceeded to educate Duffy about soul music, downloading tracks by Bettye Swan, Al Green, Anne Peebles and Doris Duke onto Duffy’s ipod. She would listen and learn during her travels between London and Wales. Her debut album Rockferry took four years to make. During that time, she worked with several writers and producers. The biggest influence was Bernard Buler who cowrote and produced four tracks on the album. His influence and expertise were invaluable, as a mentor, writer and producer. On its release in March 2008, the album sold 180,000 copies in the first week of its release, and 60,000 on the release date. Rockferry ended up selling six million copies worldwide, and turned Duffy into a global success story. In 2009, the album won a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album, and three Brit Awards.
The follow-up to Rockferry, Endlessly was released in November 2010. Endlessly saw Duffy change producer and form a songwriting partnership with Albert Hammond Snr. On its release, the album wasn’t as well received. It only reached number nine in the UK album charts. Nor did the one single Well, Well, Well didn’t fare well either, reaching only number thirty-seven in the UK singles chart. Why did this album not fare so well? That is hard to explain. Maybe her split with Rough Trade Management and Jeanette Lee in January 2010, and the lack of Bernard Butler as mentor, writer and producer have affected her. Both Lee and Butler played a huge part in launching Duffy’s career. In February 2011, Duffy announced that she was taking a break from music before recording her next album. The big question for me is, will she ever replicate the success of Rockferry?
Rockferry opens with the title track Rockferry, one of the standout tracks on the album. The track opens with piano and guitar, the piano sounding slightly moody, the guitar chiming. Then a remarkable transformation occurs. Duffy sings. Her voice transports you back, back in time. It’s like revisiting the past, a time when singers like Dusty Springfield were in their prime. It’s a lovely retro sound. Her voice is loud, strong and confident. She has a great control of her voice, a wide vocal range and her voice is filled with sincerity. It’s a dramatic song, one that sweeps along, and builds to an emotional climax. A great song to start the album, it grabs your attention, and makes you long to hear how Duffy will follow such a strong song.
Having asked how she would follow Rockferry, the answer is quite simple, with a quite masterful track, one that is even better than the opening track. If ever a song painted a picture, then Warwick Avenue does. Warwick Avenue is about a love affair, one that has gone badly wrong, she sings of being hurt, feeling smothered and wanting to be free. So strong are the lyrics that you can visualize the scene playing out in front on you. You can imagine the turbulent relationship, empathize with her pain and hurt. In the end you too, want her to be free from this dreadful relationship. That is how strong the narrative is. The song has a retro sound and feel, beginning with bass and guitar, playing gently behind Duffy’s vocal. Her delivery is passionate, and emotional. As the song progresses, the sound builds, stings sweep in and out, leaving the minimal backdrop of guitar and bass. Towards the end, the song builds, the sound becoming bigger, Duffy’s emotional vocal is stunning. Quite simply, a brilliant song.
Serious has a very different sound than the previous two tracks. It has a brighter, more uptempo sound. That is until you listen to the lyrics. They’re another relationship song, again one that hasn’t gone well. She sings about feeling like an accessory to her partner, and being the butt of his jokes. The point of the song is how can he be serious about love when he behaves like this. When she sings the song, she doesn’t use such a wide vocal range. There are no soaring vocals, preferring to sing in a lower key. The song is well arranged and produced, it flows, benefiting from some great strings, piano playing and backing vocals. Like the other songs so far, the songs reference points are firmly in the past.
The next track is Stepping Stone, a song Duffy said was about not telling someone how she felt about them. It’s a personal song. Stepping Stone has a minimalist sound, Duffy’s voice sits at the front of the mix, behind her strings, drums and piano play quietly, allowing Duffy’s vocal to shine. This is a much better song than Serious, and much of that is down to the way the song has been arranged.
Duffy sighs at the start of Syrup and Honey, before singing, accompanied only by a guitar. Her voice is worldweary, sounding cynical about a relationship. She sings the song beautifully, producing an emotional performance, packed with feeling and frustration. The arrangement is hugely effective, just Duffy backed by guitar. This demonstrates how talented a vocalist she is.
