'I believe in casual sex. I know it's sad that I think cheating on people is fine. But I think it's like smoking a spliff. Oops, I've gobbed on meself!
Amy Winehouse is talking about the benefits of infidelity between gobfuls of patatas bravas and sangria in a Camden tapas bar. It's the same restaurant in which she recently celebrated her twentieth birthday, and the staff all know her. She greets them with sweet singsong cockneyisms that bear no resemblance to her smoky Afro-American jazz singing voice. She has - like so many stars - a huge face perched on top of a tiny body. Pouting mouth, huge eyes, the last vestiges of teenage spots. She is still wearing the tight black-and-white woollen mini-dress that she performed in at the Virgin Megastore in London's Oxford Street earlier this evening, and when she takes a toilet break she unleashes a butt-swinging Jessica Rabbit walk that makes every man in the place turn round and leer. She appears to have no idea of the reaction she provokes.
The outburst about casual sex is provoked by a lyric on her debut album, Frank, an extraordinary and precocious blend of jazz, soul and hip hop. The song is called 'I Heard Love is Blind', and concerns Winehouse justifying an illicit shag to her boyfriend by insisting that, as the other man looked like him ('Just not as tall but I couldn't tell/ It was dark and I was lying down'), he should be flattered, and anyway, 'What do you expect? You left me here alone'.
Disarmingly honest in both song and in person, Winehouse admits that the songs that have won her two nominations for the Brit awards next month (for best female and best urban act) and widespread insistence that she will be one of the stars of 2004 are nearly all about one ex-boyfriend. So, when she also confirms that there's no serious relationship at present, I point out the obvious problem here. If I was thinking of asking you out, the other things I'd be thinking are that 1) You're going to write a song dissing me on your next album; and 2) You're going to tell any passing journalist any further details about me that the song misses out. Shouldn't you be a little more discreet?
'Yeah, I'm an open book. Some men do think I'm a psycho bunny-boiler. But I think that's funny. If you're nice to me I'll never write anything bad about you. There's no point in saying anything but the truth. Because, at the end of the day, I don't have to answer to you, or my ex, or ... I shouldn't say God ... or a man in a suit from the record company. I have to answer to myself.'
Two days before our sex 'n' sangria night out, Winehouse plays her first major hometown headline show at Bush Hall, west London. It's a public showcase for her management company's roster and she's supported by male soul singer Tyla James, who gave Amy her first break at the age of 16. Manager Nick Godwin and A&R man Nick Shymanski were looking for a jazz singer. 'It was around three-and-a-half years ago,' Godwin recalls. 'Tyla James brought us in a cassette and said, "This is a friend of mine. You should have a listen." We put it on and there was this amazing voice, fantastic lyrics ... they were eight- or nine-minute poems, really. Quite awkward guitar playing, but utterly breathtaking.'
Felix Howard, co-author of a number of tracks on Frank and a former writer for the Sugababes and Tom Jones, heard one of those recordings. 'It was unlike anything that had ever come through my radar. When she showed up for our first session she was wearing a pair of jeans that had completely fallen apart with "I Love Sinatra" embroidered on the arse. That's so Amy. I just fell in love with her. Also, she has the power to scare the shit out of very seasoned, salty jazz people. I was doing her session with some very serious players. And when she started singing, they were like, "Jesus Christ!"'
But then,Winehouse's family appears to be steeped in music, especially jazz. Her grandmother on her father's side dated British jazz legend Ronnie Scott in the 1940s, and her uncles on her mother's side are pro jazz players. According to her father, Mitch, now divorced from Amy's mum: 'The influence comes from my ex-wife's family ... there are some excellent musicians in there. But it's more what we listened to at home: Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington.'
But Amy - you must have gone through a pop phase?
