? Y O U L K OO g IN a t M e

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - COVER STORY -

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

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