FEATURE: Female Icons: Part Seven: Amy Winehouse




Female Icons

PHOTO CREDIT: Charles Moriarty 

Part Seven: Amy Winehouse


ONE might have their own definitions…



as to what constitutes an ‘icon’. Some say that a certain amount of time needs to have elapsed. Others say impact and influence is more important. Although Amy Winehouse died at the age of twenty-seven, in her short career, she managed to create some truly stunning music. It is not only the music she left behind that marks her as icon: the force of her personality and the power of her voice captivated the world and inspires artists to this day. Born on 14th September, 1983, Winehouse departed the world on 11th July, 2011. It is so sad she is no longer with us but, in the brief time she was, Winehouse made her mark on music. Born in North London to Jewish parents, music came into her life at a young age. School was never something she grew to love. As a child, there was that sense that she was meant for something else; something less disciplined and structured. The young Winehouse would find more comfort and inspiration in music. Many of her maternal uncles were musicians as was her paternal grandmother, Cynthia, who was a singer and artist. Not only was there music in her bloodline but her family would sing songs to her; music was played around the house so it is understandable this budding talent was bitten by the bug very early on. Spending several years at the Susi Earnshaw Theatre School before attending the Sylvia Young Theatre School.

 IN THIS PHOTO: A relaxed Winehouse on Cariblue Beach, Saint Lucia in 2009/PHOTO CREDIT: Blake Wood

The rebellious streak that would mark some of Winehouse’s life in the media started life earlier on. Perhaps a sense of structure and focus was a little too rigid and boring for her. Listen to the music Winehouse was creating from her debut and it is clear that she was not following guidelines and rules. Despite the fact her schooling years were not overly-fruitful, Winehouse did learn a lot and it gave her a distinct focus and hunger. Eventually, Winehouse was signed to Simon Fuller’s 19 Management (in 2002).The story of how Winehouse came to prominence and was set on a course is sort of an accident. She was with Fuller’s management company and was performing regularly at the Codben Club. To start, her set consisted of Jazz standards; small surprise given that a lot of her favourite artists, including Dinah Washington, were Jazz icons. There was this sort of silent tussle between Island and EMI. Her future Island A&R man, Darcus Besse, heard of Winehouse by accident and was allured by this fantastic voice. There was a degree of secrecy around Winehouse’s identity so, for a while, Besse did not know who this incredible singer was. Winehouse was already with EMI (where she signed a publishing deal) and had struck up a working relationship with Salaam Remi. There was, soon enough this bidding war; bosses from companies such as EMI desperate to sign Winehouse.


 PHOTO CREDIT: Valerie Phillips

Her debut album, Frank, was released on Island in 2003 and, whilst it did not gain the same critical attention as Back to Black in 2006, there was a lot of chatter around her. With Winehouse co-writing throughout Frank, there was a lot of personal input and direction from the start. Following all this bustle and hustle to get Winehouse’s signature, she was at the stage where her debut album was out and she had transitioned from a promising club/bar singers to someone about to be thrust into the world’s gaze. There is this constant cool, control and style on Frank; a sense of comfort and ambition that marked her out for stardom. One listens to the opening few songs on Frank and you are transported to this marvellous world. It is unsurprising there is Jazz influence on Frank and, rather than remould herself as a new Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald, Winehouse adopted her own style but had a bit of her influences in the mix. Winehouse would mature and hit her peak on her second album but, right from the off, it was clear here was a true star that was unlike no other. Never too commercial or inaccessible, there was a this blend of someone who could be appreciated by the masses but there was something a bit exclusive – a definite edge and nuance that dug deeper and hit a certain few.

As mentioned, there was plenty of praise directed her way when Frank was released. AllMusic, in their review, were blown away:

What lifts her above Macy Gray is the fact that her music and her career haven't been marketed within an inch of their life. Instead of Gray's stale studio accompaniments, Winehouse has talented musicians playing loose charts behind her with room for a few solos. Instead of a series of vocal mellifluities programmed to digital perfection, Winehouse's record has the feeling of being allowed to grow on its own -- without being meddled with and fussed over (and losing its soul in the process). Simply hearing Winehouse vamp for a few minutes over some Brazilian guitar lines on "You Sent Me Flying" is a rare and immense pleasure. Also, like Nellie McKay (but unlike nearly all of her contemporaries), Winehouse songs like "Fuck Me Pumps," "Take the Box," and "I Heard Love Is Blind" cast a cool, critical gaze over the music scene, over the dating scene, and even over the singer herself. With "In My Bed," she even proves she can do a commercial R&B production, and a club version of "Moody's Mood for Love" not only solidifies her jazz credentials but proves she can survive in the age of Massive Attack”.

