Billie Ray Martin’s haunting, soulful voice soothed many a chill…
When I met Amy Winehouse in 2006, she was yet to become a global superstar, poster girl for rock and roll meltdowns or the most celebrated voice of a generation, but she was already a girl who enjoyed a night on the town.
Within minutes of our introduction, I’d completely fallen for her. It wasn’t just that she resembled a tiny Priscilla Presley-meets-Elvira doll. Nor was it the surreal thrill of sitting with the woman responsible for recording an album of rhythm and blues perfection. It was her. If we’d met at party and I knew nothing of her talents, the sheer thrill of her company would have proved magnetic.
Amy Winehouse was hilariously funny, in another life, she could’ve been a stand-up comic. That aspect of her personality was unexpected. As was the depth of her insecure fragility. She was a powerful force of nature, yet sought constant assurance.
It didn’t take her long to relax. In many ways, we were two people, in a well furnished room, seeking the approval of the other. Once she’d established how to make me laugh, she cranked up the comedy with anecdotes about her nights on the town. She wanted to win me over, despite the fact she’d already blown me away with her music.
Asked if the Back to Black girl-group vibe was difficult to recreate in the studio, Amy admits that producer Mark Ronson was both excited and challenged at the prospect.
Then from nowhere she says: “My titty’s hanging out, that’s so embarrassing, it happens all the time.”
Indeed, her left breast was hanging from her dress, but the wardrobe malfunction was more Carry On than Penthouse and weirdly endearing.
After being told her voice is both uniquely and distinctive, Amy’s ‘thank-you’ was sweet and timid. She sounded like a little girl who’d been told her dress was pretty. Her innocent tone jived awkwardly with the towering beehive, adult chat and heavy eyeliner.
“Do you have flatmates?” was her concerned response to the news that I’d listened to her album on a loop for 48 hours.
Asked at what age she realised her voice was a strength, Amy answered in a breathless monologue that would give Vicky Pollard a run for her money.
“I didn’t think it was particularly special. All my friends can sing, so I was like, shhhhhh, whatever. You know how most kids get a degree and then they go and do music, so they’ve got something to fall back on? Well, music was my thing to fall back on. I thought, whatever happens, I can always go and do music. Then I thought, fuck it, I wanna career. It was weird ’cause it just fell in my lap. I was doing some gigs and then they offered me studio work. I was like, why are you offering me studio time? And he was like, ’cause your gonna do an album eventually, and I was like, WHAT?! I was 16 and I was like, what are talking about? And I had a record deal by the time I was 18. It was mad.”
As a student who was chucked out of the Sylvia Young school, would she ever return to acting?
“I dunno, you know. I think I’d go a bit mad, ’cause you have to really believe it don’t you?”
She sounded genuinely scared at the prospect. The thought of it made her visibly shudder.
Weed gets a few mentions on Back to Black, but Amy was keen to highlight her reduced useage. We discussed George Michael, who’d recently claimed in the media that cannabis kept him sane…
“I know. He’s so sweet isn’t he? I love him. I love him,” she gushed before continuing with earnest enthusiasm.
“It’s not bad for you, it’s just that I’ve started going to the gym and it robbed me of my energy. I’d smoke a joint, go to the gym and then be looking around at people. Paranoid. I hated that”.
Delighted to meet a fellow smoker, she then cranked up the campness for her gay audience of one. As the interview progressed, her PR became more unsettled as Amy seemed ready to ditch her press day and hit the pub with yours truly.
She denied any struggle in curbing her weed habit, despite a hefty habit.
“Because I was going to the gym, I just phased it out. I used to smoke shitloads. Like, 2 ounces a week.”
Told that this is an impressive consumption, she agreed with amused disgust.
“It’s fucking ridiculous, isn’t it? I wasn’t doing anything- well, I was.”
“I was still doing promotion, but I’d get up and smoke a big spliff. My eating was just so fucking wrong. I wouldn’t be hungry ’til 2pm. Then wouldn’t be hungry again ’til 2am. It was just so wrong. I went from that…to about a spliff a night.”
As her songs are peppered with expletives, did she worry that her cussing might limit radio play?
