When Amy Winehouse invited Sarah J. Edwards to join her for a manicure, a very special conversation happened. The ladies discussed success formulas, sampling and collaborations. Amy shared stories of the making of her monumental album, Back To Black and her desire to create a super girl group.
The original story was first published in BLAG Vol. 2 Nø 7 print edition in 2006, this is an edited version.
Photography and Interview by Sarah J. Edwards
Art Direction by Sally A. Edwards
Location: Jasmine Studios and West End, London
How A Nice Bit Of Healthy Competition Made Back To Black So Special For Amy Winehouse
Amy Winehouse is sitting flanked by her boyfriend Alex at Selfridges, Oyster Bar, “Hey Amy”, I call over to her.
“Hello Darlin’. I won’t be a sec,” she grins and winks.
A week prior, my phone rings, “Do you know any good nail bars?” a gentle Irish voice immediately asks, after my “Hello,” it’s Amy’s publicist, Shane. “I thought it would be fun for your interview and Amy wants a manicure.”
‘Me? [Laughs] Sorry. [pause] I’ll have a think.’
Cut to a week later, Shane has fixed it up and I’m running into the store to meet Amy and spot her. She’s having what I soon learn is one of her favourite things, Oysters.
We’ve arranged to meet for her manicure and soon after saying hi, we reconvene slap bang in the middle of Selfridges ground floor. We're crammed up in a bright pink podium-style round and tiny manicure salon, soundtracked to pumping pop-house and both pretty out of place.
Amy is decked out in shorts, a shirt, braces and her trade-mark bouffant hair, dark swooping eye make-up, tattoos on show, shiny piercing just above her lip and is full of smiles. Sitting with her hands placed out in front of her for her treatment to begin.
During the interview Amy lets out a few intermittent shrieks when the manicurist catches her fingers. This is why I don’t mess with the manicure.
Amy has come a long way since her debut album, ‘Frank’, which won her an Ivor Novello. Now, 23-years-old she has just released her second album, the Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson produced ‘Back To Black’ to much critical acclaim and has won over a massive new fanbase.
Can you describe yourself in three words?
“In three words? Errm, generous, maternal, alcoholic!” she laughs.
But not, officially.
“No, alright. No.” She grins.
How would you finish this sentence: My father would say I’m most likely to…
“He actually thinks, I’ll end up at number one.” she says smiling again.
Can you talk about discovering your voice?
“I didn’t think it was that special, to be able to sing. I just assumed everyone could sing.”
Where was that?
“Well, my Mum realised I could sing when I did Grease. I was about 10 or 11 and it was our play at school. And she was like, ‘Yeah, alright? Shit, my daughter can sing.’ But I didn’t realise I could sing, because when I was at Sylvia Young’s everyone could sing and when I left Sylvia Young’s and went to the Brits School, I thought, you know what? Not a lot of people can sing. Because I’d always been around people who could sing.”
Was that where you learnt about music and different styles?
“Nah. I mean, I probably learnt more when I got kicked out of Sylvia’s, because I came away from what I’d been doing there and I was just looking for something worth while and that’s when I came across Jazz and Blues and Ray Charles and stuff.”
How did you get kicked out?
“I think it was just really stupid things like, bad attendance and I wasn’t working as hard as I could’ve done on my academic studies. You know, I was just naughty, quite rebellious.”
Well, most of us are at some point or other.
Can you tell us about the fact you’d been used to working with Salaam and then you started working with Mark, what was it like?
“It really was cool. The thing with Salaam is, we had our songs and then I’d go to New York. And when I came back to Salaam with the stuff that me and Mark had done…I mean, the way me and Mark worked was like…musically we just fell in love on the spot. Completely. It was love at first sight!” She gushes, “It was really cool, I’d play him something and he’d be really inspired. I’d play
him one song and he’d be like (animated), ‘OK, go to the hotel, come back tomorrow! I’m going to do my homework tonight.’ And he would. And then he’d play something the next day that was just beyond anything. I was just like, this man’s absolutely amazing. Then, when I went back to Salaam having met up with Mark, Salaam was like, ‘What, pssh! I’m better than him!’ It was like, he was really like, ‘Ah, I know, we can pull it out!’ and that really gave him a lot. ‘Cause me and Salaam were at a point where we had worked together before, we had our little formula, we weren’t thinking about doing much new stuff. Then, when he heard the Mark stuff, he was like, ‘Yeah, I see where he’s going, yeah!’ A nice bit of healthy competition!” She laughs.
So, when you’re singing, do they help you express anything in a certain way?
