AMY Winehouse is in the ascendant. She is in a lift, going up to her dressing room from the concert hall, where she will later perform. “Don’t worry about my voice,” she says. “I’m only croaking ‘cos I just woke up.”
It is 4.15pm.
The lift doors ping open and we walk into the dressing room. Tom the tour manager sits at a low table and taps his laptop. Winehouse excitedly takes the measure of the place, making eye contact with the stag’s head mounted on a wall. We are in a wood-panelled upstairs room of Òran Mór. This converted church in the west end of Glasgow is clearly a classier concert venue than she is used to. “Wow, this place is beautiful!” she exclaims in a norf lahndan husk. “Look, real plates!”
She makes a beeline for the buffet and starts constructing the sort of towering and elaborate sandwich Scooby Doo usually detaches his lower jaw to eat. Winehouse has attracted media attention for her weight loss, with the Daily Mail, a newspaper fixated on this sort of thing, suggesting she had dropped four dress sizes over 18 months. She has admitted to “A little bit of anorexia, a little bit of bulimia” but seems to be eating with uncomplicated relish today.
Looking around for a glass for her smoothie, she spies a gantry filled with spirit bottles. “Oh my God, that is a lot of alcohol!”
Tom lifts his head from his computer screen. “Yeah, you’re not allowed to drink any of that.” She ignores him but doesn’t go near the booze. Instead, she sits on a couch and waits for my questions.
Winehouse is in the middle of a low-key UK tour promoting her second album, Back To Black. It’s a terrific album, a modern take on a Sixties soul sound, smooth stuff given a jagged edge by lyrics which deal with alcoholism, sexual compulsion, loneliness and the inevitability of infidelity. Winehouse doesn’t keep a diary, her songs are chronicles of her own painful love life, so what must it be like to perform them live? Does she feel the hurt again when she sings?
“Sometimes, yeah,” she nods. “Sometimes, if it’s really good, it’s really cathartic and sometimes I just think, ‘Cor, why did I put the set in this order?’ Cos it’s so depressing.” She cries on stage from time to time. The previous evening’s concert, in Newcastle, was one such occasion. “I was emotional last night.” She shrugs. “Sad songs.”
Amy Winehouse is remarkable, a gutsy singer (literally so – she sings from her stomach, which, not coincidentally, is the part of her body where she feels the thrill of love and the pain of love ending) with a voice that sounds a lot older than her 23 years but isn’t jarringly inappropriate. Her speaking voice, by the way, bears the exact relationship to her singing voice that a crude graffiti scrawl does to Botticelli’s Birth Of Venus.
She also has a genuine lyrical talent, combining the waspish romanticism of Cole Porter with the stinging realism of Mike Skinner. There really isn’t anyone else like her at the moment. It’s odd to think that when she first emerged three years ago, she was lumped in with Jamie Cullum, Michael Bublé and the other polite young jazzers. It’s now clear Winehouse has as much in common with Katie Melua as a wildcat does with a Womble.
I mean, just look at her. She’s very sexual, though not obviously pretty, and not remotely groomed. Although she will later take the stage wearing a cocktail dress, right now she has on a grey V-neck top, dark jeans and grubby, battered ballet pumps. Her black hair – part beehive, part termite mound – is piled high, apart from a few renegade strands hanging down her back in lank Eeyore tails. Her eyeliner is smudged in circles, as if a coal miner had gently wiped away tears.
After apologising for talking with her mouth full, but stating for the record she is not spitting, she tells me how she writes songs. “I have to feel very strongly about something before I can write about it but, when I start, I’m on a roll. I am on a roll. This album took me about six months to write.” She pauses and chews this over. “I guess someone reading this might think that was really long, but fuck you, it took me four years to write my first album.”
That was 2003’s Frank, written about her break-up from Chris, seven years her senior, with whom she had worked at the showbiz news agency WENN. Frank established a blueprint for unambiguous songs about relationships but Back To Black lays it all out there. It’s open-heart surgery set to music. The new single, You Know I’m No Good, includes a scene in which Winehouse’s boyfriend – watching her bathe – discovers she has been unfaithful when he notices a carpet burn on her body.
