July 23, 2011


The Diva and Her Demons: In love and on top of the charts, all Winehouse had to do was survive both (Jenny Eliscu, 2007, Rolling Stone)

Winehouse is an unapologetic daddy's girl, even brandishing a tattoo with that phrase on her left shoulder. Mitch, a cab driver, and Amy's mother, Janis, a pharmacist, split up when she was nine and her older brother, Alex, was thirteen; the siblings lived mostly with their room in Southgate -- a North London suburb that's home to celebrity rehab hospital the Priory, where Pete Doherty and the Darkness' Justin Hawkins were treated but where Winehouse refused to go, go, go.

"She was always very self-willed," Mitch tells me. "Not badly behaved, but ... different." Though the children grew up around music ("We were always singing," says Mitch), including the old Frank Sinatra and Dinah Washington tunes she still adores, Amy's talents as a vocalist weren't immediately apparent. When she was ten, Winehouse and her best friend, Juliette Ashby, formed a rap duo modeled after Salt-n-Pepa that they called Sweet 'n Sour. (You can guess which one Amy was.) She didn't aspire to be a musician, though; instead, she fantasized about being a roller-skating waitress like the ones she'd seen in American Graffiti. She enrolled in the Sylvia Young Theatre School when she was twelve and attended classes there before being expelled for having her nose pierced and for general slackeritude. "I went to see her in a recital and I thought she'd just be acting," says Mitch. "But then she came out on the stage and started singing, and I couldn't believe it. I never knew she could sing like that."

Amy's brother, Alex, had a guitar, and whenever he was out of the house she would fiddle around with it. She bought her own when she was fourteen and started writing her own songs a year later, around the same time she discovered weed and dropped out of school. Yet Winehouse insists that her behavior wasn't the result of teen angst, which she says she'd worked through ahead of schedule. "I do suffer from depression, I suppose," she says. "Which isn't that unusual. You know, a lot of people do. But I think because I had an older brother, I did a lot of that 'Oh, life's so depressing' stuff before I was even twelve. That's when I would be reading J.D. Salinger -- or whatever my brother read- and feeling frustrated."

I point to my left forearm and say, "I couldn't help but notice the scars. How old were you when you started doing that?" She looks at me, surprised, but doesn't have a ready-made answer, so I continue: "I mean, the cutting." Her muscles seem to tighten, and she avoids eye contact as she replies, "Um, that's really old. Really old. Just from a bad time, I suppose. "And then, stammering, "D-d-desperate times."

After she dropped out of school, Winehouse worked odd jobs -- including a gig as a "showbiz journalist" for the World Entertainment News Network -- and started singing with a jazz band. A friend in the music business saw one of those performances and offered to hook her up with studio time to record some demos. "I didn't believe he'd actually let me do it," she says. "I was like, 'What's in it for you?' I just didn't get why he would be so willing to help me. Because I didn't think it was special to be able to sing." The demos from those sessions helped Winehouse score a label deal and management contract with Fuller's company and, later, a publishing deal with EMI. On the very same day the check from EMI cleared, the eighteen-year-old singer-songwriter moved out of the house she was living in with her mom and into a flat in Camden with Juliette.

Though it was inspired almost equally by hip-hop and jazz, Winehouse's first record, Frank, released in 2003, put her in a league with crooners Jamie Cullum and Katie Melua as a key player in a U.K. jazz revival. Never released in the States, Frank went platinum in England and brought her nominations for a slew of awards, including the Mercury Music Prize (which she didn't win) and the Ivor Novello Award for songwriting (which she did). But around the same time she met her Baby, she rediscovered the Sixties music she says she'd loved as a girl. "When I fell in love with Blake, there was Sixties music around us a lot," she tells me five days later in Miami. I was supposed to meet with Winehouse that morning, but she and Fielder-Civil had other plans. They went to get a marriage license with the idea of getting hitched the next day but decided at the last minute that, since they were already there, why not just go for it? And that is how, alone in front of a Miami clerk and for the modest cost of about $130 in fees, Amy Winehouse married her Baby. "I don't want to say we did it on a whim, because that makes it sound whimsical," Fielder-Civil tells me, an irrepressible grin plastered across his face, his eyes dancing with happiness.

