Amy Winehouse: Diva with a stroppy streak

Amy Winehouse can't bear record companies, businessmen and interviews. Fiona Sturges takes a deep breath...
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The Independent Culture

Amy Winehouse flops down in a chair like a schoolgirl who has just been given detention. It's just past midday and we're in a tapas bar just around the corner from her north-London flat. Winehouse is small and stony-faced. Her arms are folded, and her expression says: "Can't be arsed". In case I haven't got the message, she yawns loudly. Something tells me that this 20-year-old singer, fêted by critics as the new voice of jazz, isn't best pleased at having been hauled out of bed to talk to a stranger.

Amy Winehouse flops down in a chair like a schoolgirl who has just been given detention. It's just past midday and we're in a tapas bar just around the corner from her north-London flat. Winehouse is small and stony-faced. Her arms are folded, and her expression says: "Can't be arsed". In case I haven't got the message, she yawns loudly. Something tells me that this 20-year-old singer, fêted by critics as the new voice of jazz, isn't best pleased at having been hauled out of bed to talk to a stranger.

"Sorry, but it doesn't come naturally, talking about myself," she remarks, midway through another yawn. "I don't see what's important about it. No offence to you, but I could be at my Nan's house right now. Or I could be waiting at home for the plumber to come and fix the washing machine."

Oh dear, that's me told. Still, it hardly comes as a shock to find that Winehouse has a stroppy streak. Her debut album Frank, a precocious fusion of soul, jazz and hip hop released to widespread acclaim last year, introduced us to a woman who likes to tell it as she sees it.

Winehouse may be fresh out of her teens but the brash sentiments in her songs suggested a woman twice her age and experience. "Feel like a lady and you my ladyboy," she jeers in "Stronger Than Me", a track in which she rebukes a lover for his weakness, before delivering the seething pay-off "Are you gay?" In "I Heard Love is Blind" she confesses to having cheated on her boyfriend because the other man looked like him ("Just not as tall but I couldn't tell/It was dark and I was lying down") while in the bawdy "Fuck Me Pumps" she sends up women on the prowl for wealthy husbands. Even Winehouse's father, a London cab driver who split from her mother when she was a child, isn't exempt from her diatribe: "What Is It About Men?" recounts his infidelities, using them to justify her role as the other woman - "I can't help but demonstrate my Freudian fate/ My alibi for taking your guy".

To help pass the time during the interview, Winehouse decides to put on her make-up in preparation for the photographer. I say if she'd prefer I'll wait while she goes to the bathroom, but she insists she'll do it while we talk. I decide not to argue - in her hands even mascara looks like a deadly weapon. And so, for the next hour, I find myself trying to hold a conversation with the back of a hand mirror.

Many of the songs on Frank, she tells me, were written about a nine-month relationship with a man she met while working for a London news agency. "Being personal is my style," she says defiantly. "That's me. I'm never going to say things that other people have said in the same way. It wouldn't be interesting for me to hear it so it's not interesting for me to say it."

Is it possible that she's too hard on men? "Not at all," she replies. "I'm harder on myself than anyone else. Yeah, I've got high standards when it comes to me but it's important for me that the man I'm with feels like a king when I'm with him, and I want him to be the best he can be when he's with me. You know what? I reckon men are uncomfortable with anything that requires them to think. It's like when you're mum phones you up and asks if you've paid your tax bill. You just block your ears and talk about something else."

Winehouse claims her father took his cameo on the album surprisingly well. "He loves it and he thinks it's true," she states. "He was like 'I'm famous! I'm famous!' He said 'But Amy, everyone thinks I'm a philanderer now.' I said 'Dad, if it's not true you've got nothing to worry about, have you?' He's funny, my dad. We're really close," she says.

Winehouse is keen to play down the connection between herself and Simon Fuller, the pop svengali behind the Spice Girls, S Club 7 and Pop Idol, and heaves a loud sigh when I mention his name. She says that Fuller shares a building with her management company Brilliant/19, though fails to add that he funds it. When I ask if they've met, she replies "Yeah, twice."

