Amy Winehouse interview
Life and soul
Amy Winehouse talks drugs, drink, eating disorders, love, rehab and music with Craig McLean.
It’s the morning after the tabloid outrage the night before. The weekend before we meet, Amy Winehouse was due to perform at GAY, the full-on, no-holds-barred club institution in the heart of London. Kylie’s done it with her sister Dannii, McFly dropped their pants there, any number of Pop Idols have attempted to establish their tongue-in-cheek cred in this crucible of none-more-gay hedonism.
But good old Winehouse outdid even the madferrit GAY punters. She got onstage around 1am, wobbled through a song, looked a bit ashen, gulped a few times, then dashed offstage and barfed in the wings. Nice. Amy Winehouse then exited the building, sharpish.
The tabloids lapped it up. She’d been out drinking all day with ‘gal-pal’ Kelly Osbourne. She’d been too drunk to stand up. Her vomiting onstage was but the latest outrage from the punchy, mouthy, boozy, rehab-y soul singer. Gawd bless ‘er!
The truth, Winehouse insists when we meet at the studios of breakfast show GMTV by the River Thames, was a little less exciting. She’d arrived back from a holiday in Miami with a nasty bug. ‘I haven’t had a drink in a few days,’ she says. She is indeed sounding croaky and nursing a bright-red, super-healthy smoothie.
It’s a mark of Winehouse’s gold-plated talent, and of the staggering brilliance of her second album Back To Black, that even when she’s allegedly acting like a booze-sodden mentalist, the red-tops can’t get enough of her. Her antics - clumping an aggressive female fan here, appearing drunk on a TV show there - are reported with affection rather than censure.
Everyone loves Amy Winehouse. No wonder. There’s never been a star like the north London singer. A singer who sounds like Ella Fitzgerald but carries on like Oliver Reed. A woman who’s had her battles with eating disorders and drinking to excess - but who discusses them, not with poor-me woefulness, but with ballsy candour. The Jewish daughter of a cabbie who, like a proper cabbie herself, always speaks her mind. A sublimely-gifted songwriter who writes about being addicted to spliff, fighting with ex-boyfriends and refusing to be dragged to rehab.
‘I can express myself,’ she says with a shrug. ‘I’m not an idiot. I’m not frightened of appearing vulnerable. I write songs about stuff that I can’t really get past personally - and then I write a song about it and I feel better.’
Some people, I suggest, write songs as a front - “I’m alright me, honest”. Winehouse nods.
‘A lot of people who write songs don’t see them as a way out of a desperate situation. A lot of people write songs and they have a marketplace in mind, and a demographic.’
When she first emerged in 2003, Winehouse’s demographic appeared to be that of a slightly edgier Dido. She had a tremendous voice, for sure. She could ‘do’ emotion with way more sincerity than any silly little pop person. But the songs on her debut album Frank were smooth soul of a coffee table-ish hue. It emerged that she was an alumni of the Brits School in south London (see also: Katie Melua, The Kooks), and that she was managed by Simon ‘Spice Girls/Pop Idol’ Fuller’s 19 corporation. ‘I met Simon Fuller, like, two times!’ she exclaims.
What does she think of Frank now? ‘I’m still really proud of it - I look back on it and think, that’s alright for a kid. But it was my first album so it was definitely a learning curve.’
She says she was ‘looking forward to the end of my contract with 19’. Then she qualifies that: ‘it wasn’t so much [a case of], “I have got to get away from 19”. It was more, “I don’t like going to work at the minute ‘cause there’s not people around me that I get excited with”.’
It was a former manager, she says, who tried to make her go to rehab. She admits that, while she was squirrelled away writing Back To Black, she was drinking too much and not eating properly. She’d endured a bad break-up with a boyfriend and was feeling miserable. She had lost weight. When her then-manager saw her for the first time in a while, he was alarmed at her apparent ill-health. He turned up at her dad’s house and insisted she seek help.
‘My last manager, he’s a lovely fella. But ‘cause I wasn’t working as much, they just had no idea - she’s drinking, throw her in a . . . home! They had no idea really. It’s not their fault.’ But with her current manager, whom she’s known and worked with for a long time, ‘if my behaviour is sliding he can tell straight away.’
Her resolve also found form in the music she wanted to make for Back To Black. A lover of both hip hop and 70s legends like Donny Hathaway, she wanted to infuse her honest soul searching with both a classicism and a punchy sonic adventurism.
‘I knew there were specific sounds I wanted. But it’s very hard to get what’s in your head 100 percent on CD. A lot of people never get that, ever. With my first album I practically had it although I wasn’t really sure what I wanted it to be like. But on the second one I surpassed what I thought I could have done. I’m really proud of it.’
In part this meant going to New York, to work with Mark Ronson. The British-born producer is the hottest noise in music right now, courtesy of his work with Lily Allen, Christina Aguilera and on Robbie Williams’ Rudebox. He and Winehouse clicked in their vision for a record that would sound like the best of the 60s (the Motown shuffle of ‘Rehab’), the best of the 70s (the aching but sassy funk strut of ‘I Know I’m No Good’, her current single), and the best of what’s going on in the mind of an artist who’s a resolutely honest chronicler of what it means to be a young woman in contemporary Britain.
‘This time I was like, “fuck it, I know what I’m talking about”. You definitely get a self-belief. Whereas before you’re like, “well, the record company must know what they’re talking about”. They do know what they’re talking about from a marketing standpoint . . .’
But even the best record company in the world couldn’t do the marketing job that Amy Winehouse is doing for herself. More power to her (occasionally boozy) elbow.
Amy Winehouse, Carling Academy, Glasgow, Wed 27 Feb.