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Duffy once had one of the fieriest voices in British pop – I hope she can find it again

Duffy in 2010
Duffy in 2010 Credit: AP

The story of Duffy’s misbegotten music career was already a strange one before her disturbing announcement that she has spent many reclusive years recovering from sexual assault. Perhaps it will start to make sense of how an artist with so much success, so much talent and so much promise could throw it all away.

Before this, to be honest, Duffy was already something of a cautionary tale in the music business, considered a near text-book exercise in career self-destruction. Following years of painstaking nurturing and development that delivered the breakout success of her world beating 2008 debut, Rockferry, Duffy split with her management, producers and co-writers to make a follow up on her own terms. It flopped.

And that was it. In 2008, the firebrand retro soul Welsh singer-songwriter had the world at her feet. By 2011, her career was effectively over. It was as if she just gave up at the first setback. There were a couple of cancelled concert appearances, and a brief appearance in British crime thriller Legend in 2015, but really no serious attempt to get her career back on track. She became a baffling footnote in UK pop history, the superstar who might have been.

I met Duffy before her debut album came out in 2008, and she struck me as really lovely, a friendly, chatty torrent of hyperactivity. “I like to talk,” she told me, which was an understatement. She was already talking when she arrived like a little whirlwind for our interview at her PR’s office and barely let me get a word in edgewise for the next hour. “I’m a bit of a music geek!” she said. Small in stature, with a big beehive hairdo and even bigger voice, Duffy’s enthusiasm and sheer passion was infectious. It was easy to see why she was being tipped for such big things.

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You can only imagine the amount of times I thought about writing this. The way I would write it, how I would feel thereafter. Well, not entirely sure why now is the right time, and what it is that feels exciting and liberating for me to talk. I cannot explain it. Many of you wonder what happened to me, where did I disappear to and why. A journalist contacted me, he found a way to reach me and I told him everything this past summer. He was kind and it felt so amazing to finally speak. The truth is, and please trust me I am ok and safe now, I was raped and drugged and held captive over some days. Of course I survived. The recovery took time. There’s no light way to say it. But I can tell you in the last decade, the thousands and thousands of days I committed to wanting to feel the sunshine in my heart again, the sun does now shine. You wonder why I did not choose to use my voice to express my pain? I did not want to show the world the sadness in my eyes. I asked myself, how can I sing from the heart if it is broken? And slowly it unbroke. In the following weeks I will be posting a spoken interview. If you have any questions I would like to answer them, in the spoken interview, if I can. I have a sacred love and sincere appreciation for your kindness over the years. You have been friends. I want to thank you for that x Duffy Please respect this is a gentle move for me to make, for myself, and I do not want any intrusion to my family. Please support me to make this a positive experience.

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She was one of a number of retro-styled big voiced female singers being fast-tracked for fame in the wake of the success of Amy Winehouse. Her given name was actually Aimee Duffy, shortened presumably to avoid confusion with Winehouse. Her chief rival at the time was another new signing, Adele Adkins, who was working on her own debut album with some of the same songwriters and producers.

Duffy had grown up in quite a secluded home environment in the north Wales seaside town of Nefyn. Welsh was her first language. She told me there was no record collection, no music stores, just Radio 2 and her father’s video of black and white Sixties TV pop show Ready Steady Go, which was where she developed her fixation on the sounds and styles of an era from before she was born.

She admitted to me that as a teenager she had a crush on Mick Jagger and idolised Sandy Shaw, which was certainly unusual for someone born in 1984. "I have always had an affinity for nostalgic music,” she admitted. “We weren't aware of the latest trends. For me, music was so far removed from belonging to anything." 

Duffy sang in a lot of local bands (“I was like a pessimistic lover. I knew that none of them would work out, but I kept them on the go for enjoyment’s sake”) and at 16 took part in Wawffactor, a Welsh language version of the Pop Idol talent show format. She came second but hated the whole experience. She continued singing and recording demos, and at 19 was talent spotted by Jeanette Lee, a much-admired music industry veteran who co-founded Rough Trade Records.

It was an unusual pairing. With a background in punk, indie and experimental music (Lee was briefly a member of John Lydon’s post Sex Pistols band Public Image Ltd), Lee did not seem an obvious fit for a bright eyed pop singer but she clearly put a lot of care into helping Duffy develop her music. It was Lee who hooked Duffy up with Bernard Butler, the former Suede guitarist, who in turn helped Duffy develop her epic retro sound with the Phil-Spector-meets-Gene-Pitney sweep of Rockferry (the very first song Butler and Duffy wrote together).

