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Amy Winehouse 1983-2011

In memory of Amy, former Dazed editor Callum McGeoch recalls meeting the iconic singer for one of her very first magazine interviews, back in 2003

When the promo sampler of Amy Winehouse’s debut album 'Frank' was first dropped into the Dazed office stereo in late spring 2003, expectations couldn’t have been much lower. What have we here? A teenaged north London stage school dropout managed by the man behind the Spice Girls, who cites Dinah Washington, Nina Simone and Sinatra as her influences? Yeah right. 

And yet by the time opener 'Stronger than Me' had hit its stride her place in the next issue was booked. The Marlboro and cognac voice would’ve done it alone, putting all the Popstars winners then clogging up the charts to shame. But it was the cute lyric - at once old fashioned and of the moment, bolshie yet vulnerable, bitter but funny - that was most arresting. If a 19 year-old cockney Jewish princess really had created this, then we needed to meet her.

Two weeks later, in a café around the corner from the Dazed office, we did meet. Straight away the contradictions became even more starkly apparent. Here was this puckish, prodigious girl who was not just mimicking but fully inhabiting an idiom ordinarily the preserve of hard-bitten African American divas. 

Her voice, so sublimely seductive in song was more broken-nosed east end street fighter in conversation. She was both cocky and nervy; itching to finally get a record out and find her audience, but clearly anxious about being judged. 

Maybe there were some signs that she was just beginning to construct the tough exo-skeleton she hoped would protect her fragile, restless soul from the intrusions and examinations that her gifts would inevitably bring upon her. Of which I suppose, this interview was one of the first of many.

Mostly though she was open, funny, optimistic and never more wide-eyed than when talking about the music she loved.

Here is part of our conversation…

Dazed&Confused: How did you get discovered?
Amy Winehouse:
When I first had any kind of interest, it was through my friend Tyler [James]. He was 19 and I went to school with him. He was talking to his A&R guy Nicky, and Nicky was saying ‘Oh, I heard some girl on the radio today singing Jazz, there’s something about Jazz’. Tyler said ‘Well, if you want someone who sings Jazz then my girl Amy, she’s the Jazz girl’ and that was it really. I just sent him out a little demo, which was a jazz demo, I was even writing songs at that point.

D&C: What was on that demo?
Amy Winehouse: The demo was two jazz standards but they were really cheesy, really straight backing tracks. I’m surprised he rang me. I mean, I sang them alright but they were really cheesy, really funny. It was 'Night & Day' and 'Fly Me To The Moon' or something.

D&C: Have you been singing jazz for a long time?
Amy Winehouse: Yeah, I’ve been singing jazz for maybe six years. 

D&C: Because that’s what your voice is best suited for?
Amy Winehouse: It was my first love, well it wasn’t my first musical love but it was always there, it was always very present. I mean, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan. They were always there, in my house, what my parents would listen to. 

D&C: Are they musicians?
Amy Winehouse:
No, my mum is a pharmacist and my dad’s a cab driver, well, he will be in a couple of months, he’s doing the knowledge at the moment. I’m so proud of him; he’s been working so hard my dad. He’s messed up a couple of the appearances but he’s persevered, you know. He’s very impatient so for him to have done this and worked hard for it and then to have gone back and done things that he’s failed at, you know that’s a very admirable thing. He always had the jazz thing in the house, always, from when I was a baby and my mum liked folkier stuff like James Taylor and Carole King, and I got into them quite heavily.

D&C: So your parents had good music taste?
Amy Winehouse:
Yeah and my dad was really into the Beatles, like really into the Beatles. And my dad just used to sing all the time, around the house. He still does wherever he goes, he’s wicked, and his wife’s like ‘Shut up, Mitchell!’. Everywhere he goes, everywhere – ‘Everyone knows you can sing, shut up!’ stuff like that. He is good though, but he never did anything with it but he just chose to be a double glazing sales person in London.

D&C: Where did you grow up?
Amy Winehouse:
I grew up in North London, I’ve always lived in London. My dad’s from East London. My mum’s from Brooklyn but she moved to East London. This is cute actually. They lived on the same street when they were kids but they didn’t know each other. My mum knew my dad as the boy up the road who used to knick the bin lids and then they got married. So, when they were older they were like ‘I used to live on Commercial Street’ and my mum was like ‘So, did I!’ Very romantic. 

D&C: So, they lived together, she went to Brooklyn and then came back?
Amy Winehouse:
No my mum was born in Brooklyn but she came to England when she was really young, when she was two, really young.  She’s not American at all with her manner and her speaking.  

D&C: So, your parents being into jazz and folk didn’t make you want to rebel against that?
Amy Winehouse:
Not really, at all, because while I had this music going on the parallel was at school I was doing very cheesy, musical theatre, very over the top. I knew I wanted to perform and the only thing I could think of to do, which was close to what I wanted to do, was I wanted to sing and I wanted to dance and I wanted to act, all at once. Musicals are the only thing you do with that kind of thing. I just realised it wasn’t for me, it took me a good two or three years of doing tap and doing ballet and singing “Where Is The Love?” and all that cheesy shit. It took me a good while to realise that I loved the songs in the musicals, the actual songs. But I preferred them when they were taken out of their context in the musical and messed around with by someone like the Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, you know. 

