100-Proof Voice

"I think the record speaks louder than any of my stupid actions or things that I say": The singer on "Back to Black," to be released here next month. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

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By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 7, 2007

NEW YORK

Onstage, the more Amy Winehouse drinks, the better she sings, which is often the case. She's the hottest voice you've never heard -- her album hit No. 1 back home in England -- but right now, at her first U.S. concert, her nerves are bedeviling her. She makes awkward chitchat in that cockney twang. Tugs distractedly at her trademark ratty do. Yanks nervously on the strapless shift that's sliding dangerously south.

Finally, she requests an amaretto sour -- to hoots of approval. It's a part of her shtick, what her fans have come to expect.

"They keep trying to keep me from drinking, but they forget it's my gig." Pause. Sip. "Ahhhhhhhhhhh." She cocks back her head, then lets loose, her voice big, brassy, bitter, giving the lyrics to her single, " Rehab," a certain squirmy poignancy: They tried to make me to go to rehab, but I said no, no, no . . .

Tomorrow, when the hangover kicks in, it'll be a less amusing story, one that conjures that age-old trope of the tortured artist. To witness Winehouse is to wonder why art and self-destruction so often dance together. Insiders wonder if she'll keep it together long enough to fulfill her glittery promise -- or at least the promise that music marketers hold out.

A self-described "violent drunk" who once boasted that she never listens to anyone but her inner child, Winehouse, 23, is showing signs of careering off the rails, even as she's planning her stateside debut this March with her sophomore album, "Back to Black." (Her critically acclaimed first album, "Frank," was never released in the United States.) On a good day, she's blowing them away here at Joe's Pub or packing the house at an industry showcase in Cannes. On a bad day, well, check out that YouTube video of her slurring through "Beat It" in a televised duet with Charlotte Church. In England, the tabloids feast on Winehouse's troubles: Her shocking weight loss, the time she slugged a fan at a club and then slugged her boyfriend, too.

"I caught myself saying, 'I'm going to rue the day when Amy gets it together,' " says Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, whose hip-hop band, the Roots, has performed with Winehouse in Europe.

"Once I heard [her music], part of me felt like: 'Don't rock the boat. Let this take its course 'cause that way you'll get great music.' And part of me wanted to reach out to her.

"I don't think it's a coincidence that some of soul music's most gifted artists are tormented."

The annals of jazz, rock and soul are littered with tragic tales of self-destructive dopers and drunks. For every Mary J. Blige coming out on the other side, singing triumphantly "No More Drama," there's a Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin or Kurt Cobain.

For now, at least, all seems well at Joe's Pub at the Public Theater, a small venue downtown where Winehouse's label, Universal Republic Records, has set up a showcase. Inside, the Dap-Kings, her backup band, are serving up old-school soul. Outside, hipsters are lining up in the cold, hoping to snare a scalper's ticket to the late show, which sold out within hours, same as the early show did. In the audience are Mos Def and Nona Hendryx, Citizen Cope and Dr. John, all wanting to be the first in on the secret. Folks are clapping and woo-hooing and proclaiming her brilliant. Backstage, Mos Def -- her musical hero -- will scrawl his number on her jeans, invite her to hang out. Her producer, Mark Ronson, who's worked with Lily Allen, Christina Aguilera and Radiohead, will stop by to lend his support. Jay-Z will stick around after the late show to tell her how much he loved her record.

Her word for it: "surreal."


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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