Rather than signing Duffy to her own leftfield independent label, Lee arranged a deal with major label A&M. They spent four years cultivating Duffy’s songs and image rather than just rushing her out, and they reaped the rewards when (in the wake of Winehouse’s commercial breakthrough) Duffy eventually came out with a series of smash hit singles (including the UK number one soul stomper Mercy) and a seven million selling debut album, Rockferry.

In 2008, Duffy was the girl to beat, outselling Adele and Amy Winehouse. In 2009, she collected three Brit awards and a Grammy award in the US, where her rough-edged soul was making big waves. She was on top of the pop world.

Duffy backstage at the Brit Awards 2009  Credit: AP

But then she did the thing that major record companies fear most. She demanded more control of her music. She fell out with her manager, and they parted company. Instead of continuing to work with the British songwriters who had helped craft her sound (Butler, Eg White, Jimmy Hogarth and Steve Booker) she relocated to New York to work exclusively with veteran writer and producer Albert Hammond.

Although Hammond is actually British and has written many classic hits (including The Air that I Breathe for the Hollies) his latterday career had been focused on the glossier and more sentimental power ballads of Whitney Houston and Celine Dion. Rockferry essayed a brand of American soul viewed through grimy, dusty British nostalgia.

It had an odd crackle of its own, weird enough to somehow sound modern. The slick follow-up, Endlessly, was just too fully Americanised and schmaltzy for its own good. It barely scraped into the UK top 10 and went on to sell less than a 10th of her debut.

The cover of Duffy's second album, Endlessly

Artists have come back from worse. One of the strange things about the Duffy debacle is how quickly her label A&M and Duffy herself seemed to lose faith in the project. They only released one single from the album, Well, Well, Well (a track apparently purpose built to sound as much like Mercy as possible). Duffy split with her new manager (they wound up in a lawsuit) and announced she was taking a two-year hiatus that extended for the rest of the decade.

Whilst her rival Adele was seizing the initiative and conquering the world, Duffy faded into premature obscurity. She dated Welsh Rugby star Mike Phillips from September 2009 to May 2011 but little more is known about her private life. There was an odd story in October 2012 of Duffy escaping from a fire in her rented £12m Kensington penthouse apartment.

In 2015, there was a little flurry of activity around her cameo role as real life 1960s soul singer Timi Yuro in the Tom Hardy movie Legend (about crime siblings the Kray twins) which briefly inspired talk of a comeback but nothing came of it. A new Duffy song was released, Whole Lot of Love, but failed to chart. She had gone from being the biggest star in Britain to yesterday’s girl. Until now, it would have been hard to imagine she had anyone to blame but her own hubris.

Duffy as Timi Yuro in the Krays biopic

In her February Instagram post that sent shockwaves through the music business, Duffy hinted at other reasons for her reclusiveness. Whilst she reveals that she was “raped and drugged and held captive over some days” she doesn’t say when this happened, although she does go on to talk of how she has coped with “the last decade, the thousands and thousands of days I committed to wanting to feel the sunshine in my heart again.”

Now she has given more details, writing on her website:  "It was my birthday, I was drugged at a restaurant, I was drugged then for four weeks and travelled to a foreign country.

"I can't remember getting on the plane and came round in the back of a travelling vehicle. I was put into a hotel room and the perpetrator returned and raped me."

She goes on to explain that upon returning to the UK, she retreated from the world and contemplated suicide. "I can now leave this decade behind," she concludes. "Where the past belongs. Hopefully no more 'what happened to Duffy questions', now you know… and I am free."

Misery is sometimes considered the very essence of artistic inspiration and music is often celebrated as a healing force but whatever trauma Duffy suffered evidently was simply too dark for her art. “You wonder why I did not choose to use my voice to express my pain? I did not want to show the world the sadness in my eyes," Duffy wrote in February. "I asked myself, how can I sing from the heart if it is broken?”

It sounds as if she might be ready to sing again. When I think about the young woman I met back when her career was just beginning, so vivacious and full of life, so absolutely enthused by music, I really hope she can find a way back.