I ask why she chooses to be so sexually explicit in her songs. “Sex is just a part of everyday life,” she explains. “People have sex. If you are going to write songs about emotional acts of love, why not write about physical acts of love? Sex has very powerful imagery, very powerful connotations. And I haven’t got anything to hide.”
So she never edits herself? Never thinks she might be giving too much away? “No. I’m young, I’m outspoken, I want to speak my mind, and I’ve got a lot to say.”
She can’t understand why more pop songwriters don’t write so openly about sex. After all, rappers mine it for material all the time. Winehouse has been profoundly influenced by hip hop, although her musical tastes tend to run to vintage soul and jazz. “Old books, old films. They have a quality that is missing from today.”
What are her non-musical influences? “People like Fellini and Martin Scorsese. Books-wise, I guess Hunter S Thompson, Truman Capote. There are certain books and films that can make you see the beauty in things. Then you have writers like Bukowski and Hunter S Thompson, who make you see how ugly everything is and why you should go and fucking drink yourself to death.”
In the credits of Back To Black, Winehouse thanks two of her favourite bands, The Specials and The Shangri-Las, and the latter group’s influence is all over her music. “I love their sense of drama, atmosphere and excitement. They are great, The Shangri-Las. So dramatic and all-or-nothing.”
Does that fit with her own personality – emotionally turbulent? “No, I’m quite level-headed. But, when I drink, I can be quite tempestuous, and I do believe that … ” She trails off. “You know, so many people are so cool, and they never let their emotions out, and they never let anyone get close, and I’m the complete opposite of that. I believe in putting my heart on the line. I don’t want to grow old and bitter and full of what-ifs.”
It sounds like she is essentially an optimist. Yet she is often portrayed in the media as dark and melancholy. “That’s not unfair,” she says. “My songs are about me being miserable. But I’m not that bad. I can get that bad but I spend a lot of time in the gym now and there’s things you can do to keep your wellbeing up and not be a miserable bitch all the time. Your endorphins help. It’s physical, not really psychological. If you go to the gym for three days, you tend to notice that you spring out of bed, going, ‘Morning!’.”
Her black moods are not triggered by particular events; they are more of a general non-specific gloom. She has learned that the clouds will pass, and that knowledge helps a lot. “One of the things that makes me feel better is that I know this is chemical, this is not me. So I’ll go, ‘It’s depression, fuck it,’ and I’ll feel better then.”
I have heard she has been diagnosed with manic depression. Is that correct? “No, I wasn’t. My mum said to me, ‘You’re a manic depressive.’ She’s a pharmacist. And I said, ‘No, I’m not, mum.’ Then she pointed out about a million things and I was like, ‘Oh shit, okay, you have a point.’ She told me the symptoms and it makes sense. But I wouldn’t bother going to a doctor just to be given some happy pills.” She pauses. “Although, I might.”
Tom interrupts. The band are ready for their singer to soundcheck. They are downstairs, killing time by playing the James Bond theme (Winehouse is to sing the title song for the next film) and the bass line to Lovecats by The Cure. “Can I steal her?” Tom asks.
She looks askance at this. “Can’t I just eat some crisps?”
Tom shakes his head. “Just go and do one track and then come back up.”
She stomps off in the huff, clutching a bag of Walkers. We sit in the silence for a while, then the lift pings and a young man comes into the room. It’s Winehouse’s boyfriend, Alex. He is wearing a vest and trilby, has lots of tattoos on his muscly arms. “Where’s the wife?” he asks. Tom tells him she’s soundchecking. Alex tries to engage Tom in further conversation but gets only grunts for his trouble. Giving up, he heads down to the concert hall.
Five minutes later, he’s back, and so is Winehouse, and a lot of her band and dancers too. It’s crowded all of a sudden. She picks up her smoothie and takes it over to the buffet table, declaring: “I’m just going to put some red wine in here.”
Maybe it’s the drink, maybe it’s because she just sang a song, maybe it’s because Alex is around, but she seems a lot happier than before. When she walked into the room, she seemed to be talking about her tattoos. “Are you planning another?” I ask.
“Yes, I want to.” She eyes the tour manager. “Where are we tomorrow, young Thomas?”
