AMY WINEHOUSE with PATRICK WOLF at the Mod Club (722 College), Saturday and Sunday (May 12 and 13), 7:30 pm. $19.50. 416-588-4663, 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Austin -- Two head-spinning days into South By Southwest 2007, the mutha of music showcase summits, and it's already clear that the buzz is all about Amy Winehouse.
For the first time in the controversy-starting British bad girl's brief career, Winehouse's name and pictures are splashed all over the papers and clogging blogs not because of some drunk-and-disorderly dust-up, giving the gasface to U2 or a rumoured blowout with her media-made rival, Lily Allen.
Nope, in Austin the spotlight's on her soulful music. Its rough and righteous grooves are rooted in the bouffant-soul-era sound of the Supremes, Shirelles and the Shangri-Las, yet the overall vibe is strikingly modern.
The crucial bit about Winehouse is that the girl can really sing. In the post-Idol music biz, there's no longer room for celebrity lip-synchers. Being able to stand flat-footed and belt out a tune with power and conviction is now a basic prerequisite for success, and Winehouse delivers on stage with a hipshaking swagger. She's definitely got it.
Her vocal ability made an immediate impression on Sharon Jones sideman saxophonist Neal Sugarman, who along with his fellow Dap-Kings helped shape the sound of Winehouse's breakthrough album, Back To Black (Universal/Republic); they currently serve as her touring band.
"From the first time I heard her, I could tell by the way she sang behind the beat that she had a background in jazz," says Sugarman over his cellphone. "But Amy's more that just a good vocalist. She's a complete musician. She writes all her own songs on guitar, and when we're rehearsing, if she hears something, maybe just a note that's sharp instead of flat, she'll tell you exactly where you went wrong and how to correct it. She's right every single time.
"I've seen her stop the band, pick up a guitar and demonstrate how a part should be played. Don't be fooled by that coy act. Amy knows what's happening at all times."
When Winehouse descends from her hotel room to the lobby for our 2 pm chat, she's fully made up in her trademark Cleopatra eyeliner, her black locks piled high in a Ronettes-style beehive, and escorted by two burly handlers. They both takes seats close enough to hear every word of our conversation and are ready to pounce if things get ugly.
Winehouse's jazz schooling began at her Southgate home in north London, where she listened to her dad croon along to his Frank Sinatra and Dinah Washington favourites when her older brother wasn't dropping the needle on Thelonious Monk and Ray Charles joints.
After a brief infatuation with Salt-n-Pepa that led the nine-year-old Winehouse to form a rap duo called Sweet 'n' Sour (guess who was Sour?), she picked up the guitar at 16 and eventually ran into an Island A&R rep eager to sign a teen female to sing cocktail jazz.
Having been booted from school the year before, Winehouse seized the recording opportunity. Her loungey 2003 debut, Frank (Island), earned two Brit Awards and a prestigious Ivor Novello songwriting prize for the lead single Stronger Than Me.
But Winehouse's sudden rise to notoriety, combined with the difficult breakup of a long-time relationship, sent her into an alcohol-fuelled tailspin.
"Because I wasn't working a lot," explains Winehouse, stabbing at the ice in her fruity drink with a straw as her hairy-palmed handlers lean forward, "my management representatives weren't around me on a day-to-day basis. But they'd heard I was doing destructive things to myself, and after one particularly bad episode they suggested I go to a treatment centre."
Judging from her incessant fidgeting and reluctance to make eye contact, it's obvious she's uncomfortable with the whole interview process. The diminutive feather flyweight is reputed to have a short fuse and a devastating haymaker but she's on best behaviour. However, those forced smiles she flashes when trying to avoid answering questions about her troubled past do nothing to lessen the tension.
"I thought, 'No, I'm not going! I'm not an alcoholic, so that would be pointless.' I'd just split up with my boyfriend, so I was very depressed. But just to shut them up I went anyway. I literally stepped in the the door, said, 'Hello, I'm not an alcoholic,' and then walked right back out again," she cackles.
