Flashback - Amy Winehouse Interview July 2007

Written by Piers Hernu
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Amy Winehouse 1.
© Words Piers Hernu

At twenty three, jazz singer songwriter Amy Winehouse may be the hottest female singing talent in the world today, she may have cracked America, sung with the Rolling Stones and be lauded by the likes of Prince, Elton John, Jay Z and P Diddy,she may be a married, tattooed, multi millionaire with a reputation for hellraising and doing exactly what she wants when she wants but the dimuitive Jewish girl from North London is still very much Daddy’s little princess.

When her father Mitch, a grey haired, burly cab driver who she describes as ‘her best friend’, says he wants a chat, Amy turns up on time and she listens.
Yes I’ve been bad!’ says Amy Winehouse quoting from her global hit single Rehab, ‘and yes I still get the odd rollocking from my dad. In fact he sat me down the other day and gave me a talking to about missing gigs. I got in trouble but I am not gonna do that any more! I’m back into the swing of things now and I’ve felt really good doing these last few gigs.’

Amy Winehouse 2.Its half past six on a sunny Sunday evening in Manchester and I’m sitting opposite Amy, and Blake Fielder-Civil her long term lover and husband of two months, in her dressing room overlooking Old Trafford cricket ground. She has just finished her slot supporting indie band The Arctic Monkeys and has just wowed a rapturous 55,000 strong (predominantly male) crowd with a fifty minute pitch perfect set including Rehab and Back To Black. Sat puffing on a Marlborough Light, Amy is still wearing the cut off jeans, Fred Perry top and ballet pumps that she wore on stage and is in buoyant mood.. In the flesh, with her trademark towering beehive, Cleopatra eyeliner and sailors tattoos adorning her upper arms, she is Disneylike in terms of instant recognisability and more physically robust than some papers would have you believe.              

That said, in the last two months a series of gigs cancelled at short notice (namely in Liverpool, at London’s Shepherds Bush Empire and Scotland’s T In The Park festival) have triggered a flurry of press speculation over her health but she is keen to set the record straight citing her tough touring schedule promoting her phenomenally successful new album Back To Black as the reason. ‘I don’t ever want to miss a gig but sometimes I just don’t feel I’m up to it, I know its last minute and it’s really irresponsible but I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I’d rather cancel and reschedule a show than do it half heartedly.’

Some two hours previously the atmosphere was considerably more fraught when at 4.30pm (the time she was supposed to be on stage at Old Trafford a ten minute drive away) we emerged from the lobby of the Deansgate Hilton to battle through a clamour of paparazzi and jump in the back of a blacked out people carrier which sped off with wheels squealing. Ten minutes later she jumped straight out of the people carrier and onto the stage and launched into her opening number ‘Addicted’ without batting so much as one of her heavily made up eyelids. The assembled crowd breathed a collective sigh of relief and were left to marvel at the voice, songs and performance of one of the most unique musical talents to emerge from Britain in the last thirty years.
Amy Winehouse’s career curve since the release of her hugely acclaimed second album Back to Black in October 2006 has been nothing short of stratospheric. Whilst her first album Frank was critically acclaimed, her second, written from the heart about her turmoil having split up from Blake, combined  authenticity with accessibility and showcased her expansive, sultry soul voice to great effect. It is perhaps then little wonder that this complex young woman, who in the past has owned up to drinking too much (‘I have had problems with booze. When I get drunk I am a terrible drunk’), drug use, self harming (It’s a funny thing, a morbid curiosity. It’s probably the worst thing I’ve done), manic depression and suffering ‘a little bit of anorexia and bulimia,’ has suffered from the odd bout of motion sickness and vertigo. Since the album launch she has been awarded a Brit, her second Ivor Novello Award and a second nomination for the Mercury Music Prize. The album reached number one her and entered the American charts at a record breaking (for a UK artist) number seven. Simply put, Amy Winehouse, is the hottest female singing talent in the world today bar none and that would be a big burden to bear for shoulders far wiser and broader than hers.

/Amy Winehouse

When asked whether the speed of her success has taken her by surprise she shifts awkwardly in her chair. Being an innately shy and modest girl there are certain subjects usually along the lines of success and its attendant fame which she simply struggles to talk about. It is as if she actively blocks these thoughts from her mind in order to protect herself from their fabled destructive powers. ‘Oh I dunno,’ she shrugs, ‘its just nice being kept busy and working a lot and doing gigs I suppose. Can I get you a beer?’

