100-Proof Voice
Amy Winehouse Has the Makings of an Incredible Musician. And Perhaps the Makings of a Sad, Short Story.

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."

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

So I always keep a bottle near . . .

I don't ever want to drink again

I just, ooh I need a friend

In the three years between her two albums, pain seasoned her voice, deepening it until it took on the husky timbre of a much older and sadder woman.

"You can hear the torment in her voice," says the Roots' ?uestlove. "Clearly you can see this person is living the blues."

Despite her bitter blue-collar persona, Winehouse grew up middle class in northern London. Her mother, Janis, is a pharmacist; her father, Mitch, a London cabbie. They split when she was 10.

Around that time she formed a rap group, Sweet 'n' Sour -- she was Sour -- with her best friend, performing in school assemblies. At 12 she picked up the guitar. School never quite stuck with her; she entered and quickly exited posh private schools, including the prestigious Sylvia Young Theatre School, often, she has said, booted out for bad behavior.

As a kid jazz was all around her, from her mother's musician brothers to her grandmother's Sinatra CDs. Winehouse recalls that Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and Carole King sang backup to her formative years.

She remembers hanging out with her grandmother, her "Nan," knocking back pints. Nan was a "real Sinatra girl," but Amy went for Tony Bennett. For whatever reason, she recalls the exact night -- Dec. 7, 2000 -- when they put aside their differences and found common ground in a Bennett album.

"For her to put on Tony Bennett in her house, for me is a big deal," Winehouse says. "I was listening to Tony Bennett, drinking. You know how when you're drinking, you're emotional? I'm like, ' Toooooony.' "

A demo she made ended up with Universal Island Records and at 19 she released "Frank," to instant praise and a whole lot of attention she wasn't exactly prepared for. She inserted stiletto into mouth with regular frequency, insulting both her record label and her management company, Brilliant/19, headed by Simon Fuller, the force behind the Spice Girls and "American Idol." (Of her label she once said: "The marketing was [expletive], the promotion was terrible, everything was a shambles.")

"I try to think about things before I say them nowadays," she admits. "I'm a lot less defensive with this record. . . . I'm just so proud of it. I think the record speaks louder than any of my stupid actions or things that I say."

And then sometimes, as is the case with her quasi-autobiographical "Back to Black," the record literally speaks, loudly, about what's going on in her life. In "Rehab," she sings about "they" -- her former management company -- wanting her to seek treatment for alcoholism, but she refused.

"They were like, 'You're in a bad place, let's pack you off.' And I'm like, '[expletive].'

"That's pretty much it."

(Brilliant/19 did not respond to a request for comment.)

Winehouse says of various published reports about her alleged bulimia, anorexia and bipolar disorder, "It got blown out of proportion." She does say that she suffers from depression, and that she's not the most secure person in the world. But then, she says, neither is any other musician she knows.

Crossing the Pond

Other soulful British chanteuses have tapped the U.S. market, among them Corinne Bailey Rae, whose eponymous debut album was released in 2006 and sold nearly 3 million copies worldwide; and Joss Stone, she of the Gap ads and the platinum sales, who is set to release her third album this spring.

So how do you sell another old-school soul record these days? It helps to have a controversial "story." It also helps, in a way, to be known as a train wreck with talent.

"She's got a great voice; she's got great songs, she's already coming with a larger-than-life persona," says Bill Bragin, director of Joe's Pub, a 160-seat venue known for showcasing musicians with breakthrough potential. "She's got all the elements of a star. She's got the talent, but she's got something that gets her into Perez Hilton when she doesn't even have an album in the U.S. She's the real deal."

Perezhilton.com is a gossip site that traffics in Winehouse sightings; another blogger, Tofuhut, offers footage of Winehouse on acoustic guitar with this review: "The little Cockney-voiced white girl with the piercings and the crazy hair can more than sing; she can SANG . . ."

By the time Winehouse landed in the United States, interest was stoked. Tickets to the sold-out concerts were being hawked on Craigslist for upward of $200. "She's the perfect sort of 'spread the word' artist," says Kim Garner, senior vice president of marketing and artist development at Universal Republic Records. "You can't buy it. If we could bottle it, we'd all be rich."

Her label is launching a marketing offensive calculated to break Winehouse across musical genres. The rapper Ghostface Killah did a remix of "You Know I'm No Good." The label is in talks with Starbucks to do in-store marketing. Already, Winehouse is getting airplay on such diverse, tastemaking stations as New York's hip-hop station Hot 97 and Los Angeles's alternative KCRW."We're going to blow this thing wide open," predicts Monte Lipman, president of Universal Republic Records.

Striking a Pose

For Winehouse, the day after her Joe's Pub appearance requires a different sort of performance -- an exhausting photo shoot in a midtown Manhattan loft. There are a half-dozen sessions crammed into a seven-hour slot, with stylists and photographers from different publications standing at the ready: Racks of clothes line the walls, hip little fitted numbers that speak to Winehouse's '60s aesthetic.

Winehouse arrives an hour late with her tour manager, looking frail and pale, politely apologizing again and again for her lateness. There's none of her trademark bravado on display. She's shy, and she's shaking. She stutters as she talks and searches for words, her eyes welling with tears.

Her left arm is abraded and raw. Something caused the injury, but she isn't sure what. "I got drunk and I don't remember."

The day wears on, with Winehouse trying on -- and rejecting -- one outfit after another. Crew members roll their eyes and mutter under their breath. Nerves are fraying. But as the clock pushes past 7, Winehouse, fortified with a glass or two of champagne, warms up, laughing and giggling and making small talk. But five minutes later, as a photographer snaps her picture, she starts smacking herself in the face -- hard -- and then abruptly bolts from the room in tears. (Later, she will say that she just didn't feel pretty enough and was worried about disappointing everyone who'd come to the photo shoot.)

She huddles with her managers. A bit later she returns and finishes the photo shoot, posing like a pro, perching on a prop bathtub, all studied attitude.

When she finishes, she hugs the photographer.

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