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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)

Coming up is an appearance on "Late Show With David Letterman" to plug her CD (out March 13), MTV tapings and spreads in Rolling Stone, Paper and Vibe. All part of a push to sell a green-eyed, white British soul singer to the country that invented soul.

To which Winehouse says: "I don't give a [expletive]. I know it's good for the record company if I do well here. I don't care.

"If I had my choice, I'd be a roller-skating waitress in the middle of nowhere, singing songs to my husband while I'm cooking grits somewhere. What I'm doing I'm so grateful to be doing -- it's so exciting, so fun. But I've never been the kind of girl who knocks on someone's door and says, 'Make me famous.' "

Billie, Bennett and Beyond

My destructive side has grown a mile wide

And I question myself again: What is it 'bout men?

-- Amy Winehouse, "What Is It About Men?"

With her towering ebony beehive ("Yeah, it's all mine, 'cause I bought it"), Elvira batwing eyeliner and plush red lips, Winehouse evokes an image of a 21st-century Ronnie Spector -- if, that is, girl-group queen Ronnie were given to decorating herself with tattoos of naked pinup girls. Aurally, she evokes comparisons to Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington, to Dusty Springfield and Nina Simone. Hers is a voice marinated in regret and pulsing with pain, yet soaked in snarkiness while fully rooted in the saccharine sensibilities of '60s girl groups.

It wasn't always like this, all this raw emotion and need. A few years ago, hovering between adolescence and adulthood, she was curvier and rosier in outlook, full of what she calls the "weed mentality and the hip-hop mentality." Her first album, "Frank," was a jazz-soul work with a decided rap influence and filled with scathingly sardonic observations in songs like "[Expletive] Me Pumps."

The music press in England dubbed her a "modern Billie Holiday." In 2004 she won two important nominations -- best British female and best urban act at the Brit Awards (the equivalent of the Grammys). Her career trajectory seemed set, but two things happened between "Frank" and "Back to Black."

"I started drinking and I fell in love," she says, flinching as a makeup artist gingerly dabs pancake over her pale skin at a photo shoot the day after her Joe's Pub concert. "I fell so in love."

Heartbreak ensued. To listen to the lyrics from "Back to Black" -- all composed on acoustic guitar -- is to eavesdrop on the events of the past three years of her life, the rejections, the self-hatred, the his-and-hers betrayals along with sly references to Ray Charles and Donny Hathaway and Sammy Davis Jr.:

I'm gonna, I'm gonna lose my baby


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