Article & Interview (The Hospital Club, London)
Posted 15 September 2012 - 10:08 PM
The Hospital Club Article
Five years ago, Amy Winehouse was on the verge of becoming a global superstar. She was an unconventional pop star even then, but in person, she was a wilful charmer and a natural clown, says Stewart Who?
Over the next few weeks and for a few years to come, there’s gonna be a lot comment on the life of Amy Winehouse. Most of it will be from people who felt they knew her via a tabloid cartoon strip and through her album Back to Black. It was a record which felt so personal that as a listener, you felt her pain and if you’d ever had your heart broken, well, you shared it too. When I met her in 2006, she was yet to become the poster girl for rock and roll meltdowns, but she was obviously a girl who enjoyed a night on the town.
Within minutes of meeting, I’d completely fallen for her. It wasn’t just that she looked like a tiny Pricilla Presley meets Elvira doll. Nor was it the surreal thrill of sitting with the young woman responsible for a recording an album of rhythm and blues perfection. It was her. If we'd met at party and I knew nothing of her talents, she'd have blown me away by the sheer thrill of her company.
Amy Winehouse was hilariously funny, in another life, she could’ve been a stand up comic. That aspect of her personality was unexpected, as was the depth of her insecure fragility. She was a powerful force of nature, yet sought constant assurance that she was okay. That complex mix of gobby opinion and crippling insecurity can be very exhausting, even irritating, but in the short time that we hung out, she was nothing but endearing and thoroughly entertaining.
It didn’t take her long to relax, and in many ways, we were two people in a room seeking the approval of another. Once she’d established an ability to make me laugh, she cranked up the comedy with anecdotes about her nights on the town. She wanted to win me over at any cost, despite the fact that she’d already done that with her music. Post-interview, her tales of drunken revelry didn’t translate on the page. Devoid of her inflections, breakneck delivery and astute comic timing, her soliloquies on Camden looked like gibberish when transcribed. A comic's routine will always seem flat on paper, until perfected and given life on stage. The astounding part of sitting in a room with Amy was that there was no script, no rehearsal and no preparation- she could talk at 80mph, at length, with no breath and be totally hilarious throughout.
She was delighted to meet a fellow pot head and relished cranking up the camp quotient for her rapt gay audience of one. As the interview progressed, her PR became more unsettled as Amy seemed quite ready to ditch her press day and hit the pub with yours truly. The girl in charge of the press department would come into the room to curtail our chat, but Amy would kick her out again, telling her she was homophobic for interrupting an interview with the gay press. It was obvious that Amy’s love of smoking skunk was partly fuelled by a desire to quell her raging brilliance. Stone cold sober, she was hyper active to the point of ADD and seemed to lack an ability to rein herself in, physically or verbally. At this point in her career, that demented energy was to a joy to behold, an inspiring mania that was dizzying and contagious. You had to operate at twice your speed just to keep up with her. There’s no doubt in my mind that it must have been an effort for Amy to keep up with herself. Perhaps she changed later on and became harder to be around as she found that heroin proved the perfect medication for slowing down her motorway of creativity.
The overwhelming effect of those pictures of Amy in bloodied ballet slippers and rat’s nest beehive is that she’s reduced to being that grotesque cliché. One might believe that she was nothing but a love struck junkie blessed with an amazing voice, but that’s a woefully limited and misleading picture. She was a shocking quick wit, raucous in humour, incredibly engaging and in my experience, totally adorable. The last time I saw her was when she did a gig at Somerset House. She was a tad chaotic, but note perfect throughout and had us all in stitches with her quips and antics. When she announced it was time for her last song, somebody had the temerity to start booing her. She swaggered to the mic, found the person who’d made the noise and said, ‘Boo fucking you, I’ve been on this stage for two fucking hours and I’ve not fallen off it, collapsed or fucked up, so you know what, fuck off.’
The crowd went crazy and she launched into Valerie. That’s how I’ll remember her; on cracking form, uniquely compelling, unwilling to compromise and simply breathtaking when she sang. Amy Winehouse, the world is much duller without you. RIP.
Posted 15 September 2012 - 10:09 PM
There aren't many pop stars who provoke fascination in quite the way that Amy Winehouse does. Her 2003 debut album Frank came ashore on a tide of a gobby interviews in which she slated, bitched and sneered at fellow singers and starlets. This uncensored, independent and candid backchat proved newsworthy and refreshing. Her carefree bluntness outshone the witless drivel most 'celebrities' spew from their scripted mouths. Obviously, the gays loved her.
Unfortunately, Amy's spoken fireworks were in danger of eclipsing her astounding voice and bold songwriting talents. While notching up Platinum sales, Frank was nominated for Brit Awards in the categories of "British Female Solo Artist" and "British Urban Act". In 2004, she won the Ivor Novello songwriting Award for "Best Contemporary Song" with her contribution to the first single, "Stronger than Me" (alongside Salaam Remi). The album also made the short list for the 2004 Mercury Music Prize.
Her second album, Back to Black is breathtaking. The sounds are utterly sublime, delivering anachronistic thrills when you hear urban, N1-infused lyrics combined with '60s Motown sounds. When Amy sings "What kind of fuckery is this?" in a smoky voice that channels Sarah Vaughan, it's a double-ended joy. While there's a puerile buzz in curse-laden lyrics, the context, style and delivery are nothing less than fantastically sophisticated.
In the flesh, Amy's younger than her press photos suggest and as hoped, she's wonderfully unguarded and highly entertaining. Asked if the Back to Black girl-group vibe was difficult to recreate in the studio, Amy admits that producer Mark Ronson was excited at the prospect. Then from nowhere she says: "My titty's hanging out, that's so embarrassing, it happens all the time."
