Happy 10th Anniversary to Duffy’s debut album Rockferry, originally released March 3, 2008.
When I first listened to Duffy’s debut album Rockferry, I really thought it would be the start of a long and productive career. Unfortunately, she arrived at a time between Amy Winehouse’s peak and Adele’s ascent. The window was small, but Duffy succeeded in making her mark in a very short time.
Rockferry is a perfect combination of pop and blue-eyed soul that works due to its creator’s sweet and subtle delivery. She was different from Amy Winehouse in that there was none of the turmoil and anguish swirling around her. It was just about the music and nothing else. As I write this, I’m becoming painfully aware that I’m doing the one thing that immediately put Duffy behind the 8 ball upon the release of Rockferry. I’m drawing unfair comparisons between Duffy and Winehouse, and every other white female singer from the UK for that matter. She deserves better.
Upon listening to Rockferry, you can definitely hear all of the influences, but it does not come off as an act of appropriation. Duffy’s manager at the time, Jeanette Lee of the infamous Rough Trade Records, introduced her to Bernard Butler, former guitarist for Suede. The pair hit it off and began writing the songs for what would eventually become Rockferry. They created a sound that was part Northern Soul, part Burt Bacharach with a little Dusty Springfield tossed into the mix.
While writing the songs for Rockferry, Butler also loaded music onto her iPod that he felt would expand her musical palate. The artists included Al Green, Bettye Swann and Ann Peebles. Duffy told The Guardian in 2009, “Bettye Swann is one of my biggest inspirations, but this song (“Cover Me”) has particular importance for me because it marks the time I got interested in physical contact. I was 19, and here was a woman singing ‘Cover me, spread your precious love all over me’. It's very tender, but it's also, hilariously, quite crude, so I'd make my friends listen to it and we'd all giggle. She's the unsung heroine of soul music. I believe that the strength of soul is in the words and the feeling of devotion—when you sacrifice everything, it's soul music.” Duffy also listened to Bowie, Dylan and Arcade Fire for inspiration.
What Duffy lacks in full-on swagger, she more than makes up for with very strong songwriting. She was the co-writer of the album’s ten songs which are an awesome display of drama without bombast. In an interview with the Daily Star, Duffy remarked, "At times we wondered if it would ever be released. I'm just this girl from Wales—it could have done nothing and I could have faded into obscurity.” Butler wasn’t even paid for the gig. The album was done on a very tight budget.
As a result, the album took nearly four years to make. They hopped back and forth from tiny studio to tiny studio and sometimes there would be periods that would last 2-3 weeks where no writing and recording got done. In the same interview, Duffy reflected, “Something happened when it was eventually released—it just connected. I've been gobsmacked by the response." The album’s opening track “Rockferry,” an ode to her grandmother’s home town, was placed in Spin Magazine’s list of the 20 best songs of 2008.
The breakthrough single “Mercy” was released almost a month before the album and received great critical acclaim. Digital Spy’s Nick Levine wrote, “(‘Mercy’ is) a catchy, danceable Northern soul pastiche and that bassline practically reeks of sweat and stale cigarette smoke - it conjures up images of Twiggy strutting down the King's Road in a mini-skirt and kinky boots.” “Mercy” hit number-one in the UK one week after its release. "I think I’m a bit all over the place, I can't quite handle it,” Duffy admitted to the Daily Post North Wales. I was aiming for top 40, possibly top 10, so I can genuinely tell you I am really blown away.” The video was in heavy rotation on VH1 and on many Adult Contemporary Rock stations.
With the exception of “Warwick Avenue” (#3 in the UK), subsequent singles, “Stepping Stone” and “Rain on Your Parade” did not chart as high as “Mercy,” but they did cement Rockferry’s status as one the best releases of 2008. It also was the fourth best-selling album worldwide in 2008 according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. The accolades continued on into the next year as Rockferry captured the Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Album at the 51st Annual Grammy Awards.
Just as quickly as she appeared to American audiences, Duffy faded away after a failed second album (2010’s Endlessly). Rockferry has the distinction of being great on its own merits. Whether we like it or not, the comparisons to her contemporaries Winehouse, Adele and Joss Stone are inevitable, but the thing I love about Rockferry is how it eases into the room and puts you in a good place. The vocal pyrotechnics are not present, nor do they need to be. An example of great craftsmanship, Duffy’s debut work is an unsung album that offers a respectful nod to the past with both feet planted in the present. It’s that rainy day album you’ve always been looking for.