TODAY, the Sun has published stills from a phone-flick of Amy doing crack at 5am one morning last week.
I’m not going to stick my oar in with any uninformed opinion about what she should do or not do – I’ll leave that to the likes of Carole fucking Malone – but I hope she can get through it. The girl’s got talent and she’s not so very bad when you get to meet her – but the Amy I met four years ago was a very different person to the one portrayed on the front page of the Sun today.
She just seems to be turning into a latterday Billie Holiday. For me, Winehouse has a voice which, in its own way, is every bit as arresting as Lady Day’s. All she’s lacking is the same calibre of tragically profound material – and she seems to be working on that as we speak. It’s a crying shame.
This is an interview with Amy from the end of 2004, whilst she was still working out the direction of her breakthrough Back To Black album – an album detailing her relationship with her future husband Blake Fielder-Civil …
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YOU know you’re getting somewhere when, as one of Amy Winehouse’s backing band puts it, your audience starts singing your songs back to you like they wrote them themselves.
“When I get out on stage and the crowd go mad, I can never believe it,” says Winehouse, fresh off the tour bus, as she teeters around in alarmingly high heels backstage in Liverpool before the second date of her current tour. “I think a trapdoor will open and I’m going to fall through it, like someone’s set me up for some big gag or something. I don’t get it, it’s weird.”
“Last night, songs off the album that I never used to play live, they were all singing along, the whole way through. I was like, wow!” She runs a hand through a bird’s nest of raven black hair. “Shit.”
While the initial buzz which accompanied the release of Frank, Winehouse’s astonishingly self-assured debut album, has, naturally enough, dissipated over the last year or so, Winehouse is finding that it has been replaced by something more lasting, and more powerful, as her intensely personal and often searingly honest songs gradually work their way into the very fabric of her audience’s lives.
The truth is, it would be surprising if they were not singing them back to her. Frank might not have sold in huge quantities initially – although it’s been racking them up steadily since – but it’s the kind of slow-burn modern classic that people discover in their own time, and can’t quite believe they’ve never heard before.
The album found the smooth urban stylings of producer Salaam Remi, who has worked with everyone from Ini Kamoze to Santana, underpinning Winehouse’s extraordinary jazz-influenced vocals, and wry, often corrosively honest, and occasionally bang out of order lyrics. It’s all the more remarkable for the fact that Winehouse was still a teenager when she wrote the majority of the songs on the album
“I wrote those songs so that people would love them and be able to hear them and say, that’s me, like I do when I listen to music,” she tells me. “That’s what I really hope for. It sounds so poofy, but that is what it is, really. And when they do that, it’s a really beautiful thing.”
A year ago, keen to establish who she was and what she did, Winehouse employed a combative, and, it has to be said, at times not particularly attractive persona in interviews. It felt like it was Amy versus the rest of the world, and Dido in particular. It seemed a pity that Winehouse seemed to getting more of a name for being a bit of a gobshite than being a talented musician with a great voice and fantastic songs.
“That’s what my Nan said to me,” she says with a laugh. “See, I don’t give a fuck about people who make shit music. I. Don’t. Give. A. Fuck. That’s it. But my Nan is right when she says to me, I know you’re a nice girl Amy. I know that, your family know that, but other people don’t know that. They think you’re a little bitch and that’s getting in the way of your music.”
The confidence of the young and prodigiously talented is still there but she’s thinking before she speaks a bit more these days. She’s got a lot on her mind.
As well as the current tour (“It’s not a quiet jazz show that needs to be in an intimate setting, not at all. I’m a fierce singer. I got a horn section. We got electric instruments, it’s a big a sound. It’s not a tame thing…”), she’s starting to think about her follow-up to Frank. It will, she says, be a little more cohesive than her debut.
“I love Frank, I’m so proud of it you know, but it was a big old fucking melting pot, there’s so much on it, which makes for a wicked live show but … I don’t know, maybe if I do an album that pretty much all sounds the same, the set will be really boring.”
“Anyway, I’m kind of doing two things at once. All the songs that I’m thinking of are either straight hip hop, sample-led songs or very quiet storm, guitars and um, a lot of heat, like a lot of guitar heat, warmth and … I’m just going to say heat and warmth and heat and hot guitars. They’re my two little tangents. So, cos I’m only really going one way or the other, I’m kinda making two albums at once. That’s cool.”
Is everyone offering you advice on the album? Do you have to close your mind to all that?
“Nah, because, I mean, mmm,“ she pauses and thinks better of what she was going to say, her Nan’s advice clearly going through her mind. “I don’t know. I’m Jewish, yeah? So I’m one of those people who thinks that, at the end of the day, my opinion’s always right, my gut instinct is always right. I think that’s a Jewish thing. Or whatever.”
“There’s a lot of people who are like, listen girl, I know what you’ve sold. It’s dis-gus-ting. You are so much better than sales like that. I know how to save your career honey, you need to go and do a tune with rarararar, and I’m like, listen, freak, I know what’s good for me, yeah, and they’re a prick and so are you. Bye.”
So have you worked out where you fit in then?
“I don’t, and that’s pretty cool. I’m clearer about what I want now. My thing is, I’d like to be the kind of band like the Roy Ayers’ band, or Kool and the Gang, and be out three hundred days a year doing gigs. Cos that’s me, that’s my thing, that’s what I come from. Stuff like this is fine, doing interviews, that’s cool, but I could sit here and talk for four hours or I could sing four songs and say more in those four songs than I ever could in four hours. That’s just the way I am.”
“Everyone’s got their own path and now I’ve realised that, it’s cool.”
[This interview first appeared in City Life magazine in November 2004]
See also: Amy Winehouse January 2004 interview