AMY WINEHOUSE might look like she’s been dragged though a hedge backwards but she walks into the hotel bar like she owns the place. We’re introduced and she informs the photographer that, nah, he won’t be taking any pictures while we do the interview. She’s just this minute off the tour bus.
”Look at the state of me,” she says, unnecessarily. Everyone is looking at her already.
“Trust me,” soothes the snapper. “I can do something artistic with the computer later on.”
“Yeah? Well, I’m doing something artistic with these zits now. We’ll do the pictures later.”
Winehouse is every bit as precocious as her remarkable debut album Frank would have you believe. By her own admission, the 20-year-old singer and composer doesn’t suffer fools gladly and doesn’t take shit from anyone. She isn’t here to make friends.
”I don’t front to anyone,” she says between long drags on a Marlboro Light. “I’ll be honest about everything. It’s funny how even that can get you into trouble. People think what they want. That’s cool. People’s perception of me isn’t my perception of myself. I haven’t changed.”
She’s always been like this – direct, abrupt, a bit impatient. At school, she and a friend who shared her love for to US hip hop duo Salt ‘N’ Pepa started performing their own rhymes (such as Boys – Who Needs Them? and Who are the Glamour Chicks? Us!) under the name Sweet ‘N’Sour. Winehouse was sour.
She’s always believed that you learn by doing, not by being told what to do by someone else. This didn’t always play well with the people who had to educate her.
Every inch the London girl, Winehouse was brought up in a reasonably well-off Jewish family in East Finchley. She grew up absorbing the music she heard around her, her mum’s Carole King and James Taylor, her dad’s Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington, her nan’s Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, her brother’s Michael Jackson and later, John Coltrane.
“They were a good influence,” reflects Winehouse, brushing raven black hair from slightly bleary eyes. “I’m very lucky, because you get fucking ‘coo-coo-ca-choo’ shit in some people’s parents’ record collections and it’s like, good luck trying to find your way. I’ve been lucky to have a family that’ve been listening to the right stuff, innit.”
A couple of years after her parents divorced, Winehouse won a scholarship to Sylvia Young’s stage school, where, alongside classmates Billie Piper and one of the chipmunks from Busted, she developed her interest in the performing arts as a whole. Or at least that was the idea:
“I’d heard all these stories about the Lane’s Girls never being allowed out to auditions unless their hair was in a bun and they were wearing fresh pink lipstick. And I just thought” – sharp intake of breath – “I wanna be a Lane’s Girl and be six foot two and wear ballerina dresses; I was quite swept up with it. It was fun.
“I didn’t realise how serious I was about it until they kicked me out…”
Turning up with a nose-ring one morning, combined with a perceived lack of application and her natural outspoken bolshiness, got her expelled from the school. She moved on to a single sex establishment.
“I hated it,” spits Winehouse. “There were no men there. I was gutted! Them girls there, they were, I dunno, they were just all so wrong. There were two girls there I liked. The rest of them were just…weird. They were like men. I got there and I was like, faacking ‘ell!”
Every dinnertime, every free period, Winehouse would sit in the music room playing her guitar. She wrote her first song for part of her GCSE music coursework – she got a D, thanks, she says, to a miserable music teacher who didn’t even submit her composition.
“I just used these jazz chords that I was learning at the time, and that was it. The first song I ever wrote. I did it in three minutes. And I was like, this is easy,” she remembers, cocky as hell. “And I could do better as well. That’s when I realised that I wanted to write some serious music.”
It’s handy to be able to drag a positive outcome from that kind of negative situation.
“Definitely. I apply that to all my songwriting. Negative experiences, I turn into positives. I won’t live by negative experiences. I’ll make it good.” She shrugs. “That’s just me.”
By the age of 16, she’d recorded a demo tape of jazz standards and was swiftly signed to Universal/Island via an offshoot of Spice Girls svengali Simon Fuller’s 19 Management. Though Winehouse’s album was some three years in the making (“I’m not someone who can be handed an album to record in two weeks. I’m someone who needs to write an album. And it takes two-and-a-half years …”), Frank has been fantastically well received in the months since its release, garnering no less than two Brit Awards nominations.
Winehouse is characteristically unimpressed.
”I dunno,” she muses, studying her tattooed arms. “The Brit Awards is an awards ceremony that doesn’t necessarily represent real music in this country. Don’t you just take it with a pinch of salt?
“I’m up for Best Female, which is really Dido’s award. She has to get that. That’s cool. But if she wins more that one Brit – I hope they keep that camera on because I’ll be like, no! It doesn’t really mean anything,” she decides, “any of it. It’s still the Brits. So what?
“It’s like I always say about Pop Idol – it’s good because you need shit music at the front so that the underground gets stronger. There’s enough people who listen to the majority of chart music and think, what the fuck is that? That doesn’t represent me or anyone I know.
“That’s exactly what happened to me. I didn’t start writing because I wanted to be famous. I started writing because I couldn’t hear anything that was any good. I just thought to myself, I’ll just write something that I want to hear.
“That’s all I’m doing, even now.”
Winehouse is a laugh-a-minute, a natural flirt who uses eyes, hips, and breasts to maximum effect. She’s got a bone-dry sense of humour and a refreshing unaffected straightforwardness seldom found in major label artists. And she’s very opinionated.
But without this bloody-minded confidence in her own prodigious talent, it’s unlikely that Winehouse could have produced anything as robustly self-assured as her debut album. I know I’m going to be listening to it for years to come.
Frank plays like an old jazz album but its lazy hip hop dynamics and lyrical nods to borrowed Erykah Badu albums and returned Moschino bras place it very firmly in the here and now. She calls her music her own “psychological therapy” and she doesn’t pull her punches. Searingly, even corrosively honest, Winehouse doesn’t balk at making herself – and other people – look bad.
An occasionally bitter pill is sweetened considerably by some wryly humorous asides and Winehouse’s soulful purr just stops you in your tracks – but never was an album so aptly named as Frank.
The album finds Winehouse pondering her dad’s infidelities in the light of her own role as the other woman (What is it About Men?), berating an older boyfriend for his emotional immaturity and, even worse, erectile dysfunction (Stronger Than Me) and finding that happiness is a new guitar (Cherry) and sadness a dead canary (October Song).
“You can be at a point where you’re so fraught about something, the words come quickly,” she says of her candid, intensely personal songwriting style. “Stronger than Me, I had it in me, but I couldn’t really finish it until I’d got to a certain level in the relationship. It took me a while to write that one.”
Isn’t that a bit off-putting for blokes, knowing they might end up in one of her songs?
“Any man who’s put off by a song is not the kind of man I want to be with, know what I mean?”
[This interview first appeared in the Big Issue in the North in January 2004. Image taken from the official Amy Winehouse site]
See also: Amy Winehouse November 2004 interview