Amy Winehouse: The Dangerous New Queen of Soul

Amy Winehouse / Photo by Terry Richardson
Amy Winehouse / Photo by Terry Richardson

OF AMY WINEHOUSE'S MANY TATTOOS, the most clever is the pocket over her left breast (right below the word blake's). But the most noticeable might be daddy's girl on her left arm. Her father, a taxi driver named Mitch, is coming to see her in Toronto next week, and she can't wait. "We're good friends," she says, playing with a bowl of tortellini and escarole soup at an outdoor café in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood in early May, hours before her show at the Highline Ballroom. "He doesn't know what he's talking about and neither do I."

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Winehouse grew up in Southgate, a suburb north of London (also home to posh rehab facility the Priory), until age nine, when Mitch and her pharmacist mom, Janis, split up. She was sent off to — and summarily kicked out of — a series of schools. She then won a scholarship to the prestigious Sylvia Young Theatre School in London, only to be kicked out of that, as well. "I was just disruptive, I suppose," she says, without elaboration. "I loved school and I loved learning, but things piled up, I guess."

Formal training or not, Winehouse was a quick study when it came to performing. At ten, she was the Sour to her best friend Juliette's Sweet in the Salt-N-Pepa–inspired tween-rap outfit, er, Sweet 'N' Sour. By 15, she was singing in jazz clubs, having been weaned on Dinah Washington, Tony Bennett, and Sarah Vaughan by Mitch and her older brother, Alex. Simon Fuller's 19 Management — the folks who brought us Spice Girls and American Idol — snapped her up, and a producer's demo featuring Winehouse on vocals turned into an obsession for Island Records A&R man Darcus Beese. "I snuck into the 19 offices to find out who was handling her, because they were keeping her a secret," he recalls. "I never heard a woman who lyrically put the shit together like she did, and I had to have her, so we did the deal. She's Etta James, she's Aretha Franklin, she's Mahalia Jackson, she's Courtney Love."

Frank was released in the U.K. in October 2003, and though it may sound much more like contemporary R&B than Back to Black, the album still had enough brazen chutzpah in songs like "In My Bed" and "Fuck Me Pumps" to sell around 300,000 copies. Nearly two years later, however, there was no sign of a follow-up; Winehouse was partying more and writing less, caught up in the turmoil with Fielder-Civil and starting a new relationship.

"It wasn't because she couldn't write songs," Beese says of this fallow period. "She just didn't have the subject matter to write about. She had to live it before she could write it."

There was a stark physical transformation as well — she gained a dozen or so tats, lost a couple of dress sizes — but Winehouse insists her metamorphosis was strictly a matter of taste. "I stopped listening to jazz and hip-hop, and started listening only to '60s music. That's pretty much it," she says adamantly. Mitch Winehouse has publicly stated that he personally prefers his daughter's previous appearance but trusts her to take care of herself.

The oft-told story has it that 19 didn't think her lifestyle change was quite that simple and wanted to pack her off for alcohol treatment, an invitation she famously declined. She then switched to a more tolerant management team, but it wasn't until Winehouse met 31-year-old London-born, New York–based DJ and producer Mark Ronson that she found the throwback sonics perfectly suited to her stark new confessionals.

"She thought I was going to be some older Jewish guy or something," Ronson recalls. "I don't know if she thought I'd be like Rick Rubin or maybe Leonard Cohen. We listened to everything, like Earl and the Cadillacs and the Angels, and just started talking the way music geeks do when they get together." The next day Ronson came up with the foundation of what would become the record's title track, a midtempo weeper about getting wasted because the man she loves won't leave his girlfriend. (Another apparent obstacle to the relationship: "You love blow / And I love puff.") "I write songs because I'm fucked in the head and need to get something good out of something bad," Winehouse says. "There were things I couldn't say to [Blake], but I never thought, ‘This would be a great song. Who's going to hear this?' I thought, ‘Fuck, I'm going to die if I don't write down the way I feel. I'm going to fucking do myself in.' It's nothing spectacular."

