There were no record shops in the neighborhood, and the nearest one was two bus rides away. The tiny, hopelessly conventional Welsh town where Aimee Anne Duffy grew up offered next to nothing in the way of soul education.
But years later, the singer, who goes by just her last name, would find the earthy stylist within. A new world opened up when, at about age 19 or 20, she discovered the sounds of Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and other legends from soul's golden era. Such vintage sounds largely inspired Rockferry, her critically lauded, gold-selling debut that was released in March.
Despite the rave reviews (four stars from Spin and Rolling Stone magazines), the CD doesn't introduce any fresh shades or textures. The album self-consciously rehashes the urbane sounds of '60s pop, replete with majestic strings and chirpy backup vocals. Echoes of Motown, Phil Spector's Wall of Sound and Dusty Springfield haunt the well-meaning set of wide-eyed tunes about new and doomed love.
"I'm not Bob Dylan, so I'm not writing about politics and the world," says Duffy, 24. The singer-songwriter performs at Virgin Mobile Festival on Saturday afternoon. "I'm just dealing with being young. I never get the songs that are too smart, that are political. Maybe I'll get there. Right now, I just know the feelings of love and hate."
Her retro-soul leanings and emotionally honest lyrics have drawn comparisons to fellow British soul sensation, the troubled but talented Amy Winehouse. Some critics have reached further back, calling Duffy the "new Dusty Springfield." Understanding the pop community's tendency to slap burgeoning artists with the "new so-and-so" tag, Duffy says she's not fazed by any of it.
"You can't control what people think or say," says the singer, who was in London last week. "I've become the new this, the new that. I just take it on the chin. It's important to know I have my own music to make. I have my own story."
Duffy was born in 1984 in northern Wales. She and her twin sister, Katy, and older sister, Kelly, lived with their mother after her parents divorced when Duffy was 10. The singer also learned to speak English at that age, having spoken only Welsh up till then. Although she had no record collection and limited access to cinema and TV, Duffy knew early on that she wanted to be a performer. She was inspired by an old, grainy videotape she found at her father's house. It was a 1960s performance by the Rolling Stones on the old TV rock show Ready Steady Go!.
"I come from a traditional family who wanted me to be a nurse or teacher or something," she says. "I just wanted to be in music. Everyone else grew up wanting to get into music, because they grew up listening to something. But not me. I wasn't in love with anything. I just wanted to sing."
But not everybody felt she could. Her prematurely husky voice didn't win her a place in the school choir. "I auditioned during my lunch hours. I guess I wasn't good enough," she says. Still, she kept singing and soon started writing songs. At 16, the restless budding artist decided to leave her "ghost town" and travel around Switzerland for six weeks to find herself. During that time, she wrote more songs and worked with different bands. When her money ran out, she returned to Wales, where she was soon scouted by Wawffactor, a Welsh American Idol-style show. After winning the runner-up spot, she snagged a string of gigs as a background vocalist. But she grew tired of having "no room artistically."
Duffy was considering giving up music altogether in 2004 when she received a call from veteran music exec Jeannette Lee. A three-song demo Duffy had recorded early in the year landed on her desk, and Lee agreed to become the young singer's manager. Duffy soon moved to London, where she met producer Bernard Butler, and the two started recording a slew of songs, several of which ended up on Rockferry.
"Each song was a world unto itself," Duffy says. "The picture was forming for me, but my producers thought I was crazy. The songs go from something extreme and cold to something sunny. But my producer was very patient. It was like being with a lover who loves you enough to let you be yourself."
With a well-placed quiver here and a snarl there, Duffy's sound can be a bit mannered. Sometimes, her vocals don't quite buttress the conviction in the lyrics. The slightly maudlin ballad "Syrup & Honey" is a prime example. But more often than not, Duffy displays a refreshing vocal flair for understated drama. She allows the lyrical stories to nicely unfold, as heard on the bluesy "Warwick Avenue" and the melancholic "Stepping Stone," perhaps the strongest cut on the album.
Although she has been tossed in the group of British female soul revivalists that includes Winehouse, Joss Stone and Adele, Duffy says soul is more than just a style for her. It's a spiritual affirmation.
"The music - it's just pure emotion," she says. "It wasn't so much an influence but an encouragement for me to express my emotions. It was therapy: Aretha, Sam Cooke, Ann Peebles. It was a great expansion of myself. It enabled me to find my strength."
See Duffy perform 1:10 p.m.-1:55 p.m. Saturday on the Virgin Mobile Festival's North Stage.