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Conversation: Amy Winehouse, 1983-2011

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Amy Winehouse, the young British performer who was known for her big, soulful voice and her contribution to the revival of the 1960s sound in pop music as much for her battle with substance abuse, died Saturday at age 27 in her hometown of London. The cause is not yet known.

Winehouse was born on Sept. 14, 1983. Her mother, Janis, was a pharmacist and her father, Mitch, was a taxi driver and a one-time semi-professional singer. Winehouse grew up listening to his jazz records but also loved rap and girl bands from the ’60s. At 16, she was discovered by a record producer and signed to Universal. Her first album, “Frank,” was released in Britain when she was 19.

She didn’t become a household name in America until the release of her second album, “Back to Black,” a collaboration with creative partner Mark Ronson and producer Salaam Remi and backed-up by the Brooklyn-based Dap-Kings. The album was an outpouring of her feelings about a tumultuous love affair with the man she would later marry and divorce, Blake Fielder-Civil, and her battle with drugs and booze. She won five Grammys in 2008 for that album.

Winehouse had been working on a third album for several years and had been scheduled for a European tour, but cancelled it after a difficult concert appearance in Serbia a few weeks ago.

Sophie HeawoodSophie Heawood is a feature writer for The Times of London. She also contributes to the Guardian, Observer and others. She wrote an appreciation of Winehouse in Sunday’s Independent.

I spoke to her earlier Monday from her home in London:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. The singer Amy Winehouse died this weekend at age 27. Her best known album, “Back to Black,” with its hit song, “Rehab,” made her a worldwide sensation. She was also known, though, for troubled personal life and alcohol and drug use. Today, it was reported that a postmortem examination failed to determine exactly how she died, and more toxicology tests are being carried out. Joining me from London is Sophie Haywood. She’s a features writer for the London Times and other publications. Her appreciation of Amy Winehouse appeared in the Independent on Sunday, and she joins us now. Welcome to you.

SOPHIE HEAWOOD: Thank you. Hi.

JEFFREY BROWN: Could you tell us first about, let’s focus on the music what made Amy Winehouse so new and special?

SOPHIE HEAWOOD: Well, when she released her first album, “Frank,” she was only 19, but she had this huge personality. She wasn’t some sort of glossy, manufactured child star. She was quite outspoken, she was quite cheeky and she wasn’t making particularly modern pop music. She was very influenced by a childhood with her dad playing her lots of Motown and Dinah Washington and Smokey, wonderful black American jazz music. She made this really quite jazzy album, which was great, didn’t set the charts on fire, but it was wonderful. And then a couple of years later she came back with “Back to Black,” which was extraordinary and really did make an impact and ended up winning five Grammy’s in the U.S.

JEFFREY BROWN: And at the forefront of, I don’t know, sometimes called a neo-soul movement of young singers bringing back, as you said, an older sound, some of it from Motown.

SOPHIE HEAWOOD: Absolutely. She also did a little work with the producer Mark Ronson. He introduced her to the idea of big brass band accompaniment and putting a really strong rhythm behind things. So before she’d be a bit sort of soul in quite the meandering way and then he brought in bands like the Dap-Kings to play with her, who really gave it this tempo that was incredibly catching.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what kind of impact did that have in Britain?

SOPHIE HEAWOOD: Well the album was huge. She was famous already, and as I say, she was a bit of a funny sort of loose girl about town. She was quite outspoken, she’d say rude things about pop stars who she thought weren’t really deeply music lovers in the way that she had grown up. She was quite cheeky and she was quite glamorous at the time. And this was before she got addicted, so she had curves and she wore revealing clothes and she was always in the tabloids as a quite fun, larger-than-life character. And then “Back to Black” was a huge success and “Rehab” was a song that seemed quite fun. I think people perhaps thought she was joking when she sang, “They tried to make me go through rehab and I said no, no, no,” but over the next couple of years of huge success, her addictions got worse and worse, and it became quite obvious that rehab really was something people were trying to do for her.

JEFFREY BROWN: You write that people did try to help her. Clearly all this played out very publically. Tell us a little bit about that. What efforts were made and how did she respond?

SOPHIE HEAWOOD: Yeah, lots of people have commented in the press and in Britain and perhaps more so from overseas where they don’t know quite so much what was actually going on behind the scenes. Lots of people are saying, why wasn’t this poor girl helped; look at her, she was a mess. Well, she was a mess, but her record label would do lots of things for her and they would do anything it took to offer to pay for rehab, to find her the treatment. They’d give her six months off work and then another six months off and then another six months off. They were desperate for her to get well. She was like a part of the family there and she’d been with them since she was really quite young. Her management did what they could. She did choose socially to surround herself with people and with situations that maybe were murkier, but her family tried. People really did try, but ultimately she would leave all these programs within a few days. She’d be out back smoking crack, she never stayed the course at any of these treatments.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do we know what demons or what was driving all of that?

SOPHIE HEAWOOD: I’m not sure we’ll ever know, but I do feel there was a chronic insecurity. I interviewed her several times and she would be very funny, witty sort of raconteur, and she could hold court and have the room laughing and laughing, but the minute you said to her how deeply wonderful you thought her music was or the minute you compared her to a real classic talent like Billy Holiday or somebody like that, she would become very small and nervous and sort of mutter and really be deeply uncomfortable with praise. She was much happier being a bit sort of sarcastic. I know Mark Ronson, her producer, told me that he was with his mum and Amy in New York on the day that her album went platinum, which means it sold a huge number, and they tried to tell their friends Amy had just gone platinum and celebrate. Amy shriveled up in a ball and couldn’t bear it. She hated that kind of attention. And the more famous she got, the more terrifying she sounded, I think, to be so praised.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about the music in recent years? Did it just take a backseat?

SOPHIE HEAWOOD: Yeah, there may be a large quantity of demos yet to be released, and the record label may well choose to do something with those, so we may hear what she’d been working on for the past few years. The general gist was that every time she went to the studio either by herself or with a producer or a fellow songwriter these sessions just, they wouldn’t get finished or they wouldn’t work and she wasn’t in a fit state, and projects were sort of tried and aborted countless times. It just seemed like nothing really got finished. But there are said to be piles of songs. I just don’t know what state they are in, and I’m sure that had she not passed away, they weren’t considered good enough to be released. So I’m not sure what will happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, finally, what do you think she will be remembered for then?

SOPHIE HEAWOOD: Well, the songs are amazing. Unfortunately, she died young and hasn’t been the last few years releasing anything, so there is only really two albums, which we talk about all these classic musicians dying young, but some of them had had the chance to create a much bigger catalog. So there are just these two records, “Frank” and “Back to Black,” but I do think they’ll last. I think “Back to Black” is an extraordinary album. I know British pop stars like George Michael today was saying he’s never heard a record like that since the 1970s. And I think that’s fair enough. The records will outlast any tabloid scandal.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Sophie Heawood on the work and life of Amy Winehouse. Thank you very much.

SOPHIE HEAWOOD: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you for joining us again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.

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