Hanging On Too Long has a lovely subdued start, with just guitar, drums and string playing. When Duffy sings, her vocal is equally subtle. Quiet, gentle and thoughtful. Her voice is full of emotion and passion. The delivery is strong. Behind her strings sweep, a guitar plays and backing singers join Duffy, giving the song a gospel sound. For someone still quite young, her voice is both strong and mature. To be able to deliver this song so well, is testament to her talent, and a good production team.
Like Stepping Stone, the next track Mercy, is autobiographical. Duffy says it’s a song about sexual liberation and “not doing something somebody else wants you to do.” A dull drum sound starts the track, then when Duffy sings, you’re transported back to the 1960s’. It could almost be an old Northern Soul track. It has the perfect tempo, 130 beats per minute. Her vocal is both strong and sweet. The arrangement has a real retro sound, Duffy and her backing singers singing call and response. They’re a perfect foil for Duffy, and complete the retro sound. Mercy was a huge hit in 2008, and when you listen to this great song, you will hear why.
On Rockferry, the songs are a range of styles, and on Displayed Devotion, the style changes again. The soulfulness remains. That is a constant. Displayed Devotion is a slower song. Strings, drums and guitar provide a backdrop for Duffy’s sweet rendition of the song. Her voice is perfectly suited to the song, she carries it well, singing well within herself, never unleashing her powerful voice. Again, the song sounds from a different era. That said, it’s a glorious song, sung beautifully.
As I’m Scared begins minor chords play, the song meanders gently, Duffy sings, quietly at first, then more powerfully. For most of the song her voice is low and seductive. It draws you in, makes you listen carefully to the lyrics. They’ve a strong narrative, are very descriptive, allowing you a view of her world, and her sadness. The arrangement is perfect, understated, never overblown. Strings especially, bring out the beauty in the song. It allows her vocal to take centre-stage, on this lovely track.
Rockferry closes with Distant Dreamer. It’s a song with big sound, one where Duffy unleashes her voice, displaying her wide vocal range. The production takes as its reference point Phil Spector, and other 1960s’ producers. This is a wall of sound. When the song begins, you can sense this is going to be a dramatic song, one with a big sound. Distant Dreamer builds and builds, the sound gradually grows. Duffy’s voice gets louder and stronger. Her delivery is passionate, totally heartfelt. The production matches this, building the song up, so that it will end in a glorious crescendo. You witness a moment of high drama as the song moves towards its conclusion. Then suddenly, the tempo drops, the strings sweep and the song ends. Afterwards, you feel drained, after being caught up in the intensity and drama of this fantastically powerful song.
Rockferry is a wonderful album, one where the world was introduced to a hugely talented artist, blessed with a glorious voice. Duffy’s debut album was unusual, unusual in the sense that every song was of the highest quality. There are no second-rate songs or filler. She was fortunate to be surrounded by some hugely talented writers and producers. They helped bring out the her talent that she quite clearly had, and helped her to develop as a singer and songwriter. Bernard Butler’s influence was huge. He was not merely cowriter and producer, he was much more than that. Butler was very much Duffy’s mentor, teaching her about music and the music industry, and introducing her to the work of some wonderful artists. His role can’t be understated. Jeanette Lee at Rough Trade Management also had a huge role in shaping Duffy’s career, and like Butler, her contribution shouldn’t be underestimated. When she recorded Endlessly, neither Butler, nor Lee, were part of Duffy’s “team.” I wonder if Butler and Lee were still about, if Endlessly would’ve been a better, and more successful album. If I had anything to do with Duffy’s future, I would recommend reuniting with Butler, and starting where they left off with Rockferry.
Having spent some time listening to Rockferry and the follow up Endlessly, I’m left wondering why her record company didn’t stick with the personnel that produced Rockferry? That would have made sense. They could’ve developed Duffy’s career gradually, allowed her to explore new sounds and styles. Instead it was all change for Endlessly. Endlessly isn’t a bad album, quite the opposite, there are some good tracks on it. What it lacks is the quality of songs on Rockferry, and the slick arrangements and production. I hope that Duffy’s next album is more Rockferry than Endlessly. She is hugely talented, and possesses a fantastic voice. It would be a shame if she never scaled the heights of Rockferry again. Standout Track: Rockferry, Warwick Avenue, Mercy and Distant Dreamer.