They’re have only been a few times I can remember being in the NME office when something came on the office stereo and everyone, regardless of their specific musical tastes, stopped dead in their tracks to do a collection "what the hell was that?"
One of those times was with Amy Winehouse’s 'Rehab'.
An insistent Fender Rhodes played, as a ridiculously joyous drum pattern hop-scotched along as a bell-clear vocal sang a lyric that was wickedly knowing, like retro soul had been pulled into a spiky present where celebrity rehab was as inevitable as the 26 page, tell-all pictorial in OK! that would follow.
'Rehab' felt uncluttered and to-the-point but also had a depth and grace that barely any of the retro-themed music that followed in its wake would touch upon. Beyond all doubt, we were listening to a modern pop classic.
Then-Associate Editor Malik Meer refused to tell us who the song was by. After several rounds of 'Guess who?' he revealed the authoress was Amy Winehouse.
"Amy Winehouse?” We were shocked. There was a general assumption she’d been dropped, that the neo-soul stylings of debut ‘Frank’ had just been re-absorbed back in the tasteful background from where it came. But here she was with a new sound that was shockingly on it in a way that 'Frank' was not. It was fascinating to wonder what musical 360 had gone on between albums.
A couple of months later I was sent to interview her backstage, following a comeback show at Koko. By this point she had the kind of reputation that would come to proceed her. Not quite the "Camden Caner" yet, but still I was unsure of what to expect.
We bustled past Damien Marley's "people" who were there for a meet and greet and chat about doing a possible duet. But Amy herself had no "people" around her. She was in her cramped dressing room doing her hair in a mirror alone, looking tiny and bird-like in a simple white top and jeans.
“Hello Darlin’,” she said in a voice which suggested an Ealing comedy type sauciness and a manner that radiated warmth and charm. We chatted about how excited she was to be performing in her hometown again. I spluttered excitedly about how brilliant the new album was (“You really like it? Oh fanks darling!”).
And when her then boyfriend Alex entered the room and they proceeded to have a couple-y disagreement about meeting her family (“You’re dad doesn’t like me,” he said “that’s just the way he is,” she replied), it could have been awkward, but it felt completely natural. I was charmed by her lack of pretence, and how she lived her life like she did in her music, like an open book.
She seemed so happy, an artist on the cusp of greatness and at peace with her lot. This is the way I like to remember her.
Amy Winehouse - her life in photos
Amy Winehouse - the most beautiful tributes so far
'A voice that could pin you to the back of the room' - Amy Winehouse remembered
Amy Winehouse - ten songs to remember her by