Amy, We Hardly Knew Ya

I’m surprised at how much I’ve been jolted by Amy Winehouse’s wholly unsurprising death. Whenever a celebrity dies young, people quickly rush to mourn all the great work that said celebrity didn’t live long enough to make. It’s entirely possible that Amy Winehouse could’ve hung on for another 50 years and never lived up to the promise of her first two albums, Frank and Back to Black. It may be, in fact, likely that she would’ve stumbled around as a sozzled tabloid punch line for the better part of her days, canceling tours, disappointing producers, releasing half-baked covers albums and the like. But her talent was immense and just the possibility that she could’ve one day conjured something on par with what she’s already done does make me thoroughly bummed out as a fan. I have no doubt that we will see a half-dozen sub-par collections of material released under her name in the next decade–she’d been working in fits and starts toward a follow-up to Back to Black for a while–but those will only make me feel worse for what they’re not.

I spoke to Amy once for a story I did for the late, not-so-lamented Blender magazine back in early 2007. When we spoke on the phone, Back to Black hadn’t yet been released in America, so she was still basically unknown here (though already a star in England), and if I’m not mistaken, this was her first interview for an American music magazine. I was shocked at how thick her accent was in comparison to the sort of sultry Americanisms that she sprinkled so liberally on her songs. She also spoke with quite a heavy stutter, which probably could be chalked up to nerves, drugs, booze or some combination of the three. (It was just a phone call, so I really don’t know.) But beyond that, she seemed quite pleasant, and I’d be lying if I said that at the time I thought she was destined for the fate she lived out. Hell, I was pretty surprised anyone even bought her albums in the first place. You’ve got to remember that back in the dark ages of 2007, before the world had heard of Adele or Duffy, the idea of an British girl belting out American soul music didn’t exactly set cash registers a-jingling. Unfortunately, that may be the extent of her legacy–making the world safe for a new generation of Dusty Springfields–because she simply didn’t stick around long enough to offer us any more.

I’ve included below both the original draft of the Blender story I wrote about Amy (the published draft doesn’t seem to exist online anymore), along with the full transcript of my interview with her. Not sure why, just thought someone might find it interesting.


Almost Famous: Amy Winehouse

Brash British siren transforms a penchant for booze, bad relationships and Bono-baiting into bold, bruised classic soul.

As introductions go, the opening line of British soul siren Amy Winehouse’s U.S. debut, Back To Black, is a pretty audacious how-do-you-do: “They tried to make me go to rehab, I said, ‘No, no, no.’”

Winehouse spills three important truths about herself in that thirteen-word first impression and the crackling, horn-juiced vamp, “Rehab,” that follows: First, she likes to drink. Second, she doesn’t like to be told what to do. Third, she’s got a caustic wit and brutal candor that makes those first two truths feel charming rather than boorish.

The 23-year-old’s brassy voice and brassier attitude have already made her a star in England, where the tabloids have gleefully caught her in recent months drunkenly heckling Bono while he delivered an award show acceptance speech (“I was just getting bored”), punching a fan at her album release party (“I’m not a very nice drunk”), and sprinting off-stage one song into a performance to vomit (“I was really jet-lagged”).

“It isn’t important to me to make other people at ease,” Winehouse says in a thick, halting Cockney accent completely at odds with the bold, Etta James-like pipes she displays on her songs. “I am difficult, but that’s cause I don’t really give a fuck.”

Back To Black, which is easily the best Southern soul record made by an Englishwoman since Dusty Springfield’s Dusty In Memphis, is propelled by Winehouse’s frank tales of misbehavior and heartbreak. On the slinky “You Know I’m No Good,” she cheats on her man then tells him she was thinking of him “in the final throes.” “Me And Mr. Jones” could be a classic Ronnettes’ tune if Ronnie Spector ever started a song belting out, “What kind of fuckery is this?/You made me miss the Slick Rick gig.” The title track is a string-laced breakup tune that doesn’t shirk ugly details: “He left no time to regret/Kept his dick wet.” All the tunes, she admits, are autobiographical.

“I only write about stuff that’s happened to me—stuff I can’t get past personally,” Winehouse says. “Luckily, I’m quite self-destructive.”



You’re in the States right now?

Yeah, I’m in New York.

In England, your first album was very big and you’ve become, for better or worse, something of a celebrity there. Does that make approaching America, where you’re still relatively unknown, a weird thing for you?

