She had recorded Frank in Miami with hip-hop producer Salaam Remi, who has worked with Nas, the Fugees and Jurassic 5, and she says she originally planned to do all of Back to Black with Remi as well. (He ended up contributing four tracks to the album.) But an executive at EMI introduced her to Ronson, in hopes the pair might achieve musical synchronicity. "I do write everything myself, but I have to be close with someone to write songs in their presence," she notes. "I didn't know what kind of stuff Mark did, and I thought he was one of them old-trying-to-be-young cool guys. I didn't realize that he's young! Pretty much right away when I met him we got on like brother and sister."
Ronson broke into the music business spinning hip-hop at New York bars and clubs; the six songs he worked on for Back to Black apply his DJ's cut-and-paste aesthetic to an old-school soul sound rendered live — that is, sample-free — by a brilliant Brooklyn eight-piece deep-funk ensemble called the Dap-Kings he recruited to achieve Winehouse's vision for her album. "Amy came to my studio and played me stuff like the Shirelles and the Shangri-Las and the Angels," says Ronson. "I got inspired by what she was talking about, and that night I did the drum beat and piano part for 'Back to Black' and put tons of reverb on the tambourine. She's deceivingly nonchalant, and when I played it for her the next day, she said, 'It's wicked,' but I couldn't tell if she meant it. Then she was like, 'This is what I want my album to sound like.' She would come in every day and play me songs on the acoustic guitar, and we'd try different arrangements to find something that felt authentic. The reason everyone goes back to those Motown records is that there were amazing musicians playing together in a room, and that's what we tried to do."
Though fans with refined ears might be connecting with the authenticity of the album's production and arrangements, it's clear that most of the million folks who've fallen for Back to Black are connecting with the authenticity of Winehouse's guilt, grief and heartache. From the story the songs tell, her relationship with Blake burned too hot, too quickly. There was cheating and heartbreak: He went back to his old girlfriend, and she worried she'd lost the love of her life. "The songs literally did write themselves," she tells me over dinner at Big Pink, a kitschy Fifties-style diner in Miami where the frozen drinks come in jumbo servings and the food is delectably devoid of nutritional value. Adjacent to our table, Winehouse's new husband sits an arm's length away, and she avails herself of every possible opportunity to lean over and whisper or smooch. "All the songs are about the state of my relationship at the time with Blake," she continues. "I had never felt the way I feel about him about anyone in my life. It was very cathartic, because I felt terrible about the way we treated each other. I thought we'd never see each other again. He laughs about it now. He's like, 'What do you mean, you thought we'd never see each other again? We love each other. We've always loved each other.' But I don't think it's funny. I wanted to die."
There is a story — perhaps apocryphal — about Dolly Parton that explains, in part, why the country singer ranks as one of Winehouse's style icons. "I heard that she wakes up every day four hours before her husband to put on her face," says the singer. "Four hours! I think that's cool." She doesn't go so far as to say she'd do the same, but it's apparent there aren't very many things Winehouse wouldn't do to keep her Baby happy. During dinner in Miami, she fusses over Blake so much that I almost feel embarrassed for her. She will pause countless times in the middle of our interview to sneak in some canoodling, occasionally getting distracted from answering because, as she says, "I was thinking about Blake." At one point, she asks me for a piece of paper and spends the next two minutes with her hand cupped secretively over the top while she scribbles a note, folds it in half and hands it to him. "We do that all the time," she says when she brings her focus back to our conversation. "Even if we're out somewhere together, we'll write notes to each other."
Later, when her order of meatloaf, vegetables and sweet-potato mash arrives, she dutifully divides half her meal onto a separate plate with the ritualistic precision one might expect at a Japanese tea ceremony. "I've always been a little homemaker," she says while she selects just the right spears of broccoli. "What's the yellow stuff? Zucchini or something? I need a spoon. Do you have a spoon? Is there a spoon over there? Can I steal some of your gravy?" Turning to Blake, she lets loose yet another cockneyed "Baby?" and hands him a plate of food he never even asked for.
Winehouse says that she's always been the kind of girl who loves looking after the people close to her. But you don't need to spend much time around the singer to get the impression that she could really use some looking after herself. There is no doubt they are deeply and passionately in love with each other, but there's also the clear sense that Winehouse and Blake are a pair of self-destructive souls equally capable of being the best or the worst thing that's ever happened to each other. He has her name tattooed behind his right ear, and she has his tattooed over her heart. They also share matching scars, though the ones on his left forearm look older — and more rigorously inflicted — than hers. They are partners in crime who disappear to the bathroom with such regularity that one can't help but speculate about possible drug use.
I ask her what she thinks is her worst vice. "Mainly that I'm quite reckless and always throw caution to the wind," she says. And when the conversation turns to how she'd know if it was time to get one of her vices in check, she defers to Blake. "Baby? If I've got a vice, when would I know to get it in check?"
"I'd tell her," says Blake, still grinning his cartoonish grin.
But would she do the same for him? "Never," she says. He nods yes as she shakes her head no, and it feels like one of those awkward moments on The Newlywed Game when the husband has forgotten his wife's favorite place for makin' whoopee. Then he changes his answer. "No," he quips. "You wouldn't tell me right away. You'd sit back and watch me with a needle in my eyeball, and then you'd say, 'It's gone too far now, Blake.'"
As her North American tour closed in Toronto, it was clear how generally over it Winehouse was. And in Miami, she obviously would prefer to be hanging out with her new husband than spending her wedding day talking about her life and career. I ask if she'd even shed a tear if she had to stop touring and making records tomorrow.
"Not really," she says. "I've done a record I'm really proud of. And that's about it. It's just that I'm a caretaker and I want to enjoy myself and spend time with my husband. It doesn't even feel weird saying it now. Blake and I didn't get to spend any time together for a long while. And I was with someone else, and he was with someone else, and even six months ago I'd meet up with him and I remember saying to him so many times, 'I just want to look after you.' I don't want to be ungrateful. I know I'm talented, but I wasn't put here to sing. I was put here to be a wife and a mom and look after my family. I love what I do, but it's not where it begins and ends."
• Amy Winehouse's Death: A Troubled Star Gone Too Soon
• Photos: Amy Winehouse Remembered
• Photos: The Tumultuous Life Of Amy Winehouse
• Musicians Respond to Amy Winehouse's Death
• 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'
This is from the June 14, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone.
To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here
MUSIC 9 Classic Devo Videos
OLYMPICS 18 Epic Opening Ceremonies
Picks From Around the Web
blog comments powered by Disqus