He tells her they are in London and have a day off. She lets herself fall on to the couch. “Oh, I’ve got to go and meet up with someone tomorrow. I’ve got to go and meet up with fucking Pete Doherty, haven’t I?” She rolls her eyes. “So random.”
Why is she meeting him? “He wants to do a song.” She turns back to Tom. “So we are home? So I can get a tattoo tomorrow.”
I ask what she is planning to have done. “What am I going to get? A wild stallion or something.”
Tom looks up. “Seahorse?”
“No,” she says, “I want to get some creature you can’t tame, or a nightingale with little musical notes coming out of it.”
“Why?” I ask.
“We had a fight,” she says, nodding towards her boyfriend. “Me and Alex had a fight the other night and he was like, ‘I’m going to leave you, I’m going to leave you.’ And I was like, ‘Go on, then.’ And he did. Then the next morning I woke up alone and I thought, ‘I need to get a tattoo symbolising what a fucking nutjob I am.'”
I’m really interested in her tattoos. She has loads and I am hoping she will explain what they all mean. “I would show you,” she says, tugging at her top, “but I am not wearing anything under this.” She grins. “I’d show you anyway but it’s not good decorum.”
Too bad. I had planned to ask how she felt about the theory people who get lots of tattoos and piercings do so out of self-loathing and because they want to make themselves ugly. But with her large tattooed beau sitting nearby, it doesn’t seem appropriate to get into that.
In fact, having about 10 other people in the room – all listening intently – is very inhibiting. These aren’t the ideal circumstances in which to have an intimate conversation. Winehouse doesn’t seem at all bothered by the lack of privacy, but it’s making me uncomfortable, and she is easily distracted; getting her to focus on questions would be easier if we were alone.
I ask about tomorrow’s meeting with Pete Doherty. What’s that all about? “I don’t know. He wants to do a cover and I’m like, ‘No thank you, Peter, let’s write a song together.'”
Suddenly distraught, she looks across the table at Alex. “Sorry, I’m just upset because my boyfriend’s eating a sandwich that I didn’t make him.” She yawns, stretches and lies down. Her top rides up to reveal an anchor and the words Hello Sailor tattooed on her stomach. “I have to make everything for him.”
I ask what is the upside and the downside of going out with her. She waves the question towards her boyfriend. “Oh, ask him.”
Alex doesn’t have to think about it. “The upside is that she’s a very loving and tender person,” he says. “She’s good fun.”
At this, she yells, “Cook!” – a voice from the depths of the couch.
“Excellent cook, actually,” Alex continues. “The bad side is that she can be a right stroppy cow sometimes.”
She isn’t having this. “No, I’m a drunk,” she insists. “I’m not stroppy. I’m a drunk.” She begins to plead. “Please don’t say I’m stroppy!”
Alex (placating): “Okay, you’re stroppy when you’re drunk. When you’re sober, you’re lovely.”
Amy (delighted): “Yeah, thassit! I’m a terrible drunk.”
Me (perplexed): “How is the drinking going?”
Amy (bored): “Very well, thank you. I’m in recovery. It’s going fine. I don’t wake up and want to have a drink.”
This was not the case a few months ago. She had split up with her boyfriend, Blake (his name is tattooed over her heart) and was coping by smoking a lot of cannabis and drinking bourbon for breakfast. She has since given up grass but still drinks. The tabloids delight in reporting her indiscretions – apparently drunken appearances on TV shows, punching a fan, heckling a speech by Bono during a high-profile awards ceremony – but she insists she is on a more even keel than in the immediate aftermath of the split.
Back then, things got so bad, her management at the time suggested she should check into an alcohol rehabilitation clinic. She asked her father, Mitch for his opinion. Why ask him?
“Because my dad is someone who is really close to me, who can see through the shit and just get it,” she replies. “I was staying at my dad’s at the time. I was sitting next to him on the couch when they came to see me and I just looked up at him and I said, ‘Do you think I need to go?’ and he said, ‘No,’ and I was like, ‘Well, I’ll do the dignified thing, I won’t shy away from it. I’ll go.’
“So I walked in and then I walked out. I didn’t even walk in for a meeting. I walked in for an assessment. The man in charge said, ‘We’re going to fill in a form.’ I said, ‘How long’s that going to take?’ He said, ‘Half an hour.’ I said, ‘Don’t waste your time. You look like a lovely fella,’ and walked out.”
