Amy Winehouse Interview - Amy tells it straight
EMMA OUTTEN Barely six months after her colossal voice filled the Waterfront in Norwich, Amy Winehouse is back – this time at the UEA. The straight-talking singer spoke about her love of Marilyn Monroe and staying in bed.
I wondered why Amy Winehouse was yawning so much when I spoke to her. It was gone midday but the 21-year-old was yawning as if her last breath depended on it.
An explanation was eventually forthcoming. The Ivor Novello award winner had been doing interviews since 11am, from home, and she had decided that she was not going to get out of bed to do them!
The last time Amy came to Norwich was her gig at the Waterfront in April. Not much more than six months later and she will be returning to the UEA.
Although she couldn't remember, in her bedridden state, where she had played in Norwich last time, she remembers it being a good gig. And she likes Norwich, particularly for the fact her best friend's family all hail from the city. “It's really special,” she said.
It doesn't sound as though she minds what venue she plays in. “I just love playing gigs so much,” says the Mercury Music Prize nominee.
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Amy adds that she would happily perform a gig in a stack of hay as long as she could find a sound system.
Fans can expect more of the same, following on from her last sell-out tour with, but no doubt the double-A sided summer single Pumps/Help Yourself will feature.
But Amy, all of a sudden, apologises that there will be no giant inflatable unmentionables or pyrotechnics.
I conjecture that her universally acclaimed debut album, Frank, which has sold over 200,000 copies in the UK, was named thus because it summed up how direct and fearless she is.
She didn't disagree on that point. She explains that she also liked the fact it was a “good one word” and because it was the only idea she didn't hate! But then she is known for having a somewhat uncompromising attitude to life.
Her singing voice has been described as “timeless and salaciously textured and capable of melting concrete even on a low heat”.
Where did such a voice come from? “It came from Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington and all my favourite singers,” says Amy, although she adds at this point: “My dad has got a beautiful voice.”
Born and raised in North London, Amy spent her teenage years locked in her bedroom, ears glued to classic song chord changes. This is a girl who got her first guitar at 13.
Her Brooklyn born, London-raised mum was into folk and the natural thing was for Amy to start strumming an acoustic guitar. Carole King and James Taylor had made their presence felt on the family stereo, but Amy was drawn to her dad's jazzier taste. Under her father's tutelage, she picked up serious exposure to Vaughan and Washington. And, thanks to her grandmother, she was also imbibing a measure of Frank Sinatra.
So whose musical tastes were the most influential? Well, her older brother's as it turns out… He went to university when Amy was 14 and Amy was left with all this music.
“I was a very happy girl,” she says.
Her brother had introduced her to Thelonious Monk. “If you like Miles Davis, you will like Thelonious Monk”, he had told her.
“My life changed,” she says, profoundly. “When I heard Thelonious Monk I felt a purpose.”
Amy enrolled at the Sylvia Young stage school in North London, but was later expelled for “not applying herself,” and wearing a nose piercing.
By the time she was 16, Amy was spending her mornings appearing with a youth jazz orchestra, while, at the same time, developing a broader musical education, with favourites that included Mos Def, Talib Kweli, The Roots, Erykah Badu.
“I listen to hip-hop right now,” says Amy, who describes herself as a beat-driven jazz singer. “That's my new jazz to be honest.” Especially as she adds: “There's not a lot of thought behind music today.”
Would her relationship with music as an infatuation? Not exactly, she explains, because unlike an infatuation with a man, you do get something in return.
“Music is the only thing that will give and give and give and not take,” says Amy, who adds as an aside that she didn't develop as a person until she discovered sex and sexuality.
Almost without exception, her songs are written from a very personal perspective. There's a track on the album called October Song which transposes the real life passing away of her pet canary into a dreamy elegy. She had only had the poor creature for a month, and had decided to honour the pet. (Besides, she had spent £120 on the cage and wanted to recoup the money!)
Only a couple of songs, including I Heard Love Is Blind (a mock admission of love cheating with a look-a-like), have been written from the viewpoint that they might be quite funny if they happened for real.
Her lyrics have been described as savagely witty. And it's not just her lyrics...