The A.V. Club had this to say:

“Frank traffics in bratty attitude and retro sounds, but instead of Black's almost oppressively catchy Motown/girl-group stomp, the album features languid, wide-open neo-soul grooves and jazzy vamping: Think Erykah Badu with Nancy Spungen's Neanderthal taste in men. On the first song, "Stronger Than Me," Winehouse admonishes an Alan Alda type overly in touch with his feelings to stop being so thoughtful, considerate, and sensitive, and start behaving like a man. The songcraft is looser and more organic than Black's, but also more ramshackle and meandering, with Winehouse's fluid cooing filling in the empty spaces and doodling airily in the margins”.


 ALBUM PHOTO: Mischa Richter

Three years later, Back to Black was released to the world. Influenced more by 1960s girl groups than Jazz, her follow-up was a bolder and more accomplished effort. With producers Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson alongside her, Amy Winehouse was about to release one of the greatest albums of the decade. Recorded between Instrumental Zoo Studios in Miami, Church King Studios and Daptone Records in New York, the album received impassioned reviews. Inspired by her turbulent relationship with her future-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, a lot of songs on Back to Black revolved around infidelity, heartbreak and betrayal. Rather than, like so many new songwriters do, make the music sound too depressing and dry, Winehouse brought so much emotion and spark to the music. With brass, beats and incredible confidence, Back to Black inspired a wave of artists, including Duffy and Adele. Back to Black won Best Pop Vocal Album at the 50th Annual Grammy Awards and took Winehouse to new levels. Female artists were awoken to this new icon who put attitude, panache and fashion into her music; a sense of determination and emotion that was missing from music. When you consider the rawness of Back to Black and the stunning arrangements, it is not a surprise Winehouse’s masterpiece influenced so many others. A couple of choice reviews show why Back to Black resonated and why it was so different to anything else in 2006.

The Independent, in this review, made some interesting observations:

That directness applies equally to her lyrics, whose sexual frankness and pottymouthed articulation leaves no room for misunderstanding. Lines such as "He left no time to regret/ Kept his dick wet/ With his same old safe bet" act like turbochargers on the emotion, bringing an unmistakable modern slant to the loping Fifties R&B of songs such as "Back to Black" and "Me & Mr Jones", an ironic Noughties equivalent of Billy Paul's affair anthem. When the same candid attitude is applied to female sexual obsession in "Wake Up Alone", the result is like Millie Jackson crossed with Peggy Lee, a blend of unashamed assertiveness and languid vocal power.

PHOTO CREDIT: Charles Moriarty

The lack of shame is probably the album's defining characteristic. From the opening "Rehab" to the closing "Addicted", there's none of the blame-shifting or hand-wringing apologia that American singers routinely employ. In the former - all fat horns, R&B feel and tubular bells punching up the lines - she refuses flip, therapeutic explanations for her melancholy and drinking ("There's nothing you can teach me/ That I can't learn from Mr Hathaway" - Donny, presumably); and in the latter, she gives equally short shrift to a flatmate's lover who smokes up all her stash without offering to replace it. If a man has treated her badly, as in "Tears Dry On Their Own", she doesn't whinge, just chides herself for placing too much faith in him: "I should just be my own best friend/ Not fuck myself in the head with stupid men"; and it's clearly hard for her to feel too guilty, in "You Know I'm No Good", about keeping two lovers on the go”.

AllMusic had their own take on Back to Black.

Winehouse was inspired by girl group soul of the '60s, and fortunately Ronson and Remi are two of the most facile and organic R&B producers active. (They certainly know how to evoke the era too; Remi's "Tears Dry on Their Own" is a sparkling homage to the Motown chestnut "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," and Ronson summons a host of Brill Building touchstones on his tracks.) As before, Winehouse writes all of the songs from her experiences, most of which involve the occasionally riotous and often bittersweet vagaries of love. Also in similar fashion to Frank, her eye for details and her way of relating them are delightful. She states her case against "Rehab" on the knockout first single with some great lines: "They tried to make me go to rehab I won't go go go, I'd rather be at home with Ray" (Charles, that is). As often as not, though, the songs on Back to Black are universal, songs that anyone, even Joss Stone, could take to the top of the charts, such as "Love Is a Losing Game" or the title song ("We only said good bye with words, I died a hundred times/You go back to her, and I go back to black")”.

