Songwriter Stefan Skarbek first met Amy Winehouse when she was 14; a few years later they co-wrote "October Song," "Do Me Good" and "Amy, Amy, Amy." Skarbek, who has also worked with Estelle, K.T. Tunstall and others, estimates he wrote a total of 25 songs with Winehouse, including five completed demos he has at home, and says they remained friends until her death on July 23rd. When Rolling Stone spoke to him, though, he was just as interested in talking about the maternal, caring Jewish grandma-type who would make him chicken soup when he was sick as he was about her musical contributions.
Were you involved in the new music she was working on?
We were sort of going over some old songs that we’ve got – she had a little setup at home and we were just sort of writing over Skype. As a friend, I was just having a laugh with her more than anything. She had a home setup – we had about 10 songs, five of them are sort of completed.
So were the five completed songs older material you were revisiting?
Yeah, they were old songs we had, old chord progressions, stuff that has sort of lingered about that we were just fiddling with.
When were those five demos done?
The last one we did was probably two, three years ago.
What direction were the songs you did two years ago going stylistically?
I felt like she wanted to go back to this fun thing we were doing. We did songs like "Monkey Boy," which were just fun tongue-in-cheek songs. My biggest thing with her was she’d come to the studio in London and she’d always come in with some crazy story, boyfriend troubles or things like that. And I’d say something like, "Amy, Amy, Amy," and then we’d do a song called "Amy, Amy, Amy." We’d go to the zoo and then come back and write a song about monkeys. That was the extent of how it went, then I went one way, she went hers. She disappeared for a while, then came back with Back to Black.
Did you speak regularly or reconnect at some point?
She called me up when she came to L.A. to do a show at the Roxy. I hadn’t spoken to her for quite a while and then we hung out, spent a few days at Chateau Marmont. After that we were close again. She definitely went off on her journey and was exposed to a lot of fame and celebrity, and then I think the people who hung about previously became more important, the people who liked her for who she was and not because she was famous. And she was also quite into being famous, so the poor girl, there was a lot of conflict going on.
Why do you think she was conflicted?
Because she was inherently nurturing, she was a Jewish grandma. Last time I saw her she made me chicken soup 'cause I had a little cold. She probably hadn’t slept for four days and she was still making me soup and singing me songs and all that. Naturally, she was a caring, mothering person. And then her persona became an out-of-control rock star, but really she just wanted to hug and be hugged and be loved. She had a lot of that going on and she was surrounded by some pretty dodgy people at times and a lot of using people. And I think that it became hard. I think she started to ignore her maternal instinct and at times her caring side and she became her own caricature. She wanted to have a family, she wanted to be a mom, all those things.
When was the last time you actually saw her?
The last time I saw her was at her birthday party about six months ago.
And when was the last time you talked to her?
I spoke to her two days before she died.
What was your reaction when you heard about her passing?
Shocked and sad.
When you wrote together how many songs did you write and were you in a room together?
We were in a room. Over the course of two years we probably did maybe six months of writing and we probably did about 25 songs. So we did a lot, and it was more like developing stuff. We didn’t really know what we were doing – we’d have these visions and we’d listen to lots of records and have fun. I was just listening to this song the other day that is really sad called "Ambulance Man." Grandma got ill and she sang about the ambulance taking her nan away. A lot of it was just all sketches of things. And we ended up with lots of songs they did record.
Who owns the demos you have now?
Have you been in contact with them about the songs?
I haven’t because I think my publishers will probably do something, but I know it’s still sensitive. [But] I’m sure one of the Universal people will contact us, or my publisher will contact them and release the demos. But the first thing I did when I found out she died, I listened to one of our songs called "October Song," which was just really said. It’s about her pet bird, Ava, who died. It was just really sad because you could replace all the lyrics with Amy and it was just such a testament to her, she lived that song.
How long ago was she sent to you for the writing?
Man, this is like 2001. I probably first met her when she was 14 and then we were working over the course of a few years.
What made her so special?
Anyone saying to her, "You’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that," she’d run a mile. She was compelled by the feeling and music, she never cared about any business. When we were initially doing things the record company would turn up and she’d sort of disappear into another room and play on the trumpet. I think that’s what was so amazing and charming about her – she knew she was the shit and she didn’t need to prove it to anyone. That became part of her magnetism and part of her appeal. When she wrote music, the best way I can describe her is she was like an owl and a porcelain doll, she was so wise, but then so young and innocent. She had the wisdom you get with an old person and then that kind of naiveté and innocence you get with a young child. I knew she was incredible – we didn’t even write lyrics, just messed around on a piano for five minutes and then she’d go in a room, come up with genius lyrics and amazing melodies. She opened the gateway to so many other artists and in my view, she changed the whole paradigm of music. I think she made it possible for Adele, for the other artists that have come through to exist and put some truth and honesty back in music again.
What happened to all the other songs you were working on?
I reached out to Matt Rowe, who I was working with and it was on his computer. He’ll probably dredge up some stuff and see if there’s anything just for nostalgia, I listen to stuff just for nostalgia at this point, these hilarious little outtakes and stuff. I’m not sure where all the other songs are. I know I’ve got a handful and there’s more that Matt has got on his computer. Once it’s not on the album you sort of forget about it. I wasn’t aware that suddenly there might be an interest in what there was.
What do you want people to know about her?
I loved her, she was someone that was ahead of her time. She had this incredible nurturing other side to her that no one has ever focused on. She was generous, she was just a good person and I think she would’ve made an amazing mother. If she hadn’t been so consumed in things she might’ve come out the other end and been a role model for lots and lots of people. That’s the thing I know her best for. Musically maybe some of the songs I’ve got will end up being released. Maybe not, I don’t know. But my biggest take on her is deep down she was a good person and she loved people. That’s something I don’t think anybody ever focused in on with her. The U.K. press is terrible for creating train wrecks, they love doing that. And it was always disappointing me to see those kind of things. Even the worst journalist in the world that says horrible things about her she wouldn’t hold anything against them. She’d make them chicken soup.
• Amy Winehouse: A Troubled Star Gone Too Soon
• Photos: Amy Winehouse Remembered
• Photos: The Tumultuous Life Of Amy Winehouse
• Musicians Respond to Amy Winehouse's Death
• The Diva and her Demons: Rolling Stone's 2007 Amy Winehouse Cover Story
• Up All Night with Amy Winehouse: Rolling Stone's 2008 Story
• Video: Behind the Feature: Claire Hoffman on Interviewing Amy Winehouse
• Photos: Not Fade Away: Amy Winehouse and More Rockers Lost Before Their Time
• Video: Amy Winehouse: Remembering the Soul Icon
• Video: U2 Pay Tribute to Amy Winehouse
• Family: Amy Winehouse's Death 'Leaves a Gaping Hole In Our Lives'
• Courtney Love on Amy Winehouse: 'I'm Gutted'