"I guess I just really want to be a musical icon… "
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Like many of you, we were gutted to hear the tragic news (among a weekend of it) that Amy Winehouse passed away.
In tribute, here is our April 2004 interview with her, written by Joe Heaney.
Like Coca-cola, Any Winehouse is the real thing. She oozes the kind of laid-back cool that suggests this girl’s not only seen it all, but gone and done it, too – with nobs on. Now, with two Brit nominations under her belt for her brilliant R ‘n’ B-meets-jazz-meets-whatever debut album, Frank (Best British Female Solo and Best Urban Act), she’s hot stuff. Everyone wants a bit of what this lippy 20-year-old has to say, and, despite not picking up either award on the night, her diary is packed, and her schedule the kind that would send weaker mortals running to the nearest stress clinic. But, as I discovered, nothing about Amy is usual, starting with her interviews, so here I am in a cluttered Camden kitchen (hers), watching the star herself fry bacon and eggs with her fingers, dressed in a pair of casual jogging bottoms and a loose-fitting yellow T-shirt. I’m wondering where on earth I can put my tape recorder. Makes a change from the usual slick PR meet-and-greet.
“Is it alright if I leave it there?” I gesture towards a work surface next to the cooker, littered with unopened letters, pens, and other crap. “Yeah, cool, no problem… Can I make you a tea, darlin’?” Her accent is totally London, littered with more do-you-know-wot-I-means and lost consonants than an episode of EastEnders. She’s also warm and very funny – when you get her attention.
“Shane, do you want a tea, darlin’?” she shouts through to the living room next door and then turns back to me. “Are you sure you don’t want one, as I’m makin’ one already?” I nod and she busies herself arranging cups and boiling water. I take the opportunity to try and field my questions , conscious that time is short.
“Is it true that, before you got expelled from the Sylvia Young Stage School for ‘not applying yourself’, your classmates were Billie Piper, Matt Jay from Busted and Jon Lee from S Club?” I ask.
“Yeah, Yeah, yeah; that was my history group – me, Billie, and Matt,” she replies somewhat vaguely, fishing around in the fridge for some milk. “… Yeah… But I was only there for a little bit, about a year and a half, do you know wot I mean?”
“They’re quite different from you,” I say. “Did you stand out?”
“Yeah, always. I was always the different one. Very much so, yeah.”
Now she’s hunting for some oil in which to fry her eggs. “… But it wasn’t ever anything I was conscious off, you know? I was quite proud of it, do you know wot I mean?”
Then she’s off again, this time to look in the room next door for a lighter. I wait in the kitchen; a moment later she’s back in the kitchen, smiling.
“I’m sorry about that, darlin’ – can I offer you a cigarette?”
Arriving on the scene last year, Amy Winehouse quickly marked herself out as something quite different. For starters, which other 20-year-old do you know can claim they grew up on a diet of Sarah Vaughan and Diana Washington, and have a knack for squeezing the many facets of modern life into perfectly formed, three-minute, Hip-Hop-tinged jazz songs?
And then there’s that voice. Whereas Amy’s lyrics reflect the Sex And The City concerns of most young women, and, for that matter, gay men – sex, men, relationships and shopping – her voice has obviously been reincarnated from another time, stolen from a 65-year-old black woman who’s been living on the banks of the Mississippi. The other artist I can think of who also fits this description is Macy Gray, although I know Amy will hate me for saying that.
“I don’t really think I chose jazz, I think it chose me,” she says thoughtfully. “I really mean that. It was the first music that said anything to me, that I could connect to on an emotional level, or that I wanted to learn from, you know wot I mean?”
I ask her if she was disappointed at not winning the Brit awards she was up for. She shrugs her shoulders. “Oh, that was cool. The Brit Awards aren’t really for the Best British act, they’re for the act that make the most money, and, darlin’, I don’t care about a thing like that, and that’s the truth. On the night, I wanted to fake a sicky, man! I hate all that. I’d rather spend a week in the studio, or a week just looking at a guitar, saying, ‘Come on, write something!’ I luurve to dress up and go out, but when you wear the most beautiful dress you’ve ever worn in all your life and that’s where you get to go to, it’s kind of like… [makes a face]”
We have a chat about her favourite labels (Mark Jacobs, Chloe and YSL – “Tom Ford is obviously a fuckin’ genius”), and whether she spends a lot of money on clothes. She explains that she did when her advance first came in, but not anymore. “I have a mortgage now, and, well – a life. So I can’t really, do you know wot I mean? I have to pay for a lot of the band fees when we go away. But, at one point, yeah.”
I enquire whether I can ask her how much she got for her advance. She gives me a cheeky look. “You can ask me, yeah.”
“Okay, How much was your advance?” She looks me in the eye and smiles. “Not telling you!”
I move back to safer territory – namely her music. I point out that, bearing in mind her favourite subjects are men, shopping, and refusing to toe the line when it comes to mainstream expectations, she could almost be a woman trapped in a gay man’s body. She laughs. “Yeah, I’m definitely here to represent anyone who’s different. I don’t want to do anything that’s been done, do you know wot I mean? I can’t talk specifically about sexuality, but within music, definitely, I don’t want to do what’s been done before, I want to be different every time.” Then, carefully placing her freshly cooked bacon and eggs on a plate, she thinks for a while and turns to me. “But I mean, you look at people like Bette Midler, who are such gay icons, and you think, ‘I couldn’t do that! She’s just such a… such a… fabulous person’. I guess I just really want to be a musical icon… People do say that I’m like Bette Midler, though – Bette Midler! Can you imagine? She’s old enough to be my Nan, do you know wot I mean?”
Yes, Amy, I know wot you mean.