If Frank was a promising start and brought together Winehouse’s influences, Back to Black took another direction in terms of genre and subject matter. More personal and heartbreaking, that switch from Jazz of the 1950s to a blend of 1960s female Pop and R&B gave her work new edges, possibilities and beautiful moments.    


Back to Black is more than one woman’s struggles and unpredictable love-life being put onto page. To so many other people, it is a relatable album and something that speaks to them directly. This article in FADER is a perfect example of why Back to Black stands the test of time – the article was written ten years after Back to Black was released:

But Winehouse did make the album. And, perhaps owing to the turbulence in her life at the time, it’s one of the truest, most devastating pop albums of the 21st century. As a teenager I was drawn to its sticky-eyed sadness and macabre glamor; as an adult, I keep returning to its emotional honesty. “A lot of the stuff that’s out, it’s not heartfelt,” she told an interviewer with shrugging candor while promoting her first LP in 2003. “I just wanted to write music that was emotional, and that people would...connect with.” In other interviews, she insisted “I always write autobiographically” about “things that conflict me”; she would disarmingly disclose that she was a “manic depressive.” In an interview with The FADER in 2008, she said, “I wrote songs about relationships that almost ended me. When you write about stuff that’s so personal, you don’t have to dig that deep.”

Back To Black depicts a woman struggling with temptation, misery, and loneliness. Though it’s told — and was promoted — in the context of heartbreak, the album is actually more self-reflexive; it’s not just a woman singing to an ex-lover, but a woman wrestling with herself. 

Back To Black describes depression, addiction, and self-sabotage, in ways that are startlingly unusual for a Grammy-winning, chart-topping, 21st century pop record. (What other recent number one single by a woman contained a line like, I’m gonna lose my baby/ So I always keep a bottle near?) It’s important to acknowledge the singular way Back To Black treads this dark territory despite — perhaps even because of — what happened to Winehouse after its release”.

There is a few things one must consider when talking about Amy Winehouse and Back to Black. Early in her career, Winehouse had a more grounded and girl-next-door look but, by Back to Black, she had adopted the beehive – made famous by girl groups of the 1960s – and this more mature, smoky and confident look. Winehouse’s look and fashion is almost as synonymous as her music. Not only did we have this incredible artist putting out music that was opening eyes. Alongside it, there was this vivacious, stunning and amazing woman who sort of united the looks and sounds of the 1960s with something modern and urgent. Of course, with the acclaim, awards and press attention came demons and addiction. I do not want to talk too much about it and cast blame but one can link the press’ attention and hounding with the pressure that was on Winehouse. Those who knew her remembered her as a sweet and shy woman who was very relatable and honest; funny and kind but, at moments, a bit wild. This woman who wanted to have a career in music but was not chasing fame was soon in everyone’s sights and it took its toll.

Winehouse’s live performances used to be the thing of legends but, as addiction to alcohol grew, they were becoming more erratic and unreliable. Before long, Winehouse’s derailed moments were overtaking her music in terms of press coverage. You can draw a line from Amy Winehouse to newcomers like Jorja Smith and Halsey. Winehouse is one of the most original and striking singers of the past couple of decades and the impact she made in her short life is incredible. There is so much good about her: from her great and candid interviews to her incredible tracks and brilliant live performances. Maybe some misguided romantic choices led her stray but there is this feeling that, if the press had left her alone and she was allowed some space, she would not have died. Sadly, alcohol did contribute to her death in 2011 and it is heartbreaking thinking where Winehouse could have headed and how big she could have been. We have not seen anyone like her and, do you know what, I don’t think we will. You get these artists that come along so rarely and we are all so lucky for having experienced the magic of Amy Winehouse. Before signing off, I want to bring in the last interview Winehouse ever gave. There is a mix of honesty, sweetness and star quality that makes her death all-the-sadder and more poignant.

In The Telegraph, there are passages of conversation and observation that take the breath. The interviewer was covering an album of duets Tony Bennett had recorded and Winehouse duetted on Body and Soul. She was asked about her love of Tony Bennett and the two seemed to have this mutual respect and natural chemistry: 

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.”

“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.

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”.

I think that is a good place to leave thing. Winehouse may have had her troubles and dark moments but she left the world with this mix of stunning work and a huge void. On the good side, we are lucky to have recordings from her and indications of where she was heading. On the sad side, she was primed to enter the next phase and was looking forward – something she was not able to realise. Rather than remember the troubled artist – some of that was brought into her work and was important – let us remember a great young icon whose music has enriched and touched…

 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

SO many lives.