The couple met in Winehouse's usual Camden watering hole in 2005. "It was my local," she says. "I spent a lot of time there, playing pool and listening to jukebox music." For Winehouse that meant blues, Motown and girl groups. "More significantly, I used to smoke a lot of weed," Winehouse says, explaining why those sounds appealed to her so much when she was writing songs for Back to Black. "I suppose if you have an addictive personality then you go from one poison to the other. He doesn't smoke weed, so I started drinking more and not smoking as much. And because of that, I just enjoyed stuff more. I'd go out and have a drink. The whole weed mentality is very hip-hop, and when I made my first record, all I was listening to was hip-hop and jazz. The weed mentality is very defensive, very much like, 'F[***] you, you don't know me.' Whereas the drinking mentality is very 'Woe is me, oh, I love you, I'm gonna lie in the road for you, I don't even care if you never even look my way, I'm always gonna love you.'"

She had recorded Frank in Miami with hip-hop producer Salaam Remi, who has worked with Nas, the Fugees and Jurassic 5, and she says she originally planned to do all of Back to Black with Remi as well. (He ended up contributing four tracks to the album.) But an executive at EMI introduced her to Ronson, in hopes the pair might achieve musical synchronicity. "I do write everything myself, but I have to be close with someone to write songs in their presence," she notes. "I didn't know what kind of stuff Mark did, and I thought he was one of them old-trying-to-be-young cool guys. I didn't realize that he's young! Pretty much right away when I met him we got on like brother and sister."

Ronson broke into the music business spinning hip-hop at New York bars and clubs; the six songs he worked on for Back to Black apply his DJ's cut-and-paste aesthetic to an old-school soul sound rendered live -- that is, sample-free -- by a brilliant Brooklyn eight-piece deep-funk ensemble called the Dap-Kings he recruited to achieve Winehouse's vision for her album. "Amy came to my studio and played me stuff like the Shirelles and the Shangri-Las and the Angels," says Ronson. "I got inspired by what she was talking about, and that night I did the drum beat and piano part for 'Back to Black' and put tons of reverb on the tambourine. She's deceivingly nonchalant, and when I played it for her the next day, she said, 'It's wicked,' but I couldn't tell if she meant it. Then she was like, 'This is what I want my album to sound like.' She would come in every day and play me songs on the acoustic guitar, and we'd try different arrangements to find something that felt authentic. The reason everyone goes back to those Motown records is that there were amazing musicians playing together in a room, and that's what we tried to do."

Though fans with refined ears might be connecting with the authenticity of the album's production and arrangements, it's clear that most of the million folks who've fallen for Back to Black are connecting with the authenticity of Winehouse's guilt, grief and heartache. From the story the songs tell, her relationship with Blake burned too hot, too quickly. There was cheating and heartbreak: He went back to his old girlfriend, and she worried she'd lost the love of her life. "The songs literally did write themselves," she tells me over dinner at Big Pink, a kitschy Fifties-style diner in Miami where the frozen drinks come in jumbo servings and the food is delectably devoid of nutritional value. Adjacent to our table, Winehouse's new husband sits an arm's length away, and she avails herself of every possible opportunity to lean over and whisper or smooch. "All the songs are about the state of my relationship at the time with Blake," she continues. "I had never felt the way I feel about him about anyone in my life. It was very cathartic, because I felt terrible about the way we treated each other. I thought we'd never see each other again. He laughs about it now. He's like, 'What do you mean, you thought we'd never see each other again? We love each other. We've always loved each other.' But I don't think it's funny. I wanted to die."

Posted by at July 23, 2011 6:43 PM

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