On her return from the fridge her twenty five year old husband Blake, a film maker who currently works for Spin Magazine and Koko nightclub in Camden, tries to help me out. ‘Do you think the press people are interested in your private life too much Amy?   ‘Er…I wouldn’t know,’ says his wife evasively.‘Well does it bother you that you are in the papers every other day for just popping out to buy a pint of milk?’ says Blake who is currently filming a behind the scenes documentary on Amy’s tour and is well used to her evasiveness. ‘Er…well I’m not really am I?’ she replies. ‘Well actually you are!’ We both reply in unison.‘Well I suppose it doesn’t then really does it no.’ she grins sheepishly, ‘I don’t find the paparazzi that intrusive really, it bothers my husband more.’ She says smiling and patting Blake affectionately on the knee.

‘It does bother me,’ admits Blake, who also hails from North London and who, whilst undoubtedly being streetwise, comes across as a surprisingly thoughtful and intelligent man, ‘I am protective of Amy as any man would be of his wife, its natural. To have a scrum of photographers shouting, thrusting cameras and flashing them in your face can be quite intimidating but Amy seems to have accepted this is the way her life is going to be from now and that she just has to get on with it.’ ‘Yes you’re right, it can be intimidating,’ she agrees, ‘and it can be scary sometimes when people I don’t know seem to know me but that’s about it really.’ ‘Surely it bothers her when the press regularly run stories about her partying, alleged drug taking, her drinking, her weight, scratch marks on her arms etc etc? ‘It only bothers me if my family or Blake’s family might see it and worry but no it doesn’t generally affect me.’  ‘I think those close to us know the truth,’ interjects Blake, ‘its not one long drink and drug party for us and as for the weight issues its just not like that - we’re actually quite a nice and normal couple at home.’
Amy Winehouse Blake Fielder 1Amy Winehouse was born in Southgate, North London on the 14th September 1983 to a Jewish Family with a history of jazz musicians. Her cab driving father Mitch and mother Janice, a pharmacist split up when she was nine but at twelve she won a scholarship to the Sylvia Young Theatre School. She was expelled for ‘not applying herself’, and sent to a private school in North London before a brief spell at a performing arts school in Croydon. At the age of sixteen she worked in odd jobs and began singing with a jazz band and by the age of eighteen had landed a record deal and a publishing contract with EMI.
At the recent Rolling Stones gig at The Isle Of White Festival, (having had the commendable audacity to turn down their request for her to sing Honky Tonk Woman with them) she sang the soul standard ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg’ alongside Mick Jagger. Is there, I wonder anyone else she’d like to duet with?‘Umm Ray Charles,’ she says after lengthy deliberation, ‘actually I was gutted when he died because that put paid to that idea, I’d also like to work with Thelonius Monk. My brother was into jazz music when he was 18 and I was fourteen and I’d hear the songs played by artists like Thelonius Monk, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald and I learnt to sing by listening to their records. ‘I had singing lessons at school in a big class but I never had one on one tuition. I always enjoyed writing poetry but the first time I put music on top of it was when I was about fifteen for my GCSE music exam. I just thought wow this is really easy but I didn’t want to hand it in so I ended up with a grade D.

‘My earliest memory of music was when I was about three and I remember my dad singing to me in the bath,’ she says beaming nostalgically, ‘he sang me a line of a Beatles song called Rubber Soul and I sang the next line back to him.’ Her husband Blake, sitting next to her in his ever present pork pie hat and shades, reminds her of the time that the Beatles came to her rescue on a particularly nerve wracking flight to Las Vegas. ‘That’s right,’ she recalls, ‘I’d never been on one of those little private jets that bounce around before so… to calm me down Blake suggested we try and name all the Beatles albums. How far did we get babe?’ The two of them in turn then take turns reel off the names of twelve Beatles albums finishing with Magical Mystery Tour.   ‘I wouldn’t say the Beatles were an influence,’ she continues ‘but I did learn to play guitar from one of their songbooks and I write all my songs on the guitar. In fact I’m thing about playing guitar on stage again because its something else to do when I’m up there.’So how do you write songs?

I suppose I start with a sentiment but that sounds a bit cheesy doesn’t it? Sometimes I start with a sentiment but other times I might start with some lyrics or a melody in my head and then the musical chords on the guitar are usually the last thing I add. With Rehab for instance I was walking down the street with Mark Ronson who produced my last album I just sang the hook out loud as a joke, it was quite silly really.   

Mark Ronson 1.

‘Did you sing the no no no bit as well? asks Blake. ‘Yeah I sung the whole line exactly as it turned out on the record! Mark laughed and asked me who wrote it because he liked it. I told him that I’d just made it up but that it was true and he encouraged me to turn it into a song which took me all of five minutes. It wasn’t hard, it was about what my old management company (run by ex Spice Girls Manager Simon Fuller) wanted me to do.’ Amy famously refused to go to Rehab for her drinking preferring to exorcise her demons through her song writing. ‘I don’t listen to anyone except my inner child anyway,’ she says, ‘by the time I was fifteen my parents realized I would do whatever I wanted and that was it really.’ 

