Exclusive: Talking With Winehouse

Sharon Jaffa - Wednesday 4th 2005f May 2005

The jazz singer

Reading up on Amy Winehouse before my interview, I started to feel a little anxious. Apart from the logistical nightmare in setting up the conversation the feisty north Londoner has a reputation for saying what she thinks.

The Amy I met didn’t disappoint. “I write songs the way I talk, and I’m a blunt person. I don’t see the need to gloss over things,” she explains early on in our exchange.

But what some journalists may not add is that, aside from blunt, Amy is also friendly, likeable and refreshingly unpretentious.

Considering the short amount of time the nation has had to acquaint themselves with Miss Winehouse, she has clocked up some remarkable achievements. Her debut album, Frank, has shifted nearly 200,000 copies and now the two-time Brits nominee has just earnt herself another coup – an Ivor Novello nomination for her track,

Stronger Than Me. Hardly surprising the critics haven’t stopped raving, and that she’s been hailed as a flagbearer for the new wave of British jazz, along with fellow young crooners Jamie Callum and Katie Melua.

It’s a lot to get your head round in such a short space of time. How does Amy feel about her rapid rise to fame? “It means that I’m able to work with who I want to work with and write music I want to write, so I’m very lucky,” says the Camden resident.

“I honestly never thought I would make any money from music – I figured I’d get a job in an office or as a waitress. I never had a great plan or promoted myself, but in a way I’ve been working for this for years.”

So many years, in fact, that one of Amy’s earliest childhood memories is singing Beatles songs with her dad while he was splashing around in the bath.

These days she’s more likely to be found sharing her smooth, bluesy voice with a packed audience listening to her on stage. Her sell-out UK tour ended this week and she’s about to play at the Prince’s Trust Urban Music Festival this weekend. But while many reviewers have commented on Amy’s confident stage presence, the singer herself is not convinced.

“I love being on tour, but I wish I could work off the crowd better; be more of a showman,” she says. “For me, it’s all about the songs, and I’m so busy concentrating on that, I’m not paying as much attention to the audience.”

One could argue with a voice like that who needs showmanship, but it’s good to hear Amy’s success hasn’t gone to her head.

One of the things that has defined the Sylvia Young stage school graduate – her former classmates included Billie Piper and Jon Lee of S Club before she got expelled - is her ability to offer something different in an era of manufactured pop. And though her raspy vocals could come from a smoky 1940s jazz bar, the subtle stamp of hip hop brings the sound bang up to date. At the tender age of 20, her lyrics are far more world-weary than her years would suggest. The result is fevered comparisons with a host of Jazz stars like Nina Simone and Erykah Badu, with others dubbing her Britain’s answer to Norah Jones.

“I pride myself on being different from everyone else, not on being the best singer or songwriter,” she says. “I am influenced by so many people - Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Minnie Riperton and lots of others.

“I was at stage school for a year and a half but all I did was sing songs with other people. You can’t be taught how to sing. After I left school I wanted to earn a living and I got lucky when a friend of a friend came to see me at a jazz gig and helped me get a break.”

When it comes to writing songs, Amy is mostly inspired by human relationships. “That and life itself,” she explains. “The things I can’t deal with I write about, but I do it in a lighter way. I don’t like to look back and think ‘That was a horrible time’; I prefer to think ‘I’m glad I came through that’.”

During previous interviews, Amy has revealed that much of her pain, noted by reviewers of her album, is directed at an ex-boyfriend, and also at her father. Her parents divorced when she was 12, and the song What is it about Men? seems to question her father’s inability to stick with one woman.

“My dad said ‘You’ve got to stop talking about me – you’re making me sound like a serial philanderer!’,” laughs the singer. “I never actually said that though. The song is about infidelity, but I am very close to both my dad and my mum. I’m a lot like my dad. We’re both the sort of characters who believe it’s important to get stuff done and to be honest with people.”

The first 10 years of Amy’s life were spent growing up in Southgate, before the family moved to Finchley. Now her mum, a locum pharmacist, is settled in Woodside Park and her dad - a cabbie from the East End who also happens to be a great singer - lives near Dartford Tunnel with his second wife. Amy is also close to her older brother Alex, a writer whom she describes as “a genius”.

As a youngster, she remembers going to cheder classes every Sunday – and hating them. “Every week I’d say ‘I don’t want to go, dad, please don’t make me go.’ He was so soppy he often let me off. I never learnt anything about being Jewish when I went anyway.”

Now, Amy, a former pupil of Ashmole school in Southgate, says she’ll go to shul on Yom Kippur “out of respect”. She also recently celebrated Passover with the rest of the Winehouse clan.

“Being Jewish to me is about being together as a real family. It’s not about lighting candles and saying a brocha.”

In case you were wondering, Jewish men are off the agenda. “I have a boyfriend who isn’t Jewish, because most of the time I don’t like Jewish men. I can’t be doing with guys who have been smothered by their mothers.”

When she’s not hanging out with her family or her boyfriend, Amy is busy working on her second album. “It will have the same essence, but a different feel overall; I’d hate it to be a ‘Frank Part 2’,” she insists.

“The first album covered everything I’ve been through so far. The next one will be all about where I am looking forward.”

And where might that be? Curiously, as well as seeing herself “making music that people relate to,” the “brash” singer with a penchant for piercings and bad language also sees herself starting a family.

Maybe she’s not such a rebel after all.