I'd read that her grandmother objects to her public denouncement of stars. “My nan does do that,” Amy admitted. Her grandmother, apparently, doesn't understand why “such a nice girl” would sound like “such a rude girl.”
“I keep opening my mouth about people,” said Amy. “Me and my nan fall out because of it. We sit there and eat dinner and row.”
But she added: “She loves me. She doesn't care what I do. She is so lovely.” To prove the point, she says there is a framed photo of her grandmother at her bedside.
Although she admits that she never listens to people “until it's too late,” she doesn't exactly regret anything she's said either. “I don't speak out of turn,” she stresses. “If someone asks me to review an album…”
Fellow shining stars Katie Melua, Joss Stone and Jamie Cullum are often mentioned in the same breath as Amy. Katie has been on the receiving end of Amy's tongue. Amy feels that she and Joss are moving on in the world, whereas “Jamie and Katie are still there” (where “there” is). “I think they should get married!”
Rather than talk about her contemporaries, Amy is happier discussing her icons: Marilyn Monroe, to be precise. Amy was talking into her gold effect Marilyn Monroe phone during the course of our interview.
“I love her, I love her,” exclaims Amy. Her mum normally gives her books on Marilyn for Christmas.
“I wasn't born of these times,” announces Amy. “I should have been born in the '40s.” She certainly sounds like a 40s jazz singer, albeit one using forefront beats and lyrics.
She has “thousands of old films” at home. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Liz Taylor and Sophia Loren, are all favourites. “Quite sad, really…” she muses.
Her brother, who apparently, looks like “Woody Allen in a young man's body,” is just as bad. Or as Amy put it, just as mad. And she completes the family picture: “My dad is a bit of a nut job. My mum is so sane.”
The interview was a bit of a mad half-hour, even if the womanly Winehouse has officially come of age.
She likes the sentiments of Christina Ricci in a recent interview, when the actress talks about life going in seven cycles.
It struck a chord with Amy, who had thought: “Wow.” Seven is a good number for Amy, it seems. “I feel lucky…I feel good,” she says.
The Ivor Novello Award for Best Contemporary Song (Stronger Than Me) and the Mercury Music Prize nomination caps an amazing year for Amy – following her double Brit nomination, sell-out UK tour, Glastonbury and Billie Holiday Tribute appearances, amongst others. “What happened to me last year, end to end, you think 'Jesus Christ'. I had an amazing year last year.”
She never imagined, for example, that Mos Def would become her friend or that she would appear on Never Mind the Buzzcocks. (Never mind everything else, these were the two highlights).
But Amy is not planning to be a one-year wonder. Four decades is how long she thinks she'll last. Likening herself to Cleo Laine, she said: “I'll be singing for a long, long, long time.”
“I will be like her.” “She's wicked. She lives her life like a proper diva in the old style.”
Now, a diva can be a “horrible thing to be called” these days, but, as Amy explains, “you could be called a diva back then if you had a voice like Shirley Bassey.
The Daily Telegraph has described Amy as “dirty, flirty, funny, sarcastic, abusive, self-lacerating, heartbreaking and extraordinarily worldly-wise.” Dirty? “That's fine,” said Amy, before adding, quirkily: “I hope I took a bath that day. I like to think I did.”
Was the Telegraph describing a typical Amy Winehouse gig? “It's a bit raw at the gigs. I'm the kind of person who likes to get into it in a gig. I end up dancing.”
Plus, she adds, matter-of-factly: “I don't like wearing many clothes on stage.”
“I don't like wearing much on stage. I like to move around. I like to strut around.”
And bang! There you have it, an image of an Amy Winehouse gig.
According to Amy, her look is not about trying to be sexy; it's about trying not to be sweaty.
It sounds like it can all get a bit hot and sweaty up there, especially if you are one of the blokes playing up on stage with her. She jokes about having to “peel their clothes off” after a gig!
That Amy, she's a one. The mad half-hour was up. The darling of the soul-jazz scene called me darling, said goodbye – and put down her gold effect Marilyn Monroe phone. t
t Amy Winehouse plays the University of East Anglia in Norwich on Wednesday November 10. Box office 01603 508050 or www.ueaticketbookings.co.uk