Amy Winehouse has big hair, a big hit in her native England and a big, bad reputation back home.
Winehouse is fast becoming the new name for her liver, a presenter joked at the prestigious Brit awards, England’s answer to the Grammys, at which Winehouse was named best British female singer in February.
Back to Black
(Universal Republic; US: 13 Mar 2007; UK: 30 Oct 2006)
Her No. 1 British hit, “Rehab,” is about people imploring her to go into treatment, but she brays “no, no, no.”
Did she ever go?
“I walked in and walked out,” said Winehouse, 23. “I only went to shut people up. I didn’t even sign off. I said `hello’ and walked out.”
Like U.S. paparazzi stalking Britney Spears, the British tabloids have chronicled her bad behavior, which includes heckling Bono while he was accepting an award and appearing sloshed on Charlotte Church’s TV show. The latest dispatch is that Winehouse, who broke up with her boyfriend in March, is now engaged to a bloke she’s known for only a month.
The British press makes it sound as if Winehouse’s life is more interesting than her music. But her “Back to Black” is the best album of 2007 so far. It’s a soul revivalist’s addicting look at love. This tiny, tattooed, beehive-coiffed soul siren looks and sounds like she could have been in the Ronettes in the 1960s, but her modern-day words have the earthy R-rated sass of a jazzy Etta James.
“Amy Winehouse has a wonderful voice,” Rod Stewart told the Minneapolis Star Tribune recently, saying he’d like to record a duet with her. “She’s got a touch of Billie Holiday in her voice. And she doesn’t seem to give a (expletive), which is admirable.”
Despite her Courtney Love-like flair for self-destruction, the British music industry is taking Winehouse seriously. She snared her Brit award over two higher-profile stars, Lily Allen and Corinne Bailey Rae.
“I was very surprised and honored to be nominated, let alone getting it,” Winehouse said during a break from a photo shoot for Spin magazine in New York.
Despite all the attention, she doesn’t feel like she is England’s It Girl:
“I don’t think there is such a thing. That’s what happens when you put out records. That’s how it works.”
Among other things, she has seen the press discuss her favorite libation - a Rickstasy, which is three parts vodka, one part Southern Comfort, one part banana liqueur and one part Baileys.
“It’s bollocks, isn’t it? Actually, it doesn’t bother me. I’m a musician. I don’t really care about the rest.”
The daughter of a cabbie father and pharmacist mother, Winehouse grew up on jazz (Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra) and hip-hop (“Salt N Pepa: I wanted to be them”). At age 12, she won a scholarship to a theater school and later sang with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, where she was discovered and signed to Island Records at age 17.
In 2003, she released “Frank,” which has been described as a contemporary blend of hip-hop and cocktail jazz. That CD led to a songwriting award for her debut single, “Stronger Than Me.”
Last year for her second album, she hooked up with New York-based producer Mark Ronson, a former British DJ who has worked with Allen, Christina Aguilera and Kanye West. The CD has sold more than 700,000 copies in England since October.
“Back to Black” has been gaining momentum in the States since its release in March. After reaching No. 7, it sits at No. 11 on Billboard’s album charts. Some radio stations are playing the feisty and clever “Rehab,” and others the slyly jazzy “You Know I’m No Good,” the U.S. single.
What does she mean she’s no good?
“It’s just me saying there have been some indiscretions on my part,” Winehouse said without elaborating. “My whole album was written about real things that happened to me.”
The album includes a second version of “You Know I’m No Good” featuring rapper Ghostface Killah. And Jay-Z recently took it upon himself to do a remix of “Rehab,” which made Winehouse proud.
Despite the often downbeat tone of her lyrics, “I’m a positive, happy person, generally,” she said. “The songs I’ve written are about some bad times in my life. I needed to make something good out of something bad.”
Whether she’s happy or sad, she finds herself listening to 1960s tunes, which she calls “jukebox music - from being in the pub so much, playing pool.”
A vintage R&B sound is the style of her touring backup band, the New York-based Dap Kings, whose horn section played on her album. Before they take the stage, the singer goes through her usual ritual: “Have a drink, put my hair in rollers, dance around with the band.”
What kind of drink?
“A Jack (Daniels) and Coke.”