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Women leading the next British Invasion

After the success of Amy Winehouse and Lilly Allen, singer Duffy and others such as chart-topper Leona Lewis, Adele, Kate Nash, Laura Marling, Estelle and Amy MacDonald are mapping out their own paths from Europe to the United States.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Singer Duffy sits next to a clear blue swimming pool on a hotel rooftop patio, the sun setting behind her blond bouffant. She takes a sip of her drink, widens her blue eyes and grins.

“Just like the movies!” she exclaims about the setting — repeating a waiter’s observation.

It all does seem just like the movies, and a long journey for an ambitious gal raised in a tiny town in North Wales who now lives in London. Just hours earlier, she performed her ’60s-inspired hit “Mercy” for the first time on U.S. television, singing her heart out for a taping of “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” A day earlier, she played to a sweaty crowd at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in the California desert. Her album “Rockferry” — already a chart-topping smash in England — made its U.S. debut Tuesday.

The 23-year-old — born Aimee Anne Duffy, but known simply as Duffy — is one of several young female singers from the United Kingdom descending on the United States.

Amy Winehouse, whose double-platinum U.S. debut “Back to Black” album won five Grammys earlier this year, and fellow London crooner Lily Allen’s critically acclaimed debut, “Alright, Still,” may have jump-started this so-called British Invasion. But Duffy and others such as chart-topper Leona Lewis, Adele, Kate Nash, Laura Marling, Estelle and Amy MacDonald are mapping out their own paths from Europe to the United States, and the women are all unique.

Still, some have dubbed them the “new Amys.”

Duffy sighs at the comparisons.

“I kind of want to be left alone a little bit, with that. I want to hide. I prefer to be not known than to be known as something completely wrong,” Duffy said during an interview at a Los Angeles-area hotel.

Producer Mark Ronson, who won a Grammy this year for his work with Winehouse and has produced for Allen, said people are intrigued about British female artists now because before those singers made a flourish in 2007, British women hadn’t had much of an impact on the charts in recent years.

“For a long time, the female solo artist, all of the U.S. pop ones ... had a real stranglehold on the pop music charts,” Ronson told the AP.

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“They really broke open the door I think for a lot of other artists, even though I don’t think any of them sound the same,” added Ronson, who is also a producer for Adele and Estelle (the singer-rapper described as a British Lauryn Hill).

Lewis has had the most success in the post-Winehouse era: Her debut album, “Spirit,” debuted at the top of the charts in March and is nearing platinum status, and her song “Bleeding Love” became the first by a British female to top Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in 21 years.

Nash also performed at Coachella. Singer-songwriter Adele (full name Adele Adkins) has gained fans for her bluesy voice and unabashed curves: Her debut CD “19,” platinum-selling album in Britain, is due out here in June.

Krissi Murison, deputy editor of British music magazine New Music Express, said attention paid to these women, and female-fronted British bands such as the Duke Spirit and the Ting Tings, is growing.

“I think it’s really exciting. The pop charts were very very bland here. And the same in the U.S., I think,” she continued. “These women don’t seem to have gone through that manufacturing. They’re funny, dark in places. They have an edgy humor and personality, (they are) a breath of fresh air.”

For Nash, comparisons to artists such as Lily Allen because of their similarly twangy accent and wry songs has caused some frustration. She cited her own diverse background, from playing classical music as a kid to loving punk rock bands such as the Buzzcocks later on.

“I feel like sometimes I’m being boxed, because sometimes it’s almost patronizing. I think a lot of it comes from the media,” Nash said. “It’s something you have to forget about. ... I find it sexist.”

The poised Duffy, 5’2” with dimpled cheeks, a chatty demeanor, no visible tattoos and no winged eyeliner, comes across as the opposite of Winehouse. She may be petite, but her vibrato-filled voice lifts tunes such as the heartbroken “Warwick Avenue” and hopeful “Distant Dreamer” with an old soul’s wisdom.

Her parents divorced when she was 10, there was no record shop in her hometown, her first language was Welsh and she was a runner-up in what she calls a “low budget” “American Idol”-type show in Wales when she was a teenager.

Further demonstrating that she may be the polar opposite to the troubled, sometimes drug-addled Winehouse, Duffy says she thinks “it’s important to have good morals.”

“I refuse to believe that music is that hard that you have to take drugs to get through it. Come on. Would you rather be working at Safeway or In-N-Out Burger? Then I could understand you would do it to escape, no disrespect,” Duffy says.

Described by some as the second-coming of Dusty Springfield, Duffy name-dropped ’60s and ’70s singer Scott Walker as an inspiration, but said pinpointing a litany of influences would “destroy the mystery.”

“I read this quote once, by Phil Spector, who said that pop music was made by lonely people for lonely people. I was wondering if there was a point in my life where I slightly felt that. We’ve all been there,” Duffy says. “But that’s when I feel lonely, when I’m not making music. It’s the only thing I have that’s mine, that I’m sharing. It’s a contradiction from what he says. He says he’s lonely so he makes music. If I don’t make music, then I’m lonely.”

At the end of the day, whether these women have any staying power comes down to the quality of the songs, said Nic Harcourt, the host of Los Angeles radio station KCRW’s trendsetting music show “Morning Becomes Eclectic.”

“I’ve lived here for 20 years. It’s always exciting when there’s a new cycle,” said Harcourt. “It says a lot about the state of American music right now that these female artists are coming up with something that is more of a throwback. ... Maybe they’ll encourage more American women to get out there.”