Um, no. I love playing gigs and I got to come here and play a gig, so I’m just really excited about it rather than feeling any danger. I’m just really excited about coming and playing here.

But in general, in a bigger picture, is it strange dealing with the different perception of you in England versus over here?

Um, I wouldn’t know. I guess. Because I’m not really on the outside looking in. I’m on the inside looking out so I wouldn’t really know about anyone’s perception of me.

There seems to be a much more classic soul and girl group feel to the new album, as opposed to the jazzy vibe of the first one. Was that a direction you made a conscious decision to go in or was it just the way it worked out?

Yeah, it wasn’t really a conscious decision, it was just like, this is what I listen to, so that’s the way it came out sounding.

You’re songs come across as serious and heartfelt, but also frequently very funny. Is it a challenge to balance the humor with the pain in your songwriting? 

Yeah. I mean, I’d rather–I have to write something about stuff that I can’t really get past personally, stuff that not necessarily troubled me but stuff that I’m not going to be very healthy mentally if I don’t write about it or if I don’t make good out of this bad situation. With the humor, I guess I’d rather look back on something and think, “Well, it was alright, that was a funny thing, I got through it.” I’d rather be like “I got through, I got through,” rather than look back and be miserable.

You’ve said your songwriting is autobiographical. Does that ever get you into trouble with the people you might be writing about? I mean, the songs aren’t always that flattering. 

Not really. I’m quite lucky in that the people that I might’ve written songs about are quite proud of me, or quite proud of the fact that I’ve been able to make something good out of something bad.

What sort of effect has all the attention from the tabloids and such in Britain had on you?

Not really that bothered. I know a lot of people who get it a lot worse. I ain’t really that bothered. If it sells records, I don’t really care. I’m not really about – I’m not really that concerned with selling myself or selling the record but at the end of day, there are a lot of people, the record company, the management, my publishing company, it doesn’t end there, they work on it a lot. It’s important to the record company that I do well. But I don’t take it personally.

The opening line on the new album really jumps out: “They tried to make me go to rehab, I said no, no, no.” Is that based on actual events?

Yeah. I mean, I only write about stuff that’s happened to me and things I know, so I can get a whole perspective on it, so I can write a whole story, not just one aspect of it.

So why did you resist going to rehab?

Oh, I didn’t. I did actually go, but it was kind of like I went and introduced myself to the bloke who was running the show. He said to me, “Why are you here?” And most people when they are going to go into some kind of rehabilitation center, most people go and they look terrible, they look really haggard, gaunt and whatever. I turned up and my hair looked good, I had nice shoes on, proper makeup, I didn’t look bad. So he was like, “Why are you here? You don’t really look that fucked up.” And I’m like, “Well my colleagues thought it’d be a good idea.” And he said, “But why do you think you’re here?” And I said, “Well I drink a lot but I’m in love, and I’ve messed it up.” And that was it really. And I said, “Alcohol’s a depressant and I’m prone to depression.” And he said to me, “You sound like a depressive. You don’t really sound like an alcoholic.” And I said, “Thank you. I could’ve told you that.” And that was kind of it.

I read about you heckling Bono at the Q Awards, which automatically gave you a special place in my heart. What were you thinking at the time?

It wasn’t like I stormed the stage or anything and called him a bastard. I really didn’t heckle him at all. I was just getting bored. You go to stuff like that, it’s really nice – you get to wear a nice outfit, a pretty dress, and I got to bring my dad. I suppose if you’re into that, it’s all quite exciting, but really, all it is is like loads of bad alcohol – y’know it’s like the standard red wine, white wine. You can’t really drink, it’s boring and there’s no good alcohol. It’s like a million people and no one really wants to be there – I think Bono was maybe the only person who really wanted to be there – and I just thought it was funny. I didn’t really heckle him. They gave him an award, and he was reading his poem speechy thing, and I was kind of just sitting at my table going “Shut up! Shut up!” But not really loud. I was right at the back of the room. He didn’t hear me. It was just out of boredom.

I’ve also heard about an incident where you punched your boyfriend and a fan at a show. What happened there?

