? Y O U L K OO g IN a t M e
HE staggers into the bar and crashes into a chair. Everyone stops for a gawk. She has a bottle of red wine in one hand and a bottle of vodka in the other. She’s swearing like a trooper at nothing and no one in particular.
Her hair is a mess, her mascara is smudged and she may yet come a cropper on those high heels before she gets to her seat. One of the bottles falls to the ground, but she keeps on tottering towards the corner table. Solid citizens nursing early evening drinks turn away and go quiet. It is obvious that this lady has been drinking.
Amy Winehouse cackles. She’s thinking out loud about the Amy Winehouse most people would expect to see walking into a bar. This is the Amy Winehouse we think we know from press clippings and tabloid snapshots and TV appearances. A walking, talking, drunken doll. Bolshie. Brash. Loud. Drunk. Mad as a brush.
The reality? No one even looked up when Winehouse walked quietly into the bar. Sitting in an armchair, she’s tiny, all beehive hair and lippy pout. There’s a loud, filthy laugh every now and then, but that’s the extent of things. No diva, no tantrums, no trouble.
Winehouse has kept the drama for her record. Back to Black is a belter, an album more bewitched, bothered and bewildered than pop ever gets to be these days. Split right down the middle with heartbreakers and soul shakers, it has Winehouse swapping the jazz lounge she frequented for her Frank debut for a basementwhere ’50s and ’60s girl groups hang out comparing their men and their hair-dos.
The new company suits Amy. Once you hear her magnificent defiance on the brassy and bold Rehab (“they tried to make me go to rehab,” she sneers. “I said no, no, no”), you’ll be hooked. As confessional, troubled, humorous and honest as songs get about a woman falling in and out of love with men, drink, weed and the gym, Back to Black is rousing and brave on every level. It’s the sassiest, sharpest Motown album imaginable.
Winehouse talks fondly of the girl groups who inspired her, who provided a soundtrack for her musings, when she began writing songs for the new record. “The Shangri-Las, very dramatic and atmospheric. The Ronettes, very stylish. The Shirelles, they had coolness and attitude, they had vulnerability.”
Winehouse became fascinated with how those singers projected and protected their vulnerability. After all, some of them had desperate, depressing back-stories but were cooing like angels. “I loved those heartbreak songs they used to do, especially the way the girls sounded so heavenly. Yet they were also singing about the kind of heartbreak you would find at the bottom of a bottle of whiskey. They knew all about sorrow.”
When it came to Back to Black, Winehouse was more than ready to be heartbroken. While Frank had been a big old hit (250,000 sales, glowing critical reviews, an Ivor Novello award and aMercury Music Prize nomination), Winehouse’s personal demons were having a field day at her expense. Her relationship at the time was falling apart, leaving her to find solace in weed and booze. Something had to go. Scratch that; lots of things had to go.
“I don’t smoke weed anymore so I’m not so defensive as I was back then,” she says. “I’m not as insecure as I was either. I go to the gym, I run loads and I’m much healthier than I was.
“When I did my first album, I was smoking too much weed. I mean, I was really proud of that album at the time and I still think the songs are up to scratch. But you have to remember I had never made an album before. When you have a producer with you who is far more experienced, you do tend to become a bit ‘yeah, that’s cool’ in the studio and go with the flow. And when you’re smoking weed, you just don’t care about anything except who has the next joint.”
Another change has been in the relationship with her record label. After Frank was released in 2004, she slammed what she saw as their inefficiencies. “The marketing was fucked, the promotion was terrible, everything was a shambles,” she railed in one memorable interview at the time.
Now? “Itwas my first album and I didn’t know what Iwas doing so I was learning as I went along. I don’t think the label had a clue what to do with it either, so it was a learning curve for them as well – and they had to deal with me mouthing off all over the place! This time, I know what is going on so I’m better prepared. And the label know how to deal with me as well.”
The next heave-ho was her management. When Winehouse first emerged, all queries were directed to pop svengali Simon Fuller.
