It was with huge trepidation that I arrived in secret at London’s Dean Street Studios yesterday. After news broke in the morning of the posthumous Amy Winehouse album release, I joined just four other journalists, her producer and friend Salaam Remi, her manager and label executives for an intimate playback of some of the songs that will feature on the record.
This kind of release is fraught with danger, and it was reassuring to hear Salaam reassure us, almost unprompted, that “this is not a Tupac situation.”
The thing that everybody was most clear about was that this is not the third Amy Winehouse album. Which is just as well, because as we have said before, trying to complete that vision without the lady herself on board could only be a rotten enterprise. The Island Records executive even took me aside to say how the opinion piece I’d written on this very subject had made them consider their actions even harder.
That said, as her closest two collaborators, Remi and Ronson are the best placed to come up with something fitting. And so the two of them have been poring over hours upon hours of archived material, in whatever stage of completion, to draw up this as-yet-uncharted musical map of Amy’s development as an artist.
So the material spans a long period, from a 2002 demo of ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ right through to her Tony Bennett duet, ‘Body And Soul’, from Match this year. There are relatively few totally unheard songs, so the album feels more like a tribute and reflection than an attempt to second guess anything. But neither would anybody rule out anything more coming out in the future.
The seriousness that came over from everyone in the room was reassurance that everything will be done tastefully. And yet listening to the songs sat next to people who were still mourning a girl, not just a pop star, was a humbling and not always comfortable experience. So the first-listen thoughts that follow should not be considered as any kind of final verdict.
Here’s what Salaam had to say of the project.
A lot of people, through the other antics that were going on with her personally, didn’t get that she was at the top of what she did. Coming to Miami was her escape from all of that, and her writing process could document her life, whether it was recording the pain or the loneliness or the humour. It makes no sense for these songs to be sitting on a hard drive, withering away.
‘Our Day Will Come’
Things start, they should, with a gleeful knockabout, one of doubtless countless examples of how the pair would mess about with covers in the studio. Reworking a 60s doo wop classic with a shimmering vocal and a swooning lilt, this is perhaps more the real Amy than the one that the circus would have us remember. It’s a nicer one to remember.
As Remi explained, Amy would write most of her material on acoustic, at 85bpm. And so this demo vocal – embellished by Salaam – gives us an insight into how they would develop ideas together. Structurally, it’s the same song as the flourishing ‘Tears Dry On Their Own’ that would turn up on ‘Back To Black’. But where that song smelt of empowerment, the slowed down version, more of a gothic march than a ballad as such, strips it back to its searing emotional core, giving it the same heavy-hearted longing as ‘Wake Up Alone’.
‘Between The Cheats’
This is the truest pointer as to where a third album was heading towards. And it was heading towards doo wop. A shameless love letter that, in waltz time and drenched in male backing vocals, has a ‘Blue Moon’ flavour to it. It is, on first contact, as emotional a wrecking ball as anything off ‘Back To Black’ – the lyrics making it unavoidable to read her marriage against its backdrop. Salaam said of the recording:
Amy was a one-take person. She wrote for as long as she felt like it, then she went and just put it down in one take.
As the most complete version of what we would call a new Amy Winehouse song, expect this beautiful, quietly devastating track to be a single.
‘Like Smoke’ featuring Nas
Grafting a rapper onto an unfinished demo is one of the most dangerous tricks of all with a posthumous album, so listening to ‘Like Smoke’ is one of the most nerve-wracking of the whole record.
In fact, Amy had always felt an affinity with Nas, and while they never got the chance, Salaam felt that this incomplete vocal would provide the best fit. A low-slung atmospheric jam pumped along by brass stabs and almost military beats, Nas’ energetic rap gives the song a modern propulsion that was just as much part of Amy’s plan as the doo wops.
It works, despite it necessarily feeling like she’s not completely on there. There’s a line about being “colder than a penguin pussy” that derives from one of her studio jokes – this being a cold place because a penguin “drags its arse around on the ice all day.”
The vocal dates back to 2002, but didn’t fit the mood of ‘Frank’ so stayed in the vaults. But its lyrical reference to Sinatra is apparently a reason why that album eventually got its name. The stripped-back, acoustic emotional stream was later completed, for much the same reasons as Nas crops up here, by ?uestlove from The Roots, and emerges as a late night smoky jazz bar croon, with a fairytale shimmer surrounding it.
‘The Girl From Ipanema’
This bossa nova standard was the first song the 18-year-old Amy sang for Salaam back at the beginning, and the moment that he realised the kind of talent that he found at his door. Though he’s put on additional production, it’s remarkable how complete the vocal sounds even back then. It’s at the childlike end of her range without being ditzy, and the sunshine in her voice is quite flooring, knowing what was to come.
‘A Song For You’
This is bound to go down as the most controversial. Salaam was even moved to rubbish tabloid reports that Amy’s cracked voice suggests she was inebriated while recording – “she never was in my presence,” he said.
Instead, he remembered a day in 2009 when she’d just put a studio into her home. In a candid moment, she goes to a computer and starts spontaneously learning the tabs to this song by Donny Hathaway, famously her favourite artist.
She stars to cry as she learns the song, the intimate vocal flits in and out and cracks. It’s Amy at her most vulnerable yes, by the end she sounds almost broken, but rarely deeper into the song. And then the album ends with another spontaneous break, this time an enthusiastic one, with words that will resonate in hearts all over the world: “Donny Hathaway, he couldn’t contain himself. He had something in him, you know?”