Well, I’m not a very nice drunk sometimes. I’m not really an irrational person. I’m actually quite rational, but bad manners really get me. I was standing with my boyfriend after the show, and this girl comes up to me and was like, “How was the show?” And she was like, “I really enjoyed it.” And I was like, “Thank you for coming.” But I was really drunk when I came off stage. It was where I live, why wouldn’t I be drunk? And I said to her, “Thanks for coming,” all polite, because I was brought up right, and then she turned to my boyfriend and put her finger in my face and went, “She’s fucked, isn’t she?” to my boyfriend. And I was like, that was really rude. It’s a pride thing. I’m a very proud person. I don’t remember it but afterwards, in the morning, I woke up and I tried to put my arms around my boyfriend and he goes, “Don’t touch me.” And I was like, “Wot?” And he goes, “Don’t you remember last night?” “What did I do?” “You punched a girl in the face.” And I said, “Tell me what happened and I know I can justify it.” And he goes, “You were fucked. You come off stage” – and coming off stage, the adrenalin from being onstage, you kind of plummet anyway. I never want to come off stage, so when I do, I need about five minutes to sort my nerves out. But when he told me the situation and the ins and the outs of it, I was like, “Well I understand why I hit her.” And he was like, “It doesn’t make it right.” And I was like, “I know it doesn’t make it right. I’m a dickhead. It was right out of order.”

Do you feel like you’ve got a drinking problem?

[Long pause] I dunno. When people ask “Do you think you have a drinking problem?” that always reminds me of that joke, “Yeah, I have a real drinking problem. I keep missing my mouth.” But no, not really. I don’t know. No.

In “Tears Dry On Their Own” you sing, “I shouldn’t play myself again/I should just be my own best friend/Not fuck myself in the head with stupid men.” Have you taken your own advice?

I take my own advice daily. Yeah. I dunno. When I wrote that song, I wrote that song about someone I couldn’t be with. It was real wrong place, wrong time. A real situation like that. And it was quite a futile situation, but I don’t generally pick men who are wrong for me.

Are you worried that you’ll have to have chaos and heartbreak in your life in order to make compelling music?

Not really. I don’t necessarily think I need to be messed up in the head to write good music. I need to feel strongly about something to write good music. But heartbreak, it’s a winning formula, and luckily I’m quite self-destructive, so yeah.

You’ve gotten a reputation already for being difficult. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?

Yeah, I am stubborn because I know what works and I don’t want to waste other people’s time at all. I know what will work and I know what won’t. I know myself well enough to know that even if I did stuff to please other people, I’d kick off at some point, so I’d just rather not waste people’s time. It isn’t important to me to make other people at ease. So yeah, maybe I am difficult but that’s cause I don’t really give a fuck. So maybe am I difficult, who knows. I’m not losing sleep over it.

What were you like as a little kid?

I was quite shy. I was really quiet actually. All I really did was eat and sleep and shit. I wasn’t one of them kids who comes out of the womb kicking and screaming and singing. I was quite a placid child really.

When did you start performing and singing?

I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t sing. I guess I started singing professional when I was about 15 or something.

There have been persistent reports about eating disorders. Is that something that you’ve still been struggling with?

No, not at all. I think that’s been really blown out of proportion. When I made my first record, all I really did was smoke weed all day and eat things. I didn’t really do anything with myself. And in between the records, I stopped smoking weed and I started going to the gym and eating properly. I’m so tiny anyway–I’ve got a really small frame–so I think it was really blown out of proportion.

Do you think a lot of the tabloid stories – I also read one recently about you running off stage to vomit…

Oh yeah! I’m really glad you asked me that because I’m really keen to dispel all the fucking silliness about that. The story was untrue. The truth was two days before that show, I come off the plane and I was so jet-lagged, and I forgot really how much it catches up with you. And I’m so little, right, I’m really small, and you don’t really realize – I think I can take the whole world on sometimes and it’s like, “Y’know what, Amy? You’re a tiny girl. You really can’t.” And I just went out, and I was so concerned with going out with my mates—like you know when you’ve been away for a while, all you want to do is go out with your mates and have a good time, I didn’t really realize – it wasn’t like I was sick on the side of the stage. It was blown out of proportion again, you know what I mean? It was really blown out of proportion. It was really funny. Really funny, actually.

Have you started writing songs for the next album yet?

Yeah. I have loads of songs leftover from the last album actually. So, I guess, when you’re very sorry about something, the songs kind of write themselves. That’s what happened last year. It happened real quick. So I think that’s what will happen again.

Do you see yourself going in any different musical directions on the next album?

Oh for the next album? No, not at all. I kind of personally like the sounds on this album.

I’ll let you go. Thanks for taking the time.

Cool. What you doing for the rest of the day? You busy?

Yeah. I’ve got to write up a few stories. What about you?

Don’t ask. Thanks for your time. Have a good weekend.

You too.