“No, no not really. I tend to write everything in a room. I tend to work out chords that I like and leave them with the track in one room and then go, write my lyrics, then come out, change what I don’t like about the track and then sing it down.”
JOURNEY’S IN MUSIC
What kind of things are you listening to before and during ‘Frank’? And have you completely changed that now?
“Oh, it’s completely different. I mean, when I was making ‘Frank’, I was listening to a lot of Jazz. A lot of Jazz. A lot of Ray Charles. This time around, I didn’t listen to any jazz really. Mostly, hip hop. A lot of the same hip hop I’ve always loved. But, this time around, it was much more like, I didn’t listen to any jazz really.”
What kind of hip hop?
“Busta Rhymes, Nas, Mos Def. Positive thought rappers. And always things like Wu Tang and so on. This time around I was into a lot of girl groups, a lot of doo-wop.”
Was there anything you were listening to then that you’re really surprised you paid attention to and something you’re listening to now, that you probably never would’ve thought you would listen to?
“Yeah, a lot of vocal jazz, I just think, ‘Urgh, pssh.’“ She spits, “Yeah, definitely. But I used to love the Mamas and the Papas and now I’m just like, ‘Eeew, what was I thinking?’ but I love that song, ‘Dream A Little Dream Of Me’.”
So, you’re new album’s inspired by 50’s and 60’s girl groups, is there anyone in particular?
“Shangri-Las and then there’s ska groups, bands like The Specials, love stuff like that. Guitar bands really, yeah.”
MAKING BACK TO BLACK
I heard you have a new song writing approach…
“Not really, just that this album was a lot quicker to write than the last one. It took me four years to write the last one. But this one I did in six months.”
Oh wow! Can you explain the title?
“‘Back To Black’ is about, it’s kinda when you split up in a relationship, you go back to what you know. My ex went back to his girlfriend and I went back to tunnels, really depressed and drinking like a bastard. Yeah, that’s what I mean.”
I think the album really shows your knowledge of music. You know how some people might think some of these things have been brought to you, as opposed to you knowing.
“Well, everything I listen to, rubs off on whatever music I make, so I guess it’s just coming out in what I’m writing. It wasn’t like the record company were like, ‘Right, new record, new sound.’ It wasn’t like that. It was just very much, what I was writing was coming out like that and that was the music I liked and listened to.”
Was there anything that Salaam or Mark brought to the table that really surprised you or vice-versa?
“Yeah, well. I guess a bit of both. My song ‘Tears Dry On Their Own’ has the same bassline as the Tammy Terrell and Marvyn Gaye song, ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’. Salaam just pulled that out the air completely. We already had the song written and it just so happened that it went perfectly with the bass and the drums.”
Can you tell us about any really funny experiences in the studio?
“Not really funny, but like, I mean Salaam and Mark both crack me up. Mark is absolutely insane. He’s really silly. He’s like me, he’s really silly.”
SAMPLING & COLLABORATIONS
I wanted you to make up a song using samples to really explain your taste in music.
“I don’t know, ‘cause I do want to do a samples record. I don’t know. I don’t like strings, but there’s some strings on the front of this Frank Sinatra track, ‘You Go To My Head’ and I want to put that on a loop, that’s amazing. But there’s a million things that I love. Not even a beat, just snippets, like atmosphere. I’ll probably do a Shangri-La’s samples albums and just sample the shit out of them. I love them.”
What about collaborations?
“I still want to work with Mos. I’d like to work with Nas, but I think I’d keep passing out in the studio. In awe. I’d love to work with Mos and that’s been on the cards for fucking ages now. I’ve done this album, so fuck it. It’s hard though, his heart’s not really in it anymore, he likes acting. But there’s loads of people, I’m trying to think. I’d like to do something with Missy Elliot, or Lil’ Mo or Faith Evans. Actually, I wouldn’t sing with her because she’d show me up! Any of those positive thought rappers.”
What would a night out be like with you? What would really sum you up?
“I’m quite traditional, I’d probably just go and play pool, in the pub. But if it’s a Sunday night, my friend Boo does a night at the Dublin Castle in Camden, a really wicked sixties night. That’s my favourite night out, in fact I did take some people there on Sunday. But I want to start a night as well, so I’m really looking forward to it. I can’t wait. I’m going to do it Tuesday’s or Thursday’s twice a month, we’re going to get some go-go dancers as well.”
Can you give our readers some style tips on fashion and music?
“I don’t know, I like…everyone looks kind of…looking different is not in, but I like to look different, I don’t like to dress in what everyone else is wearing. I think just be yourself, you know. That’s always cool. I think, I don’t know, I’m just waiting for some super girl group track to emerge. Although, I might start one. Yeah, I’d love that.”