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What's past is perfect for her brassy alto
NEW YORK — Slender actresses nibbling on red meat are a tired trope of celebrity profiles, but an artist's gustatory cravings rarely reveal anything about her character. But what Amy Winehouse ordered before a recent sold-out show at the Bowery Ballroom here did inadvertently make a point.
Looking for a quiet place to conduct an interview, she'd wandered into Sammy's Roumanian Steakhouse, a touristy shrine of "real" Ashkenazi kitsch. "This is cool!" declared the 23-year-old English singer-songwriter, who was raised Jewish, but not surrounded by schmaltz. "We don't have anything like this back in London." She marveled at the chicken fat on the table ("I thought it was orange drink!") and heartily approved of the Catskills-style crooner pumping on a synthesizer in the corner. Winehouse's appreciation wasn't just a matter of retro gawking; when the waitress came, she ordered chopped liver, which she then heartily devoured.
Winehouse's eager consumption of that dauntingly classic dish irresistibly compares to her style of music-making. With a brassy alto that would have made her a great Shirelle, and intonation spanning the gap between gospel and jazz, Winehouse is emerging as today's premier soul revivalist. It's not often that an album is praised for originality and dead-on vintage cool, but that's what's happening with "Back to Black," the award-winning 2006 disc that's now Winehouse's first U.S. release.
For Winehouse, authenticity is a given. Though her lofty beehive and Cleopatra-style eyeliner seem lifted straight out of the booklet for a Ronettes boxed set, she doesn't relate to her favorite music as history. The songs on "Back to Black" emerged after her first serious love affair exploded, and she found only one soundtrack to get her through it.
"I know there are people in the world who have worse problems than falling in love and having it blow up in your face," she said. "But I didn't want to just wake up drinking, and crying, and listening to Shangri-Las, and go to sleep, and wake up drinking, and listening to the Shangri-Las. So I turned it into songs, and that's how I got through it."
That deep emotional connection to music decades older than her marks Winehouse as a particular kind of artist — one capable of viscerally absorbing a distant or foreign style. Thinking outside the soul-revival box, one could compare her to Gillian Welch, the Hollywood-born purveyor of Appalachian mountain music, or Antibalas, the Brooklyn-based band specializing in Nigerian Afro-beat. Most musicians wade through a sea of references and come up with something more or less contemporary, more or less themselves; these artists find themselves with something very distant, and somehow don't come off as mere imitators.
Winehouse's music is more contemporary than it appears. She grew up listening to her father imitate Frank Sinatra around the house and her older brother's Thelonious Monk records leaking through her wall. That sparked her interest in African American music; she soon discovered hip-hop.
"I liked forward-thinking hip-hop like Mos Def, and conscious stuff like Nas," she said. "You know how there's always one artist who makes you realize what it means to be an artist? I was into Kylie Minogue and Madonna, and then I turned 9, and discovered Salt-N-Pepa, and I realized there are real women making music."
This penchant for the "real" over the glossy and commercial is reflected in the difficulty Winehouse has in talking about her vocal technique.
"I sing like what I listen to, and haven't premeditated a lot," she said. Her rough melisma and funky phrasing recall down-home stylists such as Esther Phillips and Etta James as much as the Motown sounds she admires. Like those singers, she learned the basic shape of a vocal line from jazz; unlike them, she's also learned from rap.
Her favorite rappers have heavily influenced her detail-rich lyrics, Winehouse said. "A rapper like Nas can tell a story about being in a room, and you feel like you're standing in the corner of that room," she explained. "You know the way it smells, and if someone's smoking."
On "Frank," her 2004 UK debut, hip-hop and cocktail jazz dominate. Produced by Salaam Remi, who'd worked extensively with Winehouse's idol Nas, the album is cooler and much more contemporary than "Back to Black," full of young-girl musings set to clever melodies, but not that focused or forceful. Then came Winehouse's big breakup and a new batch of songs, one that, she felt, needed a stronger framework.
That's when Winehouse's eclecticism came into sharper focus. "I stopped listening to jazz and hip-hop so much, and started listening to a lot of 1960s stuff — jukebox music, really, because I was in the pub a lot, waiting for my friends to come in," she said. "When it came time to go into the studio, I knew exactly what kind of album I wanted to make. I went to see [musician-producer] Mark Ronson, and talked to him about what I was listening to — really atmospheric songs — and he came up with the title track."
Ronson remembers the encounter well. "When Amy first came to my studio, she played me a few Shangri-Las classics, one of which was 'Remember (Walking in the Sand).' That was the main inspiration for the song 'Back to Black,' combining the classic '60s soul sound with the desperation of 'My boyfriend broke up with me, I want to kill myself,' " he recalled when reached in London.
The song "Back to Black" could have fit on "Frank," but with Ronson's assistance Winehouse takes it into hotter climes. Ardor replaces her youthful cunning; she's more invested — more, well, frank. Throughout the new album, Ronson and Remi, who returns for several tracks, help Winehouse find freedom where other singers would only manage high concept.
It's that unstudied effect that makes her vintage act so convincing. Even in full costume, she's not acting.
Knowing that such an intense embrace of the past can seem a little crazy, Winehouse downplays it. Of her retro look, topped with that massive beehive, she says, "I don't do that consciously. The bigger my hair is, the smaller my head looks. I have a big head!" She's equally cavalier about her excessive drinking, which fits her bar-moll image and has sometimes overshadowed her talent. She jokes about it onstage, dismisses it in interviews. And honestly, it's the least interesting thing about her.
What Winehouse must work to avoid, as much as that extra shot of Jack Daniel's, is the one-note quality that sometimes afflicts highly instinctive artists. If she wants to stay in her time machine — and she says she's in no hurry to depart — Winehouse will need to really think about, as well as feel, her sources. At this point, though, passion is her point, and it's what she finds in the past she loves.
"When I fell in love, I thought, 'I'm gonna die with you,' " she says of the man who inspired "Back to Black." "So much pop these days is like, 'What can you do for me? I don't need you. You don't know me.' Back in the '60s it really was like, 'I don't care if you love me, I'm gonna lay down and die for you, because I'm in love with you.' "
Romantic? Nave? For sure. But Winehouse really means it.
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