Amy Winehouse: Last Interview July 29, 2011Posted by jaldenh in News & Views.
12:58PM BST 27 Jul 2011 The Telegraph
In March this year, I did what turned out to be the last interview with Amy Winehouse. We didn’t talk about drugs, or rehab, or her unhappy love life, or cancelled tours and interrupted recording sessions. It wasn’t about her well-publicised troubles at all. It was about music, about jazz and singing, the things that really motivated her, the things that made her great.
I was privileged to watch her record a duet with legendary crooner Tony Bennett in Abbey Road studios. It was a magical experience, watching these two great talents sing together, voices wrapping around each other, rising and falling, scatting and blending in jazzy cadences, as they worked up a version of the classic ’Body And Soul’, each take getting better than the last.
Winehouse was obviously nervous, exhibiting the slightly insecure demeanour of a brattish teenager, alternately blasé and sulky. She had run a gauntlet of paparazzi on arrival, and her entourage of stylists, management and record company representatives were worried about the response of their notoriously mercurial charge. Winehouse, however, dismissed concerns with a shrug and “Whatever!”
In mini-dress and patterned cardigan, she looked good, healthier than I had seen her in years, tanned and fuller-figured, big hair sculpted around her striking face. The year before, a producer I know described Winehouse as a write-off, creatively stuck and unable to function for ten minutes without resorting to drugs. The comment had offended her father, Mitch. “She’s not a write off,” he insisted. “She’s a recovering addict.”
The Amy I saw seemed well on the way back to her best, which makes our brief encounter all the more poignant.
I was there for a feature on the 85-year-old Bennett, who is recording an album of duets. The invitation to join one of her heroes in the studio was something Winehouse could not refuse. “We love you so much,” she told the white-haired, dapper Bennett.
“I’m not going to cry,” she said, when he took her hands. “I’m not going to cry.”
She apologised for being nervous, saying it was her first time in a recording studio in a while. I asked if it was good to be back. “It’s good to be in the studio with Tony,” she replied. “That’s the only reason I’m here.”
She talked about how her father raised her on Bennett and Sinatra. “I grew up listening to your records,” she told Tony. “You taught me how to sing.”
They sang together, on two adjacent microphones (not a given in this digital era, when vocals are often separately compiled from assemblages of multiple takes, then autotuned to fake perfection). They sang take after take, in search of something mysterious and almost undefinable.
“You’re just feeling it,” she told me. “You don’t think about it. If you thought about it, you wouldn’t be able to sing it at all.”
Bennett, the old pro, looked relaxed and barely seemed to consider his own performance, focusing on encouraging Winehouse, watching her closely all the time. She was fidgety and uncomfortable, chewing her sleeve, looking at her feet, the walls, the ceiling, everything but her musical partner, yet singing up a storm in her rich, ancient voice, channelling Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday. She became increasingly bold, her voice taking off in daring flights, but would suddenly call a halt, muttering “Can we sing it again? I’m terrible. I don’t want to waste your time.” No two takes were the same. “It’s getting there, innit?” she cheerfully snorted after one particularly amazing display of vocal prowess.
“I’m my own worst critic,” she told me afterwards, “and if I don’t pull off what I think I wanted to do in my head, then I won’t be a happy girl.” Her sulky demeanour she put down to nerves. “I’ve got Tony’s voice right in my ear and that’s so much for me that I can’t look up and see Tony the person as well. I sound so stupid but it’s hard.”
Winehouse’s surprising self-criticism, and her unease in the situation, was revealing. “I’m not a natural born performer. I’m a natural singer, but I’m quite shy, really.” She said she always fought nerves before a performance.
“You know what it’s like? I don’t mean to be sentimental or soppy but its a little bit like being in love, when you can’t eat, you’re restless, it’s like that. But then the minute you go on stage, everything’s OK. The minute you start singing.”
Her technique was a wonder to observe, the way she moved on and off the microphone, the way her mouth worked, all lips and tongue, shaping the sound. Bennett was clearly enjoying himself, taking a relaxed, almost conversational tone, while she added layers of depth, daring and drama.
During a break, he offered her a throat lozenge: “Have you ever tried Strepsils?”. Such an innocent question for a woman the UN described as a poster girl for drug abuse. “I like the honey ones best,” she responded sweetly.
It’s hard to believe that encounter took place in spring. Maybe Winehouse wasn’t really ready to venture back into the spotlight. She certainly wasn’t ready to return to the stage, her disastrous performance in Belgrade in June leading to the cancellation of a short European tour.
I first met her in 2003, when she was just a delight, such a precocious talent, so fully in love with music, but even then I found her frustratingly erratic live. In a review of a performance at The Jazz Cafe in 2004, I called her “the girl with everything — except stage presence.” I noted the way she seemed to want to hide behind her guitar. Maybe, after all, the stage wasn’t the place for her particular sensitivities.
At Abbey Road studios, Winehouse spoke to me about her love of jazz, how she modelled her vocal style on the instrumental playing of Thelonious Monk and Charlie Mingus, namechecking her three favourite vocalists as Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington and Minnie Ripperton. She thought she might record a “more purist” jazz album some day, citing contemporary British jazz talents Soweto Kinch, Jazz Jamaica and Tomorrow’s Warriors as people she would like to work with.
She also opened up the possibility of studying music. “I would love to study guitar or trumpet. I can play a lot of different instruments adequately but nothing really well. If you play an instrument, it makes you a better singer. The more you play, the better you sing, the more you sing, the better you play.”
This was all in the future. She may have had a hedonistic and self-destructive streak, and she was an addict battling deep problems, but at 27, I think Amy really believed in her own future. She told Bennett that, after the session, she wanted to go home and put on one of his records. “I’d rather hear you sing than listen to my own voice.”
She was relaxed and laughing by the end, a warm, loud, dirty laugh, full of pleasure. “I’m so happy to be here,” she told Bennett. “It’s a story to tell my grandchildren, to tell their grandchildren, to make sure they tell their grandchildren.”
“Tell your daddy I said hello,” smiled Bennett.
“He will cry,” said Amy. “He will cry.”
‘Tony Bennett: Duets II’ is due to be released on RPM/Columbia on Sept 20