Early in 2004 I met Amy Winehouse in a London café, just before it filled up with lunch-time customers. She had a well-received first album in the shops, but she was largely unknown to the general public. All her fame and notoriety would come later. The piece was done for The Word. Sadly, as we know, Amy died in 2011.
This year’s girl sits in a Camden Town tapas bar. She’s a young pop star in waiting with a record that everyone loves. But she endures the WORD photo shoot with a show of martyred patience. Amy Winehouse does not look as happy as you might expect, and I settle in for the interview thinking this one could be heavy going. But when our small talk turns to London her mood magically brightens.
“Oh, I love this city! I love it. Wherever I go in the world, to land back in London is the best feeling. I get to see so many amazing places when I’m working, like Miami, and I think, I could live here. But then I go, Yeah, but I wouldn’t be in London.”
Last year Amy Winehouse made a great London album. Frank was her diary of a torrid adolescence –she was just 19 when it was recorded – sung with the funky melisma of a jazz veteran and the glottal stops of a mouthy schoolgirl on the Piccadilly Line. It’s a great piece of modern British R&B: for all its vintage American stylings, Frank could not have been made anywhere but in London, in the 21st century.
“Thank you so much!” she beams. “That is the best compliment you could pay to me. The city is really important to me. I’ve always been a really independent girl. From the age of 13 or so I’ve always found my own way in the city and there’s nothing I like more than to find another part that I didn’t already know. It really fascinates me. It’s a really English album but I guess I’m a typically English girl.”
So we’re getting along OK, this year’s girl and this morning’s interviewer. She has a striking, exotic look. Being curvy and with a pronounced bone structure Winehouse looks Amazonian in some photographs, but is actually petite in person. Yet she has a cold stare that you guess she could deploy to deadly effect. She is very bright, though not in a systematic way, as if she has learnt so much so quickly that the patterns have not yet come together in her head. She seems a forthright young woman, and her conversational manner is confrontational. By the interview’s end, however, she looks preoccupied by private anxieties.
She already has a reputation for moodiness. Overnight success seldom makes people easier to get along with. But some reports suggest that Amy Winehouse has gone from nought to Van Morrison. Sauntering over to Camden Town I felt like one of those brave chaps in bomb disposal, who crawl up to unexploded devices. With perspiring brow they manipulate the delicate, deadly wiring: one false move and – KA-BOOM! – there goes the neighbourhood. But Amy is now under pressure from her minders to curb her enthusiasm for controversy. Gone are scathing comments about her record company, and the criticisms of her album and the sideswipes at Dido. (Well, almost. Like a recovering smoker she can’t resist a sly one now and then.)
Frank was released last October to great reviews: it was often called the debut of the year. But Top 20 action had to wait until this year: after a couple of Brit nominations Frank began to settle into the charts. The soul/jazz hybrid of Amy’s style won deserved praise, but most commentators were struck by the songs’ autobiographical tone. There are graphic accounts of her sexual infatuations and star-crossed romances. You would not want to be the former paramour who is rubbished in Stronger Than Me (“feel like a lady but you my lady boy”); an infidelity of her Dad’s is resurrected in What Is It About Men? and In My Bed commemorates a waning relationship: “The only time I hold your hand / Is to get the angle right”.
Frank is a story-teller’s album, in the way that great country & western records used to be. If she seems self-absorbed, she’s refreshingly observant, too. Another track, called Fuck Me Pumps, paints a merciless portrait of women who prowl the clubs of London on their primal hunt for alpha males: “You can’t sit down right / Cos your jeans are too tight… Your dream in life / Is to be a footballer’s wife.” In a certain light, Amy Winehouse could pass for a hip hop Jane Austen.
So, Amy. The Frank album. Are you happy with it?
“Yes and no. If I’d been 100 per cent satisfied then I could have relaxed and gone on holiday for six months. But it’s a constant thing for me to better myself. I’ve got a clear ambition now, to make a record of what I hear in my head. Like Stevie Wonder did. It was a learning curve. I always thought I would do music, but I certainly didn’t expect to have a record deal by the time I was 19.”
But you must have had experienced people around you. Are you a good collaborator?
“No. Because I know what I want to do before the other person is even in the room. Making the album I was very focussed. Maybe in years to come I will be a good collaborator but at that point I was, like, Look, here is my music. We need brass on this, or that needs to be faster. And I don’t want strings. If you want to work with me and you love strings, then go home.
“I probably earned a reputation as a difficult person, because I wrote my own songs and I didn’t need people in the studio with me. Not to be rude, but these people would be trying to write pop songs! And I would say, Who are you writing for? What session are you on? Get out. But then I’d waste a day trying to be nice to the person. I’d waste studio time letting them do what they wanted, because I thought it would be the polite thing to do.”
The steely resolve is obvious. She picks up her fork and impales a meatball.
“You learn as you go along.”
Winehouse came into the Big Top of Pop following a stint in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. She signed at 17 to a branch of Simon Fuller’s management empire and after that to Island Records. But she was already a showbiz kid, whose turbulent education had taken in a few stage schools. One of these was the Sylvia Young Theatre School in Marylebone: it’s almost the Eton of the Pop Idol generation, giving us sundry Spice Girls, Appletons, S Clubs and Busteds. Winehouse, one is unsurprised to learn, got expelled.
Did stage school make you a performer, Amy?
