Some say that if it wasn't for the flabbergasting success of Norah Jones, an artist like new Brit sensation Amy Winehouse couldn't exist. Jones has unlocked new horizons of subtle, soulful and sophisticated music, harking back to the classic heritage of jazz yet modern and broad-minded enough to embrace pop, country and hip-hop. But while she's providing a welcome refuge for listeners horrified by nu-metal and driven to apathy by prefab pop, there isn't quite enough devil in Ms Jones for anybody who wants their jazz to be risky and cutting-edge.
But that's not an accusation anybody is daring to level at Winehouse, a bold and ambitious 20-year-old from north London. At this week's Brit Awards, Winehouse has been nominated for Best Female Solo Artist and British Urban Act, and judging by the buzz from audiences and critics, she may be well worth a punt. Winehouse herself is typically brassy and pragmatic about her chances. "Dido's gonna win even though she's rubbish," she snorts, blithely consigning Britain's queen of poetical interior-designer pop to the shredder.
It is Winehouse's startling bluntness and willingness to speak her mind on any topic - sex, the record business ("they're idiots"), clothes, drugs, her parents, plastic surgery, whatever - that sets her apart from the demure pop pack. They also account for the kick in her debut album, the aptly named Frank. If you mixed out Winehouse's voice and lyrics, you'd have a bunch of tuneful tracks with unusual chord progressions, an underpinning of hip-hop and smart instrumental arrangements played by some expert jazzers. Add the chanteuse herself, however, and the brew becomes a caustic, often hilarious survey of urban living and messy relationships.
Or, apparently, mostly just one relationship, involving a hapless ex-boyfriend ("a big pussy") who is condemned to keep hearing this stuff pouring out of the radio. Her debut single, "Stronger Than Me", spelt out the hurdles that Winehouse expects a bloke to clear if he expects her to stick around. "Feel like a lady, and you my ladyboy," she sings, over a louche funk beat. "You should be stronger than me... All I need is for my man to live up to his role." She finds his failure to play the rampaging alpha male so exasperating that she demands, "Are you gay?".
She was a teenager when she made the recording, but her voice already combines a dark, growly knowingness with a raspy, free-flowing upper register. The dismissive confidence with which she accomplishes it is just a little disconcerting. She describes her music as a cross of hip-hop and jazz, and her competition for the Brits' British Urban Act award are all black artists - Lemar, Big Brovaz, Mis-Teeq and Dizzee Rascal. Quite how a Jewish girl from north London found herself in this streetwise, blinged-up company remains a minor mystery, though, as Lenny Kravitz once put it, "Jews have a lotta soul."
While Winehouse has admitted that "some men do think I'm a psycho bunny-boiler", you get the impression that her music is a means of working her way through stages of growing up, so pray she doesn't mature too fast and lose all that thrilling bravado. You have to hope she has plenty more songs up her sleeve like the bawdy, brilliantly observed "Fuck Me Pumps", a caustic demolition of tarty girls on the prowl for rich husbands and a life of undeserved luxury - "Your dream in life is to be a footballer's wife". "I'm not trying to be negative about anyone," she protests. "There's just a lot of women who waste their potential."
Alarmingly, with her music career only coming to the boil and her album barely available yet in large parts of the globe, she's already predicting that in 10 years' time she'll be a devoted housewife and mother of a gaggle of kids. "I dunno, I'm a young girl or I was at one point, especially when I was writing those songs, and I just write the way I talk and the way I think about things and my perspectives," she explains. "I would never put in a lyric just because I think 'ooh, that would sound nice, the way the words fall' ... well, I do do that, but it has to have content, you know what I mean? It's important to me to challenge myself."
Her intense, pouty expression is liable to give way to a big, brilliant smile. Though Winehouse may seem to have fallen from the sky fully formed to set the charts on their ear, she isn't quite as precocious as West Country soul belter Joss Stone, a blonde 16-year-old who threatens to blow your hi-fi to pieces with a set of lungs that make Janis Joplin sound like Enya.
But it is Winehouse's abilities as both writer and interpreter that suggest an unusually prodigious talent. She has some uncles (her mother's brothers) who are professional jazz musicians, though her parents are now divorced. Her father, taxi driver Mitch Winehouse, now likes to regale his passengers with highlights from his daughter's album, and he points out proudly that Amy was exposed to all sorts of good stuff at home, not least Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.
Mitch's reward for bestowing the gift of fine musical taste on his daughter is something of a mixed blessing. With outrageous cheek and no little ingenuity, her song "What Is It About Men?" uses her father's infidelity to excuse her own - "I can't help but demonstrate my Freudian fate / My alibi for taking your guy". Mitch confesses that "the song has given me pause for thought". Amy comments, "People like to have sex with people. I don't begrudge my dad just because he has a penis."
Somehow, she seems to have side-stepped the staple teenage diet of pop. She cites the moment she heard girl-rappers Salt-N-Pepa as some kind of turning point. It prompted her to form her own rapping duo Sweet'n'Sour, in which Amy naturally cast herself as Sour - but it was always the great jazz singers who stirred her imagination. "I learnt from Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington. They were the most inspiring people to me when I was developing a voice. It was the first real music apart from hip-hop that ever spoke to me and made an emotional connection."
Her natural inclinations to perform and express her musical leanings were given a boost at the Sylvia Young Theatre School in Marylebone, London, where she trod in the stardust-sprinkled footsteps of Spice Girl Emma Bunton, Tamzin Outhwaite, Dani Behr and All Saints. "They had us singing Flashdance and all stuff from musicals, 'Where Is Love', cheesy stuff like that," Winehouse reports. "But if we ever had a jazzy song or a sexy, husky song they'd always give me a solo in that."
So far, Winehouse's live performances haven't quite lived up to the excitement aroused by her album, which is curious because her in-yer-face brashness would seem to make her the perfect candidate for standing on a concert stage and haranguing a live audience. "What she lacks is stage craft," grumbled The Daily Telegraph. "She appears unexpectedly nervous ... mumbling bland introductions to songs ..." But Norah Jones is a pretty ropey live performer too, and that hasn't stopped her from selling 17 million albums.Reuse content