“No, ’cause rappers swear don’t they? All the time.”
True, but Amy Winehouse isn’t a rapper.
“I guess not,” she agrees reluctantly, before asking, “Does Lily Allen swear?”
On learning that Miss Allen does indeed cuss, Amy was triumphant.
“There you go! We’re the Sweary Girls.”
Given the choice of going to Paul McCartney’s or Heather Mills’ for lunch on Boxing Day, Amy was in no doubt:
“I’d go to Paul’s. I do feel sorry for her- but only ’cause everyone knows she’s a flippin’ cow.”
In an interview in Attitude, she referred to something as ‘gay’ – as in ‘crap’ or ‘rubbish’. This wasn’t an isolated incident. In ‘Stronger Than Me’ on Frank, Amy sings:
“All I need is for my man to live up to his role/Always wanna talk it through- I’m ok, Always have to comfort you every day/But that’s what I need you to do – are you gay?”
Though she’s aware of the upset in certain circles, Amy pointed out that during live gigs, it’s the queer boys who shout out that line with glee.
Asked why the gays seem to love her, she laughs.
“I dunno. Cause I’ve got big hair?”
The girl from her press team came into the room at this point to curtail our chat, but Amy kicked her out again, accusing her of homophobia for interrupting an interview with ‘a gay friend’.
Off the couch
She’d famously rejected Rehab, but would she ever embrace therapy?
“Nah, I think therapy is such bollocks. I’m a school-of-hard-knocks kind of girl. If you can make yourself feel better, then do it. I’m also the kind of person that picks themselves up and stops crying about things quickly, you know what I mean?”
Following news reports that she punched a fan who upset her at an art gallery, I wondered if there’s anybody she wouldn’t pick a fight with.
“I wouldn’t pick a fight with anybody if I was sober,” she admits ruefully.
“I’m just a horrible drunk. I’m surprised I didn’t hit anyone yesterday.”
Was she drunk yesterday?
“I was so drunk,” she admits, before launching into another Vicky Pollard-style stream of consciousness where she relays her antics with mates at a house party the night before.
“When I’m drunk, I’m always, like, running around. Trying to run around and escape from people. My boyfriend will be like, STAY HERE! And I’ll be like, ok, then make a run for it, or some stupid thing like that. My friend found me in the kitchen, she’s like, ‘Amy what you doing?’ I was going AWWWWWAH! I couldn’t work out the phone. I kept doing the number wrong and everything. She was like, ‘Amy, just don’t talk to him, you’re like, absolutely out of your nut’. I was like, I’ll text him. She’s like, NO, just go to sleep.”
It’s a gripping comedy monologue that leaves the PR quite anxious. Post-interview, her tales of drunken revelry didn’t translate on the page. Devoid of her inflections, breakneck delivery and astute comic timing, her soliloquies on Camden looked like gibberish when transcribed.
Before departing, I asked her to sign my copy of Back to Black. I didn’t look at what she’d written ’til I was halfway down the street. It said, “Big me up please, love Amy”
It was obvious that Amy’s love of smoking skunk was partly fuelled by a desire to quell her raging brilliance. Sober, she was hyper to the point of ADD and seemed to lack an ability to rein herself in, physically or verbally.
At that point in her career, that demented energy was to a joy to behold, an inspiring mania, dizzying and contagious. You had to operate at twice your speed just to keep up with her.
There’s no doubt in my mind that it must have been an effort for Amy to keep up with herself.
The last time I saw her was at Somerset House. She was a tad chaotic, but note perfect throughout the gig and had us all in stitches with her quips and antics. When she announced it was the last song, somebody had the temerity to start booing her.
She swaggered to the mic, found the person who’d made the noise, pointed and said, ‘Boo fucking YOU, I’ve been on this stage for two fucking hours and I’ve not fallen off it, collapsed or fucked up, so you know what, fuck off.’
The crowd went crazy and she launched into ‘Valerie’. That’s how I’ll remember her; on top form, uniquely compelling, unwilling to compromise and simply breath-taking when she sang.
Amy Winehouse, the world is much duller without you.