Amy Winehouse’s career was short, yet earth shattering. She quickly became a critical darling and, with two albums sold millions, changed the shape and perception of what pop music could be. Her influence continues to be felt today, while her legacy as a musician outshines the headlines that maligned her as a self-destructive party fiend.
WATCH: Amy Winehouse: Back to Black on SBS at 8:30pm Saturday 22 September.
Although only 20 years old when her debut album Frank was released, Winehouse had already been honing her skills for many years, soaking up jazz since childhood from her family of enthusiasts and players. She saw the connection between soul and jazz with the origin of hip hop music, and the potential to make classic sounds filtered through a modern sensibility. Salaam Remi, a hip hop producer who had already worked with massive artists like The Fugees and Nas on his highly anticipated album Hip Hop Is Dead was brought in to produce her debut album. The subtle, crunchy beats and production styles leaning evoking the golden age of hip hop from the early to mid 90s left plenty of space for Amy’s fluid and loose vocal performances to cut through. And cut through they did - the album was a monster success and immediately this unknown singer with the crazy beehive was a superstar.
When it came time to record her second album, Back To Black, Amy leaned further into hip hop for her sound, pivoting away from the jazz styles that shaped her debut. She also sought inspiration for her songwriting elsewhere - the 60s girl groups and the hit factory of Motown being the most obvious reference points for where she wanted to go with her music, something she maintained fierce control over. Amy brought in producer Mark Ronson to share the duties with Remi this time around, a decision that yielded even more hit singles than its predecessor. Ronson recorded Sharon Jones’ band the Dap-Kings for the backing tracks of the album - a band that sought and achieved an authenticity of sound of the Motown era. Ronson even used old Motown recording techniques, such as using one microphone in a room with the band huddled around. The result was a new and unique sound that felt sampled and old without relying on tired samples.
But fantastic production and authentic musicianship are not the only ingredients for a great record. Amy’s songwriting had developed. Her quest for perfection saw her refining the songs to a point of wry pop genius. Her experiences with the music industry and the scrutiny of tabloid journalism only seemed to push her deeper into her music. Amy would always deflect gossipy questions about her life and drug use, instead pleading to be asked about her music - she knew what was important. Her voice, stronger than ever, completed the picture and a veritable classic album was born.
Amy’s classic vocals rang out like a sophisticated sample from a long forgotten soul classic - the bread and butter for rap music. Everyone wanted to work with her. Rappers like Ghostface Killah, Nas and Jay-Z jumped on remixes. Prince covered one of her songs and invited her on stage. Her heroes were desperate to work with her, not for her bad girl reputation, but rather for her incredible talent.
A rabid bloodlust for her to self-destruct was fueled by the media and the earliest stages of a toxic internet fan culture. It culminated in an online competition to win an iPod for predicting the date of her death at the site www.whenwillamywinehousedie.com. The internet archive retains a grim reminder of just how ugly things were at the time - it’s hard to fathom the effect this had on Amy’s state of mind at the time.
It’s been difficult to revisit Amy’s music since her devastating passing. Watching someone self-destruct in public is painful, especially when you are powerless to help. Seeing a person so deserving actually achieve such a successful career in an industry that usually rewards shallow imagery and disposable output is so rare an accomplishment that we’re still yet to see it really happen again.
Amy Winehouse's legion of fans continue to mourn the loss of a talented icon, fantacizing about where her music and talents could have gone.
Amy Winehouse: Back to Black screens on SBS at 8:30pm Saturday 22 September and streams at SBS On Demand.