This may be the one instance where an artist's career was saved by refusing to check herself into a rehab clinic. Serendipitously, Winehouse chose instead to go to New York to collaborate on some new song ideas with producer and celebrity DJ Mark Ronson, who reportedly rocked the castle at the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes wedding reception.
At the time, Ronson just happened to be working on his own Version album (see review this page) with some pals in Brooklyn-based deep funk crew the Dap-Kings, whom he knew from sampling their records.
Credit Ronson with realizing not only that Winehouse's brassy alto blast would be well suited to the Dap-Kings' hard-bumpin' jams, but that doubling up the sessions could also prove quite cost-effective.
"At first, I was reluctant to work with Mark, because I knew what I wanted to do on the album and I'm not a very open-minded person. But I went to New York to meet him and we hit it off right away. I played him some things I'd been listening to, some atmospheric stuff by the Shangri-Las as well as a few doo-wop tunes by the Flamingoes and Drifters, and he just said, 'Okay, got it. I'll see you tomorrow.' The next day he returned with this brilliant beat that's the basis for the song Back To Black. Everything just fell into place.
"The cool thing about working with Mark is that we have similar interests. So if things weren't happening in the studio, I'd say, 'Let's get drunk and shoot some pool,' and off we'd go.
"One day, on the way back from the pool room," Winehouse continues, "I started singing to myself about rehab as a joke and Mark asked, 'Who does that song?' I'm like, 'What song? I just made it up.'
"So Mark gets all excited, like, 'That's so cool, you should write a song around that!' So I said, 'A song about not going to rehab? That's stupid. But it's a true story so I could come up with something, no problem.' We went back to the studio and it came together just like that."
On the strength of downloads alone, Winehouse's Rehab hit the UK hard late last year, zooming up to number 19 on the charts before the song was released as a proper single. Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, the song was heard by millions as the soundtrack to a cleverly edited Britney Spears YouTube clip, which was better promotion for Winehouse than anything her label could've dreamed up.
Whether Winehouse's brand of soul music connects with the U.S. urban audience Back To Black's wildly impressive early sales notwithstanding remains to be seen. One label rep overheard at her early-morning SXSW showcase at Eternal had a less than optimistic prognosis: "Great voice, good tunes, no booty. She'll never make it here."
Yet Winehouse doesn't seem overly concerned about cracking the States. She's having too much fun hanging with fans like Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz to worry who's buying her discs or why.
"The whole time I was working on the album, my only thought was to make something I could be proud of I didn't really care if anyone else liked it. I'm 150 per cent satisfied with the way it came out, and that's what matters most to me."
Version Rating: NNN
The origins of Amy Winehouse's stellar Back To Black breakthough can be traced to producer Mark Ronson's work on Version, which was already under way. It's essentially a spin on the mashups concept, but instead of mixing two unlikely tracks together, Ronson uses Brooklyn's Dap-Kings to give contemporary alt-rock tunes a radical deep funk overhaul and then brings in a few friends to voice them. Some of it works surprisingly well, like the horn-hyped instro blast through Coldplay's God Put A Smile Upon Your Face, the snazzy swing through the Kaiser Chiefs' Oh My God sung by Lily Allen, and the uptempo Motownesque zip through the Zutons' Valerie that Winehouse nails with dazzling results. Other tracks have their moments, like ODB's stoopid rhymes on Britney's Toxic, the lively take on Radiohead's Just, and Maxï;mo Park's Paul Smith nearly saves Apply Some Pressure, but the rest, sadly, is ill-conceived filler.
Additional Interview Clips
Amy Whinehouse found there was an upside to the break up of a long-term relationship.
According to Winehouse, reports of her feud with Lily Allen at the Brit Awards are completely unfounded.
Mark Ronson & Amy Winehouse : Valerie
Amy Winehouse performs Rehab
Live at the Brits 2007
Live on David Letterman
Live at Coachella 2007