What did you make of him? "I don't know. I've only met him twice." But surely he left some kind of impression. "Business people don't leave an impression with me," she replies haughtily. "They go out of my head straight away." It's an attitude that clearly extends to her record company. "I made my album and then they did what they wanted to it," she grumbles, by now getting to work on her eyelids. "They don't talk to me like I'm a person, they talk to me like I'm a product. If they've got a problem with me or the way my music sounds, I couldn't care less. They couldn't say anything to me that I haven't said to myself. I'm my own biggest critic." Winehouse won't go into the details of the changes made on her album though asked how she'd do it differently on the follow-up she answers: "I'd do it from home for a start."

In her early teens Winehouse listened to staple pop icons such as Kylie Minogue and Madonna but found herself drawn to the music in her parents' record collection. "I liked the same music as all my friends but I had my own ideas about what I could really listen to and what meant the most to me," she says. "When I was 10 years old, me and my best friend both loved Salt'n'Pepa. We even started our own rap group but I also loved Frank Sinatra, Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald. When I was older, my friends used to go to lots of pop gigs but most of the people I loved and wanted to see play were dead. It kind of limited my options."

Jazz runs in Winehouse's blood - her uncle Leon was a professional horn player while her grandmother, with whom she is very close, dated Ronnie Scott, the tenor saxophonist and founder of Ronnie Scott's jazz club who died in 1996.

At the age of 11, she went to a state school, though funnily enough she didn't take kindly to being disciplined. "I didn't like being told what to do," she shrugs, the scowl returning to her face. "I was on report all the time. It gets to you after a while, having to sign a piece of paper after every lesson. So I left." At 13 Winehouse won a scholarship to Sylvia Young's Theatre School where her classmates included Billie Piper and Matt Jay of Busted. For the first half the week they would attend normal academic lessons and for the second they would have dance, drama and singing lessons. Two years in, however, she was expelled for having a pierced nose and not applying herself. Though she was undoubtedly ambitious, it hadn't occurred to her that she could make a living out of singing.

"I mean, I knew I could get a bit of money out of it doing stuff on stage, in a chorus line or whatever. But I thought everyone could sing. I didn't think it was a skill. It was only when my mum said 'You know, you've got something special there' that I took it [singing] seriously."

Winehouse says "she cried every night" after leaving Sylvia Young's. For a year she worked in a series of dead-end jobs - at a tattoo parlour, a piercing clinic and a clothes shop - before finding work as a showbiz reporter at a news agency. By this time, she had started writing her own songs and was playing low-key gigs in pubs and pool rooms in London. Nowadays Winehouse is less than thrilled at being categorised by critics alongside fellow jazz hopefuls Katie Melua, Jamie Cullum and Norah Jones. "I think that as my output increases people will realise that I'm in a class of my own," she states matter-of-factly. "I'm different. I don't pride myself as being a great singer, I pride myself on being unique and on writing music that I would like to hear. That is what drives me. I don't mind being lumped next to people like Jamie, but the rest of them aren't even musicians. How ever much I know that she's shit, there are people that think Katie Melua is a real musician. That really gets to me."

And going by the look on her now-immaculately made-up face, I see that it really does. Beneath Winehouse's belligerent youthful exterior, it's clear there's a more thoughtful grown-up struggling to get out, one who is passionate about music.

It's with characteristic exasperation that Winehouse tells me she hates nearly all pop at the moment. "As a musician, I need to have music to play my children when I'm older. I'm going to want to play them the music that I was listening to when I was 20, and what is there? Nothing. It's dry. I'll be playing my children Ms Dynamite every day."

Does she see herself still making records in 15 or 20 years' time? "Absolutely," Winehouse replies, almost breaking into a smile. "I see myself making records for ever and ever and ever, until I'm dead."

Amy Winehouse's UK tour begins at the Cottier Theatre, Glasgow, tonight. 'Frank' is out now on Universal/Island

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