Amy Winehouse has built her reputation, one way or the other, on what comes out of her mouth. Firstly, there’s The Voice – the one that unsuspecting listeners to her startlingly assured debut album, Frank, could be forgiven for assuming belongs to a middle-aged black woman who’s lived a bit, loved a bit and lost a lot. And then there’s the other voice – the strident, estuary bark of a 20-year-old north London Jewish girl that has an unfortunate (or possibly fortunate, if you’re of the Max Clifford school of publicity) habit of landing its owner neck-deep in trouble.
But then, you get what you pay for. Frank – a collection of jazz-drenched torch songs with 21st century beats and an attitude to match – isn’t named without good reason. Signature track Stronger Than Me (which recently won Song of the Year at the Ivor Novello Awards), finds Winehouse laying into her lover for being a touch-feely new man (“Feel like a lady but you my lady boy,” she berates him, before asking: “Are you gay?”), while In My Bed warns her luckless paramour that he shouldn’t get too comfortable under the duvet (“Yours is a familiar face, but that don’t make your place safe in my bed”). So what should we expect from Amy Winehouse in the flesh? A timid little church mouse of a thing? Hardly.
Nevertheless, she says she’s been learning to be more diplomatic of late, which means her days of laying into chart contemporaries like Dido, Rachel Stevens and Katie Melua may well be over.
Certainly there is little sign of the famous Whitehouse petulance today. On the contrary, she is all matey banter and casual familiarity, frequently addressing me as “darlin’” in the way one might speak fondly to a small child, despite the fact she is a clear 13 years my junior. Even when I ask her what such a strikingly individual performer is doing signed to Simon Fuller’s 19 management company (more readily associated with just the type of production-line pop she professes to hate), she just about manages to suppress her irritation: “He’s not actually my manager, Paul,” she says, the use of first name terms lending her the air of a disappointed parent. “I’m not here trying to be famous. I’m just trying to be a musician and succeed as someone who writes real music. That’s all I’m trying to do. I don’t know Simon Fuller at all – I think I’ve met him once or twice. I don’t know the man. He has nothing to do with my career or anything that’s happened in my career.”
This desire to be a girl who just gets up and sings seems genuine. Who else, for example, would sound so positively relieved at having lost out on two Brit Awards – to one-time nemesis Dido and Fame Academy graduate Lemar, of all people?
“I’m pretty much backwards and forwards at the moment, doing a lot of promo and stuff”, she says. “But I’m lucky in that it’s died down a lot with the press since I didn’t get them two Brit Awards, which is kinda cool.
“I’d like to be away more, touring more. On the stage is where I feel the most comfortable. I feel like myself – it feels good. It gives you more than anything else in the world.”
I’m not here trying to be famous. I’m just trying to succeed as someone who writes real music.Amy Winehouse
Watching Winehouse on stage, you’re left in no doubt that she is totally at home there. In her six-inch heels, she struts – and I mean actually, properly struts – about as if she owns the place, scatting like a veteran without a hint of the fear you might expect from someone several months out of her teens.
“I used to be scared but now I’m like… it’s cool, you know? They’re my boys,” she says affectionately. “I love to hear my boys play my music.”
This month, Winehouse will be bringing her boys to Ascot to headline the first of the racecourse’s summer concert series. Despite the 5.30pm start, she reckons she’ll have no trouble recreating that smoky jazz vibe in the sunshine of the Summer Paddock.
“The music speaks for itself, so it’s never hard to get a vibe,” she says. “I guess in a small club there’s always more atmosphere, but my sound’s big. I’ve done a couple of festival-y things already, and I did Rio Carnival… No, not Rio Carnival, what am I talking about? Notting Hill Carnival! That was fun.”
Could she have imagined, even at the start of the year, that she’d be spending the summer headlining big outdoor shows?
“Yeah,” she says, nonchalantly, before allowing a note of self-doubt to creep in: “I dunno, maybe not. It’s kind of crazy the stuff that’s suddenly become available to me. Mad. But I’ve been working hard for a long time now and I always try to be different. I always want to stand out and do something that’s not like what everyone else is doing. That’s stood me in pretty good stead.”
Of course, in the musical landscape of 2004, Winehouse doesn’t stand out quite as starkly as she would have done even a couple of years ago. The out-of-nowhere success of Norah Jones has prompted a goldrush to sign the Next Big Jazz Thing, with 16-year-old honey blonde schoolgirl Joss Stone proving an even more unlikely candidate than Winehouse for the Ella Fitzgerald of her day. And then there’s Jamie Cullum – officially (purists may want to look away now) the most successful UK jazz artist ever.
“I have no idea why it’s all happened,” says Winehouse. “You’re asking the wrong person. I’m just a songwriter. I like to write music, I like to be different and the music I come from was mostly jazz, so I guess that’s my story.
“It’s good, not necessarily for jazz, but for music. It’s good that people are getting bored with a certain section of music now.”
She’s spoken in the past of being inspired to pick up a guitar by the depressing lack of ambition in the music around her – meaning manufactured, identikit teen pop, presumably? “Well, obviously, yeah. And just everything I heard that didn’t sound finished to me. Everything where I could see what people were trying to do and never quite got there. Not just standard pop. I don’t ever hear standard pop, because there’s nothing I can take from it, there’s nothing I can learn, so I don’t bother with it and I don’t take it in. I don’t inhale it, I guess.”
Like many a songwriter before her, Winehouse sees the process as a good substitute for expensive counseling. “If I’m in a fucked-up situation, I will definitely not spend three grand on therapy,” she says. “I will write a song about it and feel fine about it, in a small way, within 10 or 15 minutes.”
What about the beautiful October Song, I ask. Is it really about the death of a budgie, or am I taking that way too literally?
“Yeah, it’s about my canary, who passed on,” she says. “It was very sad, very sad. My mum and I buried her and we sang a song as we buried her. When I write a song about a f***ed-up situation I want to think about it in a light-hearted way and make the situation into something nice. I’m glad I look back and say: I came through it and I wrote some nice tunes.”
It’s an illuminating scenario: the brash, outwardly confident teenager pushed into the limelight with the rep of a fully-formed diva, but whose “f***ed-up situations” include the trauma of losing a family pet. When you consider that, by the age of 18, Billie Holliday had been raped – and sent to a home for wayward women for her troubles – and spent several years turning tricks in a brothel, Winehouse’s experience with dead canaries and rubbish boyfriends seem positively sweet. Then again, if she’s singing like this now, we can barely dare imagine the work she will produce once she has a bit of life experience under her belt.
It’s just a hunch, but I suspect time may also soften her attitude towards the more reconstructed element of the male population, while dulling the shine of the rugged bad boys (who have a habit of remaining boys longer after it’s stopped being fun). But maybe it’s just wishful thinking to make me feel better about myself. My girlfriend reckons you’d really hate going out with me, I tell Winehouse, because I’m too much of a (her words) “girl-boy”. So what’s the secret to getting in touch with my inner machismo?
“I think you should eat some raw steak,” she says. “My trombone player, he’s the most lovely, placid man going and he ate some really rare steak and it made him growl at his wife. So maybe that’s what you should do.
“But you know what? At the end of the day I don’t care if you’re a man and you want to be a woman. You’re not my boyfriend, so I don’t give a shit.”
Published in the Reading Chronicle, July 1, 2004. © Trinity Mirror