Indeed, her left breast is seeking escape. She then explains how the same wardrobe malfunction had occurred earlier that day on the Phil Jupitus show.
When told her voice is distinctive and unexpected, the "thank-you" which pops out (rather like her boob) is sweet and timid, like a little girl who's been told her dress is pretty. It sits kinda weirdly with her frightwig barnet and heavy eyeliner. She's like a living cocktail of Pricilla Presley and Elvira.
"Do you have flatmates?" is her concerned response to the news that I've listened to nothing but her album for the past 48 hours. On one hand it was research, but it proved most enjoyable, and it's still on high rotation at home.
Asked at what age she realised her voice was a strength, Amy answers in a breathless monologue that would give Vicky Pollard a run for her money.
"I didn't think it was particularly special. All my friends can sing, so I was like, shhhhhh, whatever. You know how most kids get a degree and then they go and do music, so they've got something to fall back on? Well, music was my thing to fall back on. I thought, whatever happens, I can always go and do music. Then I thought, fuck it, I wanna career. It was weird 'cause it just fell in my lap. I was doing some gigs and then they offered me studio work. I was like, why are you offering me studio time, and he was like, 'cause your gonna do an album eventually, and I was like, WHAT?! I was 16 and I was like, what are talking about? And I had a record deal by the time I was 18. It was mad."
As someone who was chucked out of the Sylvia Young school, would she ever return to acting?
"I dunno, you know. I think I'd go a bit mad, 'cause you have to really believe it, don't you?"
She sounds genuinely scared at the prospect. The thought of inhabiting another character's mindset is enough to make her shudder. There's enough going on in her own head, it seems. Weed, as in cannabis, gets quite a few mentions on the album, but Amy has gone on record as saying it wasn't good for her. George Michael claims it keeps him sane…
"I know. He's so sweet isn't he? I love him. I love him. It's not bad for you, it's just that I've started going to the gym and it robbed me of my energy. I'd smoke a joint, go to the gym and then be looking around at people- paranoid. I hated that".
Amy denies any problems in curbing her weed needs:
"Because I was going to the gym, I just phased it out. I used to smoke shitloads- like 2 ounces a week."
Told that this is an impressive consumption, she agrees with reformed disgust in her voice;
"It's fucking ridiculous, isn't it? I wasn't doing anything- well, I was."
"I was still doing promotion, but I'd get up and smoke a big spliff. My eating was just so fucking wrong. I wouldn't be hungry 'til 2pm, then wouldn't be hungry again 'til 2am. It was just so wrong. I went from that…to about a spliff a night."
Her songs are peppered with expletives, giving them a verité which any Londoner can appreciate, but does she ever worry that her cussing might limit radio play?
"No, 'cause rappers swear don't they? All the time."
This is true, but Amy Winehouse isn't a rapper.
"I guess so," she agrees reluctantly, pondering another line of argument. "Does Lily Allen swear?"
On learning that Miss Allen does indeed curse, Amy's triumphant: "There you go- we're the Sweary Girls." Given the choice of going to Paul McCartney's or Heather Mills' for lunch on Boxing Day, Amy is in no doubt:
"I'd go to Paul's. I do feel sorry for her- but only 'cause everyone knows she's a flippin' cow."
In a recent interview in Attitude, she referred to something as 'gay' – as in 'crap' or 'rubbish'. This isn't an isolated incident, in 'Stronger Than Me' on Frank, Amy sings:
"All I need is for my man to live up to his role/Always wanna talk it through- I'm ok, Always have to comfort you every day/But that's what I need you to do - are you gay?"
Though she's aware of the possible upset in PC circles, Amy points out, that during live gigs, it's the gay boys who shout that line with glee. Asked why the gays seem to love her, she laughs.
"I dunno. Cause I've got big hair?"
She's famously rejected Rehab, would she embrace therapy?
"Nah, I think therapy is such bollocks. I'm a school-of-hard-knocks kind of girl. If you can make yourself feel better, then do it. I'm also the kind of person that picks themselves up and stop crying about things quickly, you know what I mean?"
Following news reports that she punched a fan who upset her at an art gallery, GAY.com wonders if there's anybody she wouldn't pick a fight with.
"I wouldn't pick a fight with anybody if I was sober," she admits ruefully.
"I'm just a horrible drunk. I'm surprised I didn't hit anyone yesterday."
Was she drunk yesterday?
"I was so drunk," she admits, before launching into another Vicky Pollard-style stream of consciousness where she relays her antics with mates at a house party the night before;
"When I'm drunk, I'm always, like, running around. Trying to run around and escape from people. My boyfriend will be like, STAY HERE! And I'll be like, ok, then make a run for it, or some stupid thing like that. She found me in the kitchen, she's like, Amy what you doing? I was going AWWWWWAH! I couldn't work out the phone. I kept doing the number wrong and everything. She was like, Amy, just don't talk to him, you're like, absolutely out of your nut. I was like, I'll text him. She's like, NO, just go to sleep."
It's a gripping comedy monologue that seems to leave the PR quite nervous. Before departing, I ask her to sign my copy of Back to Black. I don't look at what she's written 'til I'm halfway down the street. It says, "Big me up please, love Amy"
It's endearingly vulnerable and terribly sweet. Big her up? Consider it done, darling, you're a fucking star.
First published for GAY.com, November 2006
Posted 15 September 2012 - 11:27 PM
"It's open-heart surgery set to music" - Sunday Herald article by Peter Ross Jan 7/07
"Be kinder than necessary...because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle." - Anon.
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