“It was never right,” is how the singer now considers this dalliance with the man behind The Spice Girls and Pop Idol. “My manager on paper was not the person doing the day-to-day stuff. He was a lovely fellow but he didn’t care about music. He was definitely one of those people who left their work in the office. I needed someone else, I needed someone who really cared.”
You also no longer find Winehouse being so lippy to her fellow pop stars. This means less entertaining quotes for the masses (Katie Melua was once summed up as someone “singing shit songs that her manager writes for her”). But Winehouse thinks about this change in more karmic terms. “I have stopped slagging people off as much as I did. Not because I think it will sell more records or it looks bad for me, but because I don’t wish anything bad against anyone. Everyone has a job to do.”
Winehouse takes another sip from a glass of red wine. Of course, one vice remains. “I do drink a lot, and I’m a bad drunk, a very violent
drunk,” she says. “It’s only since I started going out with my boyfriend Alex that I have realised what a horrible drunk I am.
“My ex-boyfriend would be saying things like ‘stop doing that, you’re an idiot’ and rowing with me when I was drunk, which just made me worse. With Alex, he will bring it up the following day when I’ve sobered up. It really embarrasses me to hear I’ve punched him in the face six times. Again.”
Winehouse winces. “Of course, it does make me want to cut down on the booze. I really do try not to drink, but I’m a very self-destructive person.”
There’s a soft smile on her face now. “I keep saying to my boyfriend that he can take it. I’m a little girl, he’s a big guy.”
Still, no matter how much of a “bad drunk” she is, we won’t likely see Winehouse joining the boozy and stoned celebs shoring up a rehab clinic in the near future.
“Do you really think I could be pushed into doing anything I didn’t want to do like that?” There was one attempt at rehab and that didn’t get very far. “It was my old management’s idea. I literally walked in and walked out. I knew it wasn’t for me.
“Some people go to rehab and treat it like Butlins. Some people go because they think it will really sort them out and it does. But me, I’m from the school which believes that you can only sort yourself out, you can’t rely on other people to sort out your problems.”
Winehouse says she sorted out her problems by working so intensely on the new record. She’s proud as punch with the results, and with her new alliance with producer Mark Ronson, the young New York producer who put a summertime bounce into Lily Allen’s album.
“I have the same publishing company as Mark and they wanted us to meet for a while. I wasn’t really interested at first. I thought he was just some big hip-hop beats geezer and I have Salaam Remi as my hiphop guy, he has always been there for me. When we did finally meet up, I played him what I was writing and what I was listening to. You could see a lightbulb going on in his head. We just clicked right away personally too.”
However, Winehouse didn’t want to make the same mistakes she felt she had made with Frank, so she still kept a close eye on proceedings. “I was really geeky about it. I scrutinised everything thatwas going on, Iwas really paying attention to what Mark was doing. I trusted him, but I still watched what he was doing.”
She doesn’t know if Ronson will be around for her next record, but she has a good idea what kind of songs she wants to write. “I want to do an album of winsome, pining songs. I like that idea. I don’t want to do another record of ‘screw you’ songs.
“Yeah, it will be a romantic record. I am a very romantic person. I don’t mean romantic in a flowers and chocolates kind of way. It’s more like if it’s raining, I’ll go up to the window and press my nose against the glass and sigh at how beautiful it all looks.” Amy Winehouse sits back in her chair and smiles. She knows that’s an image most people will find hard to picture, her at the window getting romantic rather thanmaudlin at those raindrops falling by her head. But you know what? She doesn’t give a hoot. The new Winehouse, the Back to Black Winehouse? Many things may have changed but this lady still doesn’t give a damn.
“I don’t care, I don’t care in the least what people think about me. Never did, never will. Yes, as a result, I’m easy pickings because I am honest and unguarded. But life’s too short to be worrying about that shit.”
Back to Black is ‘on Island Records. Amy Winehouse plays Belfast’s Ulster Hall on March 1st and Dublin’s Ambassador on March 2nd