At this point her manager Ray, a huge, jovial and unflappable black man with dreadlocks interrupts us to deliver an envelope from Rob, one of the members of Supergrass (one of the other bands on today’s bill) asking for an autograph for his daughter. ‘Of course babe,’ says Amy ‘but he hasn’t told me what her name is!’ She immediately disappears downstairs to the Supergrass dressing room in order to find out the daughter’s name in order that she can sign her autograph to the girl in person. It is an act of selflessness totally in keeping with a woman determined to keep her feet on the ground and who readily admits that she is very maternal.‘That’s right,’ she nods on her return, ‘whilst I love music I’d really love to have a family and that’s the most important thing to me. That doesn’t mean I’m ready to start one right now as I think I’ve got another album in me So is she still finding time to write songs? ‘Er yes and no I’ve got a lot up here somewhere,’ she says pointing at her trademark beehive, ‘its just a matter  of sitting down with my books of lyrics and ideas and going through it all. I like to jot stuff down and then come back to it later. There is quite a lot of stuff left over from the last album.
‘But your last album was all about heartbreak,’ interjects Blake, ‘now that you’re happily married to me is your style of writing going to change?’ Amy eyes Blake warily, unused to Blake asking such probing questions but quietly amused as well. ‘I don’t think I could do that, I don’t necessary want to write another heartbreak album but I like writing about the funny side of sad things and the sad side of funny things. I like bittersweet things and there will always be bittersweet things for me to write about. I may be happily married but I don’t have to write about our relationship.’ ‘What I’d really love to do is a series of EPs, one of torch songs, and one forties style Vera Lynn songs. I wouldn’t want to cover old songs but I’d like to write new songs in that style.’ What would you like to do if you took a break from music? ‘I’d love to have a beauty salon!’ she beams, My nan, god rest her soul, pretty much trained me and my brother up when we were young to be her beauty therapist - it was pretty clever of her actually,  I must have been about four and my brother about eight, he’d give her a full pedicure and I’d do her nails and her hair.’

/The Hawley Arms Camden.‘It might be quite emasculating for a young boy of eight to be pedicuring his grandmother! Quips Blake ‘I remember when we first met,’ continues Amy, Blake would go out with the boys and all the girls would be in my room, they loved my beehive and I’d put all the girls hair up. I’d make my stylist Naomi sit with her head on my lap and do her eyebrows. ‘That’s right my mum just bought a hair salon,’ says Blake, ‘and Amy came to see it and loved the idea because she likes doing girls hair and making people feel good.’ Having walked into Amy’s local pub the trendy Hawley Arms in Camden, North London and been astonished to see her working behind the bar serving drinks I ask her about this servile side of her nature. ‘I don’t want people to think Oh look its Amy Winehouse messing around behind the bar. I dont want my friends to wait for a drink and I genuinely enjoy doing it.’

People might find it odd that one night Amy might be up on stage with the Rolling Stones and the next night serving them a pint of bitter and some pork scratchings, but to Amy it just another way of staying in touch with the real world. So what are your plans for next year? ‘Next year in January, I’m going to calm down with work commitments and write another album,’ says Amy ‘When I first met Blake I’d just finished promoting and doing gigs for my first album Frank and I was supposed to have three months off but in fact I didn’t write anything for another year and a half.’‘That’s right,’ agrees Blake, we met at a pub called the Good Mixer in Camden. I’d just had a good win at the bookies so I went to the pub to celebrate opened the door and Amy was the first person I saw and that was it. The drinks were on me for the first and last time!’ he grins, ‘and from that night onwards we began our torturous love affair.’ Their first attempt at a relationship ended in acrimony with both of them finding other partners but for Amy, the resulting year of heartache provided a rich vein of inspiration for the phenomenally successful Back To Black.    ‘

Our relationship never really stopped did it babe?’ asks Blake. ‘I was sneaking around making phone calls and we’d meet up for five minutes or ten minutes and in the end we just couldn’t carry on doing that.’ ‘Yes,’ replies Amy looking thoughtful, ‘there was a time when we didn’t talk to each other but that was because we realised it was better not to talk than talk and cause irreparable damage.’ And with that her manager Ray comes back in to tell Amy the details about her early morning flight to New York from Heathrow.‘ Is that fun or work?’ I ask ‘Fun, work, work fun,’ she shrugs, ‘its all the same to me.’Having just spent a day in the company of Amy Winehouse, I tend to agree.

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Piers Hernu

Piers Hernu

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