D&C: People that would take it somewhere else?
Amy Winehouse:
Yeah, take it somewhere else and interpret it their way, you know? My idols are people that took songs and made them completely theirs. Which is why Dinah Washington is one of my favourite singers because she was doing the same songs everyone was doing, you know how people would just do all the same songs at the time because there was the same catalogue of songs going round at the time. And she would do something and after she would do it people would leave it because she’d of done it so good they would just be like ‘Shit, Dinah’s done that we better leave it now”. Like, she would just make it hers, like really make it hers. 

D&C: So, were you at stage school or normal school?
Amy Winehouse:
I was at stage school. I went to both because I kept getting kicked out of a few schools. I went to Sylvia Young’s but I was only there for about a year, a year and a half, because I got kicked out.

D&C: Why were you kicked out?
Amy Winehouse:
It really wasn’t anything. Like, I had my nose pierced and they sent me home. It’s tragic. It’s really sad. 

D&C: Did you study jazz?
Amy Winehouse:
No, I’ve never studied it formally. 

D&C: You seem to know quite a lot about the history of it, have you read books?
Amy Winehouse:
No, I mean, No. I just listen to the actual music. You know what? You know those documentaries that came out? A guy called Ken Burns?

D&C: Yeah!
Amy Winehouse:
Yeah, I’ve got them on video. What was that like 2 or 3 years ago? When that came out that cemented a lot of different things for me because them videos were so good. They weren’t only the history of jazz; it was jazz relevant to social history and you got to see how the different types of jazz evolved.   

D&C: I remember the one about Ella Fitzgerald’s life as a homeless teenager on the streets.
Amy Winehouse:
Yeah, there were a lot of people like that. Billie Holiday’s another one, she was a prostitute at like what? 12 or 13. She was only singing, like scatting to make money. 

People always think all jazz musicians were from poverty-ridden backgrounds because of stuff like that. But you’ve got the other side, like there was some people who were so affluent like Miles Davis. His dad was a really prominent doctor where they lived and they had a fucking fat guesthouse or something where they lived, you know. And that was the thing about Miles, he always tried to be really street. That was his thing, he was always trying to look really street but he came from this really rich background or rich rural of that time, in the settings of the town. 

D&C: It spans across all walks of life. Have you recorded in America?
Amy Winehouse:
Yeah, we did the last three quarters of the album there. Yeah, some wicked songs. I’d done so much here, a year or maybe two and a half years of work here but it wasn’t until I went to America when it all came together. I realised I had to work, I had to go and travel to make it happen, you know. Yeah, it just really came together in this last year that I’ve been back and fourth out of America.

D&C: Where were you?
Amy Winehouse
: I was in Miami with a guy called Salaam Remi. I’ve done half of the album with him. It’s wicked; he’s a really cool guy. 

D&C: Does he share your interest in jazz?
Amy Winehouse:
Yeah, he’s very knowledgeable about it. I know it sounds a bit wanky but I can’t even work with someone unless they know more about music than me. I have to learn from them or it’s pointless. I’m at a point where I just don’t want to do anything except take in as much as I can do. Salaam’s the kind of guy who just knows. He’ll play me a song that he’ll just know that I love, before I’ve heard it. He’s one of those guys who’s just a music man 

D&C: Did you record at the Hit Factory?
Amy Winehouse:
No it was at his own place, which is in Biscayne Bay in Miami. 

D&C: Had you been out there before? Like when you were a kid with your Mum?
Amy Winehouse:
Yeah, because my Mum was from Brooklyn we all went on family holidays to Florida. We were there all the time. I mean, it’s like any bunch of Jews go on holiday there. It’s like a Jewish holiday spot, isn’t it?

D&C: It’s gradually turning into the home of hip hop as well.
Amy Winehouse:
Yeah. That was wicked at Salaam’s, like you’d come out of his studio and the icons would be right across the road and you can hear the heavy beats coming out of there all day.

D&C: I was in the studio there interviewing Pharrell Williams recently and then P Diddy walks in.
Amy Winehouse:
Oh my god!

D&C: And then Missy Elliot was there too.
Amy Winehouse:
Oh my god! I would have been tip toeing around like listening at all the doors. ‘Sorry, Hello Missy’.

D&C: So where did you record the rest of it?
Amy Winehouse:
The rest of it was done, some with Salaam and some of it was done in New York with this guy called Commissioner Gordon (Williams), who did most of the Lauryn Hill album and I’ve been working with those same musicians that did the Lauryn Hill album. Not out of anything like me going ‘I have to work with the people that..’ you know it wasn’t like that. It just literally came together like that before anyone had even realised.

D&C: It must have been amazing.
Amy Winehouse:
It was amazing! That vibe I was in New York that was the best studio I’ve ever worked in with the musicians there, because I’m a musician and I’m not someone who can just go in, hear a backing track and write a backing track. No way, I can’t do that. That’s the hardest thing for me to do as a songwriter is just to get a backing track and just write to it, I can’t do that.  I have to have the guitarist who did the backing track there so he can go ‘So it’s kind of like that, it’s this change from that and you go wow’ you know, you need to have that there, you need to have the bass player there. As much of the live sound that you can possibly can in the studio and that’s the best vibe for me. 

Text by Callum McGeoch
Photo by Deirdre O'Callaghan