From The Archives: Amy Winehouse – The Diva and her Demons
In love and on top of the charts, all the singer had to do was survive both
Alongside the world’s tallest free-standing tower, one of the world’s tiniest pop stars is crouched next to a garbage pail, collecting a pile of eyeliner pencils and mascara tubes between her hands. While Amy Winehouse wanders the courtyard of Toronto’s 1,815-foot CN Tower in search of a plastic bag to hold her cosmetics, the man who was her fiancé on that May but who would be her husband five days later smokes a cigarette from my pack and looks bored. Blake Fielder-Civil — or “Baby,” as Winehouse calls him, in an array of inflections that strains imagination — gestures toward the trash can. Her soda spilled inside her fake Louis, he says, pointing at the beaten-up mock Lois Vuitton purse atop the rubbish. “She had that bag for ages.”
In the universe of a twenty-three-year-old, “ages” is as relative as age is. Winehouse might say she’s been singing for ages, though it’s been less than a decade. Or that she’s been in love with her Baby for ages, though it’s been only a couple of years, with a span of months off in between. Or that the scars that cover her left forearm come from wounds she inflicted on herself ages ago, though they look considerably fresher than that. She might say any of those things, if she said much of anything at all.
During those months when Winehouse and her Baby were not together — among the things she will not say, even upon prolonged consultation with Fielder-Civil, is how many months it was — Winehouse wrote an album’s worth of heartbroken songs that has made her famous at home in the U.K. and increasingly so here in the States. Back to Black, a stylized collection of R&B throwbacks that sound like a British hip-hop brat’s interpretation of Sixties Motown soul in the best possible way, gave Winehouse the highest-charting U.S. debut ever by a British female. Prince has taken to covering her “Love Is a Losing Game” and suggested that she join him onstage during his upcoming 21 Nights in London Tour. The Arctic Monkeys have added their own version of “You Know I’m No Good” into their set, and rap’s top MCs are also fawning over Winehouse: Jay-Z appears on a new remix of her hit single “Rehab,” Snoop Dogg has proclaimed his fanhood and Ghostface Killah was wowed enough by “You Know I’m No Good” that he rhymes over the track on his album More Fish.
Those who have only heard her voice express shock upon seeing the body that produces it: The sultry, crackly, world-weary howl that sounds like the ghost of Sarah Vaughn comes from a pint-size Jewish girl from North London, world-weary though she may be. In Toronto, she is attired in the nearest thing she’s got to a uniform: Rizzo from the neck up, Kenickie from the neck down. She’s wearing her ubiquitous ratty beehive atop a thick mane of dark waves, oversize candy-cane plastic earrings and her black eyeliner drawn into exaggerated Cleopatra swooshes. Her exceptionally thin frame fails to fill out her pencil-straight black jeans, but she wears her black wifebeater nice and snug, and her arms display an assortment of old-school pinup-girl tattoos, some with their tits hanging out, others — like the one with “Cynthia” inked next to it — in coquettish Fifties garb. Winehouse has also become notorious for allegedly drunken public appearances, including one time in January when she ran offstage during a performance to barf. At an awards show in the U.K. last fall, she heckled Bono during his acceptance speech with “Shut up! I don’t give a fuck!” And on the popular British game show Never Mind the Buzzcocks, she was visibly inebriated enough that host Simon Amstell joked, “This isn’t even a pop quiz show, it’s an intervention.” Then there are her album’s frequent references to booze, weed and blow — most notably “Rehab,” which narrates how her former management company, run by American Idol and Spice Girls mastermind Simon Fuller, tried to make her go to rehab, but, oh, you know what happened next.
“Amy is bringing a rebellious rock & roll spirit back to popular music,” says Mark Ronson, the DJ-producer who helmed more than half of the tracks on Back to Black. “Those groups from the Sixties like the Shangri-Las had that kind of attitude: young girls from Queens in motorcycle jackets. Amy looks fucking cool, and she’s brutally honest in her songs. It’s been so long since anybody in the pop world has come out and admitted their flaws, because everyone’s trying so hard to project perfection. But Amy will say, like, ‘Yeah, I got drunk and fell down. So what?’ She’s not into self-infatuation and she doesn’t chase fame. She’s lucky that she’s that good, because she doesn’t have to.”
She is not, however, unflappable. She often seems sullen, weighed down by ennui or possibly just hung over. She’s outwardly polite, but not so consummate a pro that she ever fully disguises her impatience. She’s not above putting on an exaggerated pout when she doesn’t want to do something, and stomping off when that doesn’t work. Her Baby is also an expert at the latter maneuver.
While in line at a security checkpoint at the CN Tower, Fielder-Civil declares to no one in particular that he’s going back to the hotel and bolts. Winehouse runs after him in a panic. “What’s just happened?” one of her backup singers asks, while the rest of Winehouse’s entourage watches through the window to see the singer search the grounds of the tower like a lost child. But when her manager brings her back inside, black liner smeared beneath her tear-soaked eyes, nobody works up the nerve to actually ask about it. Though her thoughts run elsewhere and her nose, well, it just runs, Winehouse suggests we take a crack at “doing some words” together over lunch in the observation deck. After my first several questions provoke clipped responses, I try what has always been a foolproof icebreaker, whether in bars or on tour buses: Ask the tattooed about their ink.
