to Black

Words by Harley Cassidy & Laura Jones

Named one of the best, if not the best albums of the 21st Century, Back to Black was the seminal album from Amy Winehouse, whose honest lyrics and unique voice captivated the world over.

We reflect on the anticipation of its launch in 2006 with an interview by Laura Jones, who happened to meet the singer one night in a north London nightclub and, perched on the sinks in the men’s toilets, was fortunate enough to grab fifteen minutes with her. The image of Amy was captured on a Nokia handset.

Words by Laura Jones

Article first published in independent magazine Teen Style Culture, 2006

After her acclaimed first album Frank, the petite Jewish beauty has another offering for our ears, over two years after her debut. As we stand in the male toilets of Nambucca in north London, Amy tells me exactly what she’s been doing for the past 18 months whilst she’s been out of the limelight.

“I have been in love…” Amy’s relationship, as she explains, finished over six months ago now, but she took it hard, admitting, “my heart is still a little sore over him.”

It was her first love and Amy even has her secret beau’s name tattooed on her chest so ‘he is always close to my heart.’ Never regretful, Amy explains, “my heartbreak, if that’s what you want to call it, really pushed me to do something and that’s why I started the album.”

Amy’s long awaited and highly anticipated new album is out this autumn and is a complete shift from the sultry jazz-hip hop fusion. This new sound is a lot less Frank, her debut album which catapulted her onto the jazz scene, the music which she grew up with. The new album, as yet untitled, has seen her shift gears to a more eclectic sound. Her background is as a guitarist, although her vocal ability lends itself to varied sounds and genres. “I grew up listening to folk from my mum and jazz from my dad. I like to think that my music is a reflection of my life and my parents’ music taste is definitely a big part of that.” After Amy picked up a guitar when she was just thirteen, she has lent her hand to both the piano and the saxophone, but always finds safety in the strum of a guitar string and a solitary jam session in her bedroom.

Everything that comes out of her mouth is exactly what she feels. “If I wasn’t there, then I can’t write it. I’m young, and I can only write abut what I go through – I can’t write something that I haven’t been through. It’s not fair and just the experience of how you go through it, that’s the whole song. To me there’s no point in doing something unless it’s a challenge. That’s why I started writing songs really, to test myself.”

After her breakup Amy transformed her feelings into songs for the new album, a reflection of her life today and going back to her roots as a guitarist. Amy has soul, so it’s understandable she has previously been branded a soul singer. She wants to explain her return to basics; “Frank was a fusion, an experiment of sounds. Mainly hip-hop, but there were elements of blues, jazz, pop and R&B in there too.” Heralded as a ‘Jazz Queen of the millennium’, her sounds come from influences like vocal jazz pioneers Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald.

Surrounded by her Camdenite friends, Amy has taken her music into 2006 with a slightly indie, if not acoustic twist to her usually vintage soul sound. “The album is a little less urban and a little more raw in the way my voice is used. It’s natural and raspy. Just me and a guitar, with hard, but not hard, hard chords.

In between writing and being in the studio, Amy has been doing small gigs in and around North West London for family and friends. Charity gigs with fellow London female artist Ms. Dynamite have also been on the agenda and Amy has been giving her fans a chance to keep up with her experimental sounds and new songs. “I do gigs all over and take my guitar wherever I can. It’s good to get people’s responses, you know. I have to put my ideas out there. I can’t just stand in the shadows. I’m really lucky that people want to listen to me and learn something about me. Experimenting is what my music is all about.”

Her attitude to music is similar to that of previous acoustic vocal prodigies like Billie Holiday, Carole King, Lauryn Hill and Joni Mitchell. Women who had a passion for expressing themselves beyond anyone’s expectations in an acapella fashion. Her down to earth approach to music has made her the artist she is today. She is someone who does not encourage the hype of the glitz and glam of fame. Amy hustles pool in the snooker rooms of Holloway, she keeps her perspective and rarely takes her feet off the ground. “I am just a normal person who makes mistakes, but I tell you, I wouldn’t be half the person I was today if it wasn’t for those bad times.”

Ever the realist, Amy gives it to you straight up. Her personality reflects that of a young woman who has had her character tested on more than one occasion and has come out winning. Real and sure of herself for all of the right reasons.

Fast-forward to 2020, and Harley Cassidy reflects on the subcultural significance of Back to Black and how the album paved the way for both musicians and fans to be more open about their inspirations and emotions.

Words by Harley Cassidy

As ingrained in modern pop culture now as it was when it first emerged, Back to Black is an undeniable masterstroke in the art of vulnerability, proving that every bad situation is a beautiful blues song waiting to happen. All you need to know about addiction, heartbreak and emotional authenticity is in the album. Precise in its story-telling yet painfully unaware, it’s marred in anguish but delivered with a wink and a shrug - one that could place a lump in your throat and a cackle to the lips as each track rolls to the next. It’s hard to imagine any female singer/songwriter signed to a major label, even now, who is so unapologetically open with herself and the public, willing to roll it all out for the sake of her soul.

In the short three years that existed between Amy’s debut ‘Frank’ and her second album, a lot happened. Where ‘Frank’ held promise and gave foresight to Amy’s explicit sentiments and retro arrangements, Back to Black peeled back a layer that let you see her heart on her sleeve (and the bruises, too). What happened in that time developed into a staggering outpouring of hit songs covering the bases of deceit, excess and romance, unflinchingly. She had a filthy mouth, got in messy situations, wore her beehive like a pin-up and her heavy tattoos like a sailor. She was unruly and tough and cradled whisky as she sang songs about crying on the kitchen floor. None of it could caricature her talent. Using the dark charm of 60s girl group sonics as a guideline, she was as far away from the mid-2000s era of anti-septic jazz that Katie Melua was fostering as could be - Amy’s attitude emboldened more contemporary R&B with hip-hop inflection filtering through. Her voice is always the main instrument, not necessarily for technical prowess but for the blood and guts she spilled in to her delivery; her North London drawl giving it a sneering charisma that made lines like ‘and if my daddy thinks I’m fine’ all the more brutal.

Back to Black allows you to hear new things in the record, even 14 years later. It’s a marvel when something of high-strung critical acclaim is also received so willingly by the vast public, telling you all you need to know about the album’s spirit. Amy Winehouse was real; flawed and hungry for love but deeply and gratifyingly honest. She was a woman wrestling with herself, putting her issues directly in the middle of the charts - an art that so many pop singers feel more inclined to do now. This compendium of raw, brave and bone-deep tracks are a glowing emblem in her legacy and whether it’s your first listen or your hundredth, you’re still never quite ready for Back to Black.

We continue to collaborate with the Amy Winehouse Foundation, making a contribution to the charity with each collection, supporting their vital work.