'No, never. Apart from when I was six or seven, when I liked Kylie and loved Madonna. I listened to Madonna's Immaculate Collection every day until I was about 11, and then I discovered Salt 'n' Pepa and TLC. That was, "Oh my God ... this is my music!" Me and my best friend Juliet started our first ever band, Sweet 'n' Sour. We were rappers. I was Sour, of course.'
If there is a shadowy nemesis in the Amy Winehouse story, then - according to biz gossips - it could be the most powerful man in the British music industry. The perception is already out there that Amy is yet another puppet on the strings of Simon Fuller, inventor of The Spice Girls, Pop Idol and almost everything else huge in manufactured pop over the past decade. Fuller funds Winehouse's management company, Brilliant/19. She knows that there is suspicion around her involvement with him.
'Yeah. But I'm not worried. I've met him twice. My A&R man is paranoid about it because he doesn't want people to think he [Fuller] did it. I'll tell you what people should worry about. The fact that Simon, when S Club started fucking up ... he replaced them. SClub 7, SClub 8 ... its all the same. Now that's fucked. He's mad, that Simon Fuller.'
So, if you haven't sold enough records in six months' time, aren't you worried that he'll come in and take over?
'I don't think he cares if he gets a return on me. He's got Pop Idol and his empire. He's a smart man, and he's clever enough to know he can't fuck with me.'
Mr Fuller is indeed conspicuous by his absence from Winehouse's performances at Bush Hall and the Virgin Megastore, which provide contrasting examples of her precocious talent. Bush Hall seems to be full of either curious industry types or her musician mates and crew of girlfriends.
Performing with full band, the subtleties of songs such as 'Take the Box' get lost somewhere between the dodgy sound and her nervousness. But at the in-store, accompanied only by her own minimalist guitar, the strident lyrics and playful improvising force shoppers to stop and wonder who's making this brave, stark, beautiful noise. She spends much of the show watching them, singing with a sneer on her lips that says 'I dare you to ignore me'. For a jazz singer, she sure is punk rock. And that 'fuck you' element pervades everything she does. Particularly her public proclamations about the music industry and her own record company.
This entire feature could have been filled by Winehouse's heroically reckless rants at those at Universal/Island who insisted that Frank contain certain tracks and mixes that she herself hates. She says, repeatedly, that she is 'only 80 per cent behind this album', and ... well, here's a choice selection of Winehouse's verbal blasts at the business:
'Some things on this album make me go to a little place that's fucking bitter.'
'I've never heard the album from start to finish. I don't have it in my house.'
'Well, the marketing was fucked, the promotion was terrible. Everything was a shambles.'
'It's frustrating, because you work with so many idiots - but they're nice idiots. So you can't be like, "You're an idiot." They know that they're idiots.'
Woah there! Enough already. You know, Amy, these idiots have your commercial interests at heart ...
'Yeah, I know. I hate them fuckers, man. I've not seen anyone from the record company since the album came out and I know why ... 'cos they're scared of me. They know I have no respect for them whatsoever. Look ... I know its a terrible thing for someone to come out and say they hate their own music. It's the worst thing you can do. My album isn't shit. If I heard someone else singing like me I would buy it in a heartbeat.'
When I ask Nick Godwin about Amy's almost relentless indiscretion and hard-headedness, he gives me a surprisingly casual 'I'm used to this' laugh. 'She can be very frustrating. But I don't have an issue with her frankness. She's a real artist who's going to make records for years to come. Someone passionate who speaks their mind and isn't interested in money.'
This line from Godwin comes back to me when I meet Amy for the third time. It's almost a month since the drunken tapas bar meeting, at a solo live performance for Radio 4's Loose Ends on the first Saturday after New Year. She turns up late, spills out of a minicab, is deluged by weird, elderly autograph hunters, and is wearing salmon pink slip-ons so dirty and worn that her toes poke out. So, when I grab a few minutes with her before she sings for Ned Sherrin and Jason Donovan, I try not to stare at her toes and ask if Godwin's right. Are you really not interested in money?