The interesting thing is that Winehouse took this situation, which I imagine would have been annoying and embarrassing, and turned it into a hit record, Rehab, among the best pop songs of 2006. She’s an alchemist – transforming the base material of her life into musical gold. The process is therapeutic, too; writing about personal crises allows her to overcome them.
“When my first boyfriend split up with me, it was something I really couldn’t make sense of,” she says. “I didn’t understand why. So I wrote Take The Box, about how I literally had to put all his stuff in a box and get rid of it. That’s a good example of how that sorted me out.”
So when the song is written, it feels like the whole problem is over?
And it becomes possible to move on?
“Yeah, completely. It’s weird.”
Why is it easier to write about relationships that have gone wrong than relationships that are going well?
“Relationships going right don’t have me sitting up all night thinking, ‘Oh my God! Oh my God!’ I tend to write about things I can’t get past and sometimes the only way to get past is to make something nice out of something horrible. There’s no point making something nice out of something nice. Cliff Richard did that already.”
What’s it like, though, having such personal material out there in public? “I think it might be harder for people around me, like Alex. I don’t find it hard at all. I like it. I always get people coming up to me and saying, ‘You know what? I felt like that when my boyfriend split up with me. I wanted to fucking die. Thank you so much for making me feel I wasn’t alone.’ That’s cool. I like it when that happens.”
It’s important to remember that despite all the mocking headlines, Winehouse is all about music. She says her songwriting is the only area of her life in which she has any dignity. For her, music is sacred – when she is making it or listening to it she is safe within a magic circle, a pure, profound and healing space.
She was immersed in music while growing up, and maybe that’s part of the attraction now – songs takes her back to the innocence and wonder of childhood. Her Uncle Leon was a professional horn player and her paternal grandmother, Cynthie, was once engaged to Ronnie Scott, the saxophonist and club owner. “She was so beautiful. I always say that if Frank Sinatra had seen my nan before Ava Gardner, then I’d be lounge royalty.”
Her immediate family loved music too. “Always in the car. My dad always had jazz on in the car and my mum always had singer-songwriters on in the car, like James Taylor, Carole King. Then my brother, who is older, he was the one who introduced me to proper vocal jazz. I’ll always remember hearing Round Midnight coming through his bedroom wall and I was just like, ‘What is this?'”
She regards family as crucial and extends the bonds of blood to include her friends. “I am quite a maternal person,” she says. “My friend Richey is texting me every day, going, ‘I miss you, mum. I miss you.’ Loads of my friends call me mum.”
Winehouse has an instinct for nurturing and is better at looking after her friends than taking care of herself. “Yeah, always. I mean, as well as the fact half of my friends don’t eat and I have to go round their house and cook for them, Camden is just full of loads of crack and fucking horribleness. So there’s a strong sense of community. We all look out for each other.”
She gives an example. “This fella come up to me in the pub the other day. He come up to me and pushed a camera in my face and flashed it, and I went, ‘Mate, all you have to do is ask.’ And my friend Gil, who is just a massive fucker and works behind the bar, went, ‘Mate, fyoo fuck wif ‘er, yoo fuck wif the ‘ole pub.’ That was really sweet.”
As we seem to be getting along better, I mention to Winehouse we share a birthday, September 14. She points to Alex; amazingly, his birthday is also on that date. “Bunch of bloody Virgos!” she cackles. Then, to the room, she announces. “I want to eat oysters tonight.”
Rogano is suggested as a good restaurant for doing that. “Do you want to go to Rogano and eat oysters and drink champagne?” she asks Alex, giddily. Then she frowns. “I’m not allowed champagne.” Then she grins again. “Yeah! I’m loving my oysters!”
She has lost interest in the interview. Walking back to the buffet, tiny and tough, part grit, part pearl, she looks pretty much exactly like Barbara Windsor crossed with Morticia Addams. I finish by asking what she hopes her life will be like by the time she turns 30.
“That’s seven years from now,” she calculates. “So I would have had at least two kids, no three kids. And five more albums. Yeah, let’s start there – three kids and five more albums.”