British soul singer Duffy debuts in the U.S.

There must be something in the water in Wales. The country has a population of less than 3 million, but it has put some great talents on the international musical landscape over the decades: chanteuse Dame Shirley Bassey, crooner and leather-panted sex symbol Tom Jones, opera singers Katherine Jenkins and Charlotte Church, hordes of Welsh choirs and, of course, Catherine Zeta-Jones, who won an Oscar for her singing and clogging in "Chicago." And now Duffy (who eschews using her first name, Aimee), a 23-year-old blonde Welsh soul singer, looks set to enter that esteemed group of her countrymen and women.

Her debut album, "Rockferry," has already been a huge success across Europe since its release earlier this spring; it topped the Pan-European Album Chart as well as reaching number one in Britain, Ireland, Greece and Sweden. Her first single off the album, "Mercy," a soulful tune with Motown echoes, topped the Eurochart Hot 100 for weeks. This week Duffy will be everywhere when her album is released in the U.S. "Rockferry" will be for sale in 8,000 Starbucks. She'll be feted on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien." And on May 12 she performed at New York's Apollo Theater. "Her music is incredibly evocative, and she has real strength in her voice," says Jo Whiley, a DJ for BBC's Radio 1, who was the first to promote her music on the influential British station. "Her music is different from everything else around at the moment, and I think Americans are going to fall for her hook, line and sinker."

What distinguishes this charming young woman with the sweet face is her background: she grew up in the tiny coastal community of Nefyn in northern Wales, where you got to the nearest music store by taking a bus to another town. She says it was her father's musical taste that set the standard for what she found influential—records of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Motown were all a part of her formative musical years. "I did have [access] to Top 40, but I just never connected with it," she says. "I have this desperate respect for Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Motown in the 1970s, because for me music has to stand the test of time before I can really yearn for it."

Duffy's world changed when her parents divorced and she, along with her fraternal twin sister and another sister, moved to a bigger town and into a Brady Bunch-ish family of stepsiblings when her mother remarried. She says she would have loved to have taken voice lessons, but there was never any money to do so. But a tuned-in music teacher at her new school quickly recognized that this girl had a voice. On the first day of class the teacher singled her out for a solo. That was, she says, a pivotal acknowledgment that she had something more than a voice for the shower.

After appearing on a Welsh show similar to "American Idol" (she came in second) she moved to Chester to attend university. While at school she supplemented her income by working in a restaurant, a fishery and a local jazz club, where she built up a following that included fellow musicians who spotted her talent and introduced her to Jeanette Lee, part owner of the powerful Rough Trade Records.

Soon Duffy was hanging out in the Rough Trade offices in London and working on an album. "No one in the office knew who I was. They must have thought I was an intern there to make coffee," Duffy says, laughing. "We had a mutual vision for what we wanted to achieve, and Jeanette did not even tell her business partner about me [because] if we let anyone else in we thought it might dilute it." The album was three years in the making, with Duffy working closely with record producer Bernard Butler. "She has a beautiful voice and technically she is superb, which is a rare thing," Butler says. "We know from rubbish shows like 'The X Factor' that there are a lot of singers who can perform well, but it is a rare thing to have a quality that puts a tingle down your spine."

Though Lee and Duffy were working incognito, the British music industry managed to get wind of what they were quietly soldiering away on. Lee began having to turn down offers to introduce her talented ingénue. It was a time, says Butler, for Duffy to soak up musical influences she had never come across in her sheltered childhood in Wales. "She was with me when she bought an iPod, and she would come round to my house and I would fill it up for her each time with dribs and drabs starting from the ground up," Butler says. "All musicians are like sponges: you squeeze it and it comes out in some beautiful way or not. With Duffy gold dust came out."

Last autumn, after signing a record deal, Duffy was released like a storm on the British musical press. "When I heard her songs, I booked her straight away on my show," says the BBC's Whiley. "We had her perform in this massive church and she just blew everyone away." Her talent is on full display in such songs as "Warwick Avenue," a breakup song without any guile or cheese, sung with smoky vocals and a powerful, lifting, heartbreaking crescendo. "Rockferry," a nod to her father's hometown in Wales, is a different song—recorded in only one take—with no chorus but sweeping vocals and pounding piano that give imagery of crashing waves and divine isolation.

With the press always desperate for comparisons, many have hailed her as "the new Amy Winehouse," the talented but troubled British jazz singer. Duffy politely scoffs at this association of same-named Amys. "It is quite shallow to think someone is replaceable," Duffy says. "I am not a jazz singer, but what can you do? I am not going to complain about what people are saying." And audiences certainly aren't going to complain about Duffy.