EMMA LEE

Singer Amy Winehouse is back with a new album and plays the Waterfront in Norwich on Saturday November 18. Emma Lee talks to the famously-outspoken pop artist but finds her uncharacteristically subdued.

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EMMA LEE

Singer Amy Winehouse's PR company describes her as one of the most challenging artists in pop music.

She's certainly one of the most challenging artists in pop music I've ever had to interview.

I was hoping she'd be feisty and outspoken. Feisty and outspoken makes good copy.

But the Amy Winehouse that I encountered sounded distracted and was definitely on her guard.

So much so that she raced through all my questions in eight minutes flat - I know this because there's a timer on my phone which tells you how long your call has been.

But in retrospect, I had probably caught her at a bad time, despite her insistance that she was fine, good.

Reports had emerged that Amy, who shot to fame when she released her debut album, Frank, three years ago, had been told by her record company bosses to cut back on her drinking or go into rehab.

Which is ironic, as her latest single is actually called Rehab.

According to one paper, she began boozing after a painful love split and has also admitted to battling eating disorders.

Having your personal life being raked over by the papers - a downside of being in the public eye - can't be an easy thing to deal with, so it could go some way to explaining why she seemed to be uncharacteristically subdued.

Amy released her debut album, Frank, in 2003. And it was just that - a blunt-speaking break-up record. She was like a breath of fresh air.

The amazingly powerful singing voice that has brought her acclaim is deceptive. It has such a depth and maturity to it that it comes as a surprise when you realise that she's still only in her early 20s.

The Londoner already has an impressive array of accolades to her name - an Ivor Novello award, and Mercury Music Prize and Brit nominations.

She got her first guitar when she was 13 years old and found her inspirations through her relatives' record collections. Her mum liked folk artists like Carole King and James Taylor, while her father was into jazz artists like Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington. And her gran introduced her to ol' blue eyes himself - Frank Sinatra.

She went to the Sylvia Young stage school, which has an impressive track record of starting youngsters off on the road to stardom, and was expelled.

But a distinctive voice like that wasn't going to be held back and Frank was a critical and commercial success.

The follow-up, Back to Black, which is out now, is described as her 'coming-of-age record'. And critics have again been falling over themselves to heap acclaim on her - with one likening her voice to Aretha Franklin's.

But even though she's obviously put her heart and soul into it, she's not too keen to talk about it.

When I ask her if she has a favourite track on the record her response is: I can't say which song I like best - that's like asking a parent to say which is their favourite kid.

But she says she has consciously moved away from her jazz roots. And there's also been a bit of an image change - she's acquired an impressive collection of tattoos.

This time round she looked to '50s and '60s girl groups for inspiration. And as well as working with Frank's producer Salaam Remi, she's teamed up with New Yorker Mark Ronson, who's recently worked with Lily Allen, Robbie Williams and Christina Aguilera.

Why did she move away from all that jazz?

I was bored of complicated chord structures and needed something more direct, she says. I didn't want to do anything too clever and complex.

Although she's gone for a poppier sound, she says that she has tried to give it a twist.

I like anyone who's different and stands out and I try to be like that, have something different to other people, she says.

Was it a bit of a shock to the system to be thrown into the spotlight as she was?

I don't think I ever was famous. Famous is different to being known, she says. But it didn't change me at all. I was working a lot, I've had lots of good gigs - with Carleen Anderson and Mica Paris, and I loved doing the Billie Holiday tribute. I wasn't desperate to be famous. I was just singing in pubs and somebody found me.

I've always loved music. I don't think there was a point where I got into it.

She does, however, perk up a bit when she talks about her tour, which calls at Norwich on Saturday November 18.

I can't wait. It's my favourite thing to do. I like everything about it. Being in a different city every day, being with my band, performing songs that I love for people. There's 10 of us in total on stage. I love playing little places. It's much more intimate. And I love Norwich - my best friend's family are from Norwich, she says.

And with that, she's gone.

For now, at least, she's letting her music do the talking instead.

Amy Winehouse plays The Waterfront, Norwich, on Saturday November 18. Box office, telephone 01603 508050, or www.ueaticketbookings.co.uk. The album, Back to Black, is out now.

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