'No. Well, I am. Everyone's interested in money. But if someone offered me £3 million to make a Rachel Stevens cover record ... I'd take it. HAHA!!! No ... money isn't important to me like music is. I'd go and live in a hole in the ground if it meant I could meet Ray Charles, know what I mean?'
There are so many reasons why Amy Winehouse could - should - be a huge star. Talent. Charisma. Songs. Voice. Attitude. But there's one big reason why she may not be. That box she implores you to take? She just won't fit inside it. Sounds Afro-American: is British-Jewish. Looks sexy: won't play up to it. Is young: sounds old. Sings sophisticated: talks rough. Musically mellow: lyrically nasty.
Trevor Nelson, whose Sunday Radio 1 show has been instrumental in crossing 'urban' (black, to you and me) music over to the mainstream, puts it neatly. 'I'm old enough to remember when Sade was launched. And every time I hear an act like Amy I think, "Could this be a new Sade?" Because Sade's success was so phenomenal. It's one area of music where we Brits stand up against anyone. Sade, Des'ree, Gabrielle. Soft, MOR-ish, jazzy soul. But the tough lyrical attitude could confuse people. And it's gonna take an extraordinary personality to carry this through. That jazzy vocal style is just supposed to make you feel chilled. If you get a bit edgy ... '
Or, to put it another way, that jazzy soul sound usually purveys either old-fashioned love songs or soothing right-on sentiments. From Winehouse you get 'Fuck Me Pumps', a witty ditty about late-twenties trashy girls on the make, hanging out in dodgy clubs in gangs, aspiring to marry a footballer. She's from the London streets and she sings in that language, from the viewpoint of 'an old-fashioned girl' - her words, not mine.
Her brilliant debut single, 'Stronger than Me' was about that same unfortunate former boyfriend, who she castigates for his weakness, before asking him, 'Are you gay?' and calling him a 'ladyboy'. Explain yourself, young lady. 'Are homosexuals weaker than straight men? No, because you get straight men that are fucking big pussies like my ex-boyfriend, and gay men who are like, "Can I carry that for you? Take my jacket." And you wish they didn't like boys.'
Do you think a man should be stronger than a woman?
'At certain points, definitely. Yes!'
Then there's 'What is it About Men?', a sneery examination of said subject which is quite obviously about her dad and his romantic entanglements. 'It's me trying to work out my dad's problems with sticking with one woman, trying to make sense of why he did certain things. I completely understand it now. People like to have sex with people. I don't begrudge my dad just because he has a penis. What's the point?'
For his part, Mitch Winehouse, a cab driver, is surprisingly sanguine about Amy's wanton laundering of dirty linen. 'I think it's only the first part that's specifically about me,' he says. 'The rest of it is more generally about what rats men are. But the song's given me pause for thought, because the divorce obviously coloured her view of men.'
Well, Mitch, maybe not that much. When I ask Amy about her future, I don't get a spiel about fame or art. I get this: 'In 10 years, I'm not gonna be doing this. I'm gonna be looking after my husband and our seven kids.'
But before that, there are songs to write, records to promote, shows to play, and thousands, maybe millions, of people for Winehouse to delight with her reinvention of jazz for a world of ladyboys and fuck me pumps. In a pop world obsessed with the celebration of all things shallow, can someone with her substance and muso talents truly fit in?
'For things that are genuinely tailored toward music,' she says, 'I'm easy to get your head around.'
If I guaranteed you success in return for letting me change a few things about you, what would you say?
'It depends. Everything can be improved on. I'm not so proud as a woman that I'd say, "No! I'll never get my breasts done!" Fuck it ... I probably would, when I'm old and whatever. I'm a girly girl. It's just my music. It's the only thing I have real dignity in in my life. That's the one area in my life where I can hold my head up and say, "No one can touch me." 'Cos no one can touch me!'
· 'In My Bed', from Frank, is out next month.