Ronson couldn't disagree more — he thinks it's her raw honesty that makes her spectacular and that that's why people are responding to the album. "How are you going to tell me Ashanti is more useful than Amy Winehouse?" he says. "Kids have been force-fed this homogenized teeny-bopper R&B, but Amy's stuff is so much more relatable to a 21-year-old going through a breakup or whatever. People forget that those '60s girls, like the Shangri-Las, were really subversive at the time: things like ‘My boyfriend left me and I want to kill myself' or ‘He hit me and it felt like a kiss.' It was rebellious music then, and that's what Amy's doing now. That's why I think it should sound aggressive."

That aggression is provided largely by New York–based R&B backing band the Dap-Kings, who are on the road with Winehouse now and appear on the six tracks Ronson produced. (Salaam Remi, who helmed Frank, handles four songs.) The result is familiar yet shocking — old-timey horns and rhythms backing straight-talk sentiments like "I should just be my own best friend / And not fuck myself in the head with stupid men." Universal Republic signed Winehouse in the U.S., and Back to Black debuted at No. 7 — the highest opening position for a British female solo act ever…until a fellow Brit, blue-eyed soulstress Joss Stone, trumped her one week later. The album has barely dipped since.

Prince is dying to cover her, Lily Allen picks fights with her. Long before Britney Spears got her hands on electric clippers, the jig was up for the last crop of prepackaged pop tarts — look, there's Hilary Duff's latest, well south of Back to Black on the Billboard charts. We don't want the freshly scrubbed myth right now, we want rough-around-the edges reality, and edges don't get rougher than Amy Winehouse's. She is a demographic perfect storm: The rock crowd loves the attitude and the look. ("A lot of practice, a lot of back-combing and hair spray," Winehouse says of her voluminous do.) The hip-hop audience responds to the hosannas from the likes of Ghostface Killah, who raps a verse on "You Know I'm No Good." Boomers are drawn to the familiar musical tropes.

For all this, Winehouse largely has "Rehab" to thank. It has already reached a near–"Hey Ya!" level of ubiquity, yet the song has only recently been officially released as a single, complete with a new verse courtesy of superfan Jay-Z. Six months from now, after your aunt has already picked up a copy of Back to Black as an impulse buy while ordering a caramel Frappuccino, half the cool kids who packed into the tent at Coachella to see Winehouse will turn up their noses at the mention of her name and swear they were across the field watching Silversun Pickups at the time. (If you don't feel like waiting that long, the T-shirts at her merch table read i hate amy winehouse.)

And the guy who caused all the inspirational misery and heartache is again in the middle of it all. "We were always close, but we got to the point where it was hurting other people for us to keep seeing each other…." Winehouse's voice trails off a little, then perks back up. "It just made sense for us to be together. I'm still singing about it every night on my knees, crying onstage. But when I'm with him, I feel like nothing bad can happen. I can't explain it."

She doesn't need to — the attraction's hard to miss. Primping and preening and making friends with a giant rooster at her SPIN photo shoot, she avoids getting burnt-out during the long session by taking many bathroom breaks, then later checks her nose in a shard of broken mirror. Fielder-Civil, who's worked as a production assistant on music videos and commercials, documents the afternoon with a video camera, and Winehouse's face visibly brightens every time he enters her line of vision — everyone and everything else cease to exist, including the photographer. Between setups, Fielder-Civil lands this exclusive interview:

BLAKE: What's been the highlight of the day so far?
AMY: Five minutes from now.
BLAKE: What happens then?
AMY: I'm going to bring you into the toilet and fucking eat your ass.

Romeo and Juliet it's not, but that doesn't mean it isn't deeply romantic in its own scatological way. Just as her heartbreak feels sloppy and real on every groove of Back to Black, so does her happiness now. Listen to the lyrics in "Wake Up Alone" — "His face in my dreams, seizing my guts / He floods me with dread" — and, as she stands against a wall, flashes popping as she gently carves i love blake onto her bare stomach with that shard of mirror, don't be worried for Amy Winehouse. Be happy. She's earned this.


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