How old were you when you got your first tattoo?
What is it?
I got Betty Boop on my back. I just like tattoos.
What did your parents think of that?
My parents pretty much realized that I would do whatever I wanted, and that was it, really.
How many tattoos do you have altogether?
Twelve or thirteen.
Have you always been interested in traditional-style pinup girls and that sort of thing?
Yeah, I guess so.
That’s my grandma, God rest her soul.
Have you ever had one covered up, or are there any you don’t like to look at?
I don’t regret anything.
Then how do you deal with things that you wish hadn’t happened?
I don’t know. Ask me that after I’ve been home and seen Blake.
Backstage at Toronto’s Mod Club, it’s obvious that the couple have smoothed things over. Winehouse is sitting on Blake’s lap, laughing and pawing at him while they chat with her dad, Mitch, who’s in from the U.K. for the weekend. She scurries over to the catering table and returns a few minutes later to present Mitch with a turkey-and-cucumber sandwich she’s meticulously crafted for him. The gesture, he remarks, reminds him of a concoction he used to eat made of matzo and bananas. Blake whispers something to Winehouse and she convulses into giggles. “He asked if that’s some kind of kike thing,” she offers, and then asks, “What’s more offensive, Dad, ‘kike’ or ‘yid’?” Reluctant to render his own verdict, Mitch shrugs and looks at me across the table. “Ask this lady,” he says, gracefully putting an end to the subject.
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, ‘Fuck 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.”
There is a story — perhaps apocryphal — about Dolly Parton that explains, in part, why the country singer ranks as one of Winehouse’s style icons. “I heard that she wakes up every day four hours before her husband to put on her face,” says the singer. “Four hours! I think that’s cool.” She doesn’t go so far as to say she’d do the same, but it’s apparent there aren’t very many things Winehouse wouldn’t do to keep her Baby happy. During dinner in Miami, she fusses over Blake so much that I almost feel embarrassed for her. She will pause countless times in the middle of our interview to sneak in some canoodling, occasionally getting distracted from answering because, as she says, “I was thinking about Blake.” At one point, she asks me for a piece of paper and spends the next two minutes with her hand cupped secretively over the top while she scribbles a note, folds it in half and hands it to him. “We do that all the time,” she says when she brings her focus back to our conversation. “Even if we’re out somewhere together, we’ll write notes to each other.”
Later, when her order of meatloaf, vegetables and sweet-potato mash arrives, she dutifully divides half her meal onto a separate plate with the ritualistic precision one might expect at a Japanese tea ceremony. “I’ve always been a little homemaker,” she says while she selects just the right spears of broccoli. “What’s the yellow stuff? Zucchini or something? I need a spoon. Do you have a spoon? Is there a spoon over there? Can I steal some of your gravy?” Turning to Blake, she lets loose yet another cockneyed “Baby?” and hands him a plate of food he never even asked for.
Winehouse says that she’s always been the kind of girl who loves looking after the people close to her. But you don’t need to spend much time around the singer to get the impression that she could really use some looking after herself. There is no doubt they are deeply and passionately in love with each other, but there’s also the clear sense that Winehouse and Blake are a pair of self-destructive souls equally capable of being the best or the worst thing that’s ever happened to each other. He has her name tattooed behind his right ear, and she has his tattooed over her heart. They also share matching scars, though the ones on his left forearm look older — and more rigorously inflicted — than hers. They are partners in crime who disappear to the bathroom with such regularity that one can’t help but speculate about possible drug use.
I ask her what she thinks is her worst vice. “Mainly that I’m quite reckless and always throw caution to the wind,” she says. And when the conversation turns to how she’d know if it was time to get one of her vices in check, she defers to Blake. “Baby? If I’ve got a vice, when would I know to get it in check?”
“I’d tell her,” says Blake, still grinning his cartoonish grin.
But would she do the same for him? “Never,” she says. He nods yes as she shakes her head no, and it feels like one of those awkward moments on The Newlywed Game when the husband has forgotten his wife’s favorite place for makin’ whoopee. Then he changes his answer. “No,” he quips. “You wouldn’t tell me right away. You’d sit back and watch me with a needle in my eyeball, and then you’d say, ‘It’s gone too far now, Blake.'”
As her North American tour closed in Toronto, it was clear how generally over it Winehouse was. And in Miami, she obviously would prefer to be hanging out with her new husband than spending her wedding day talking about her life and career. I ask if she’d even shed a tear if she had to stop touring and making records tomorrow.
“Not really,” she says. “I’ve done a record I’m really proud of. And that’s about it. It’s just that I’m a caretaker and I want to enjoy myself and spend time with my husband. It doesn’t even feel weird saying it now. Blake and I didn’t get to spend any time together for a long while. And I was with someone else, and he was with someone else, and even six months ago I’d meet up with him and I remember saying to him so many times, ‘I just want to look after you.’ I don’t want to be ungrateful. I know I’m talented, but I wasn’t put here to sing. I was put here to be a wife and a mom and look after my family. I love what I do, but it’s not where it begins and ends.”