“Well,” she ponders, “that school is not a shit school, the Sylvia Young. They’ve got a reputation because they are the best. It’s not a pop star factory, they channel your creativity and you learn to use it. That’s what I did. For every precocious kid there were kids who really worked. They sent you out to work. Stage school is a job. You learn how to get the fuck on with it. I learned a lot of important things.”
But you didn’t get along with it?
“No, but I’ve never been to a school that I came away happily from, ever. With Sylvia Young’s it wasn’t a monstrous, call-my-parents-in, scream the school down thing. It was quiet and under-handed. I was devastated leaving there. Of all the schools, I would have stayed there happily.”
Winehouse was raised in the north London suburb of Southgate. Her mother is from Brooklyn and her father, a taxi driver, is an East Ender. Her parents separated when Amy was nine, though her father remains in close touch. “He’s a great man, my Dad,” she says. “I love him. I love my Mum, but me and my Dad are two peas in a pod. We’re really impulsive people. It’s good that my Dad moved out when I was growing up, or we would have had some terrible clashes.”
On her American mother’s side of the family she has relatives in Miami and Atlanta, though she rarely had the chance to visit: “We didn’t have that kind of money. I’m sure the family would have paid for us, but we’re proud people.”
It’s the norm now for young musicians to be weaned on their parents’ record collections. But Winehouse denies her jazz buff Dad was a formative influence. “Not really. There was what he had in his car. And there were tapes at home. I would go to sleep listening to things like Sinatra and James Taylor. But that’s as far as my parents went. You discover music the most when it’s music that no one tells you to listen to, that you find out for yourself.”
So you weren’t sat down and told, Listen, this is good for you?
“Ha! I’d have told them to fuck off. I’ve always been a rebellious person. The only music that truly spoke to me was jazz and hip hop.”
It’s often said that first novels are autobiographical. People use up their life’s experiences. Did you do that with your first album? Could that be a danger for the second?
“Yeah but… I dunno. Life is inspiring, regardless. I don’t want to make a second album talking about record companies and stuff. The thing that always drove me with Frank was human interaction and that will always drive me. Relationships and how fucked up they can get. I guess that’ll always inspire me.”
I like the way that CDs are used as reference points in your lyrics. (There is even a photo of her collection on the album’s artwork.) Is the title Frank a reference to Sinatra? In Take The Box you’re splitting up with a boyfriend and dividing the spoils.
“Yes. When I say ‘Frank’s in there and I don’t care,’ that is literally a Frank Sinatra CD. He bought me it for Christmas and I was putting all his stuff in a box, like his T-shirt that I used to sleep in. He bought me Frank Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours – ironically, cos it’s one of the classic heartbreak albums of all time. Frank as a title for the album is a good word, It is frank… Dunno. Maybe with more time I would have come up with a better title.”
Well, if you have to name your album after someone, who better than Frank Sinatra? (I intend this in the blandly upbeat way you adopt to keep your interviewee on side. She’s having none of it.)
“I don’t agree. There’s a whole mess of people better than Sinatra.”
Are there? Really?
“Sinatra had an emotional connection with music. That was his thing. He had the tone in his voice. But singers? I know a hundred singers that piss on Frank. And musicians. And just as a person: he was an arsehole. But he had an emotional connection to songs that touched everyone, women, men, soldiers. So… Er, sorry, I’ll have to write down a lyric or I’ll go mad.” (She delves into a little pink handbag – keys, fags, mobile, make-up – and rummages for notebook and pen.) “I’m always getting ideas for concept albums!”
If you had to give up either singing or songwriting, which would it be?
“I’d cut my throat out. Singing is singing. If I couldn’t sing a song, and express it, which – ” (her expression darkens) “ – which I haven’t been able to for the past five months but that’s OK it comes from me, I understand that – if I couldn’t do that, I’d be fucked. Singing and writing go hand in hand for me, it comes from one place.”
Do you enjoy singing?
“Yeah, I’ve always sung. I always assumed that everyone could sing, that that’s what they do when they’re happy or sad. And when I was growing up and having the pain and suffering that teenagers do, when you think the world hates you because you’re 15, I could sing like a little bird. I can’t sing like that no more. I’m too complacent. They gave me too much free shit…”
(She sighs deeply and stares at her tapas.) What do you mean, they gave you too much free shit?
“They put it all on a plate. I feel like I’ve got nothing to work for sometimes, even though I’ve got lots to work for.”
(She lights a cigarette.) Of course you have, surely.
“Yeah. Anyway… Amy, chill the fuck out. I’m sorry.”
Do you feel pressurised by all the weight of expectation around you?
“A little bit. But that’s myself. No one could be a harsher critic than myself. I am feeling that pressure. There are days when I wish I could just take a break from my own head.”
What are you up to with your new music? Have you started yet?
(She sulks like a 12-year-old. Blows out hard, hot cigarette smoke.) “Not at all. Writing the album seemed hard but once it was done I thought, that wasn’t hard. It’s doing all this promo shit that is the really hard work. The only thing you have to remember when writing is, Be honest, always. But with promo it’s always, Shut your mouth, Amy! Smile!”
(She suddenly seems 65 years old.) “There’s nothing real in it, nothing real. Which really drains me. But you know what? It’s gotta be done.”
This year’s girl gives me a tired, trouper’s smile and walks back out into Camden Town.