I was 13 when I became aware of Amy Winehouse, (who was then 19), about 6 months before Frank came out. I was a snobby teen when it came to music; broadly stating that I hated all modern music and immersing myself in forgotten artists from the sixties, jazz singers and long-dead composers, shuffling around awkwardly in record shops across West London. Amy’s music was modern, but I understood the slang, and I recognised the phrasing, the purity, the clarity, lifted from the artists I had grown up loving. She used the kinds of words and chords I one day wanted to be able to use.
I was 14 when I first saw Amy live. She was witty, cool, intelligent. She was the kind of person I wanted to grow up to be. I looked up to her in the way young girls look up to slightly older girls: simultaneously enthralled, scared, and desperate to learn from the big girls in school and the cool kids at the back of the bus. I wanted to know how to write songs like that, how to dress and talk like that, how to engage a crowd like that, how to be funny and interesting. I wanted her to be my older sister. I was a lonely teen obsessed with music and no friends; I blagged my way into as many gigs as possible with other peoples friends. I tracked down b-sides and demos from the Internet. I fell in love with an early unreleased demo, one particular song of hers that I found God knows where. I dreamed of one day hearing her play it live.
That was the year I started writing songs. I was fed up with modern music. I saw an interview with Amy saying she hadn’t been able to find modern stuff she wanted to listen to and thought she’d write her own. I’d been driven by the same motivations, but Amy articulated it better.
Rehab and Back to Black rolled around when I was 16. Suddenly they were all singing Amy. Her fashion got mocked in the papers but I thought she looked beautiful. I already liked pinning my hair into weird up-do’s and I had a series of prized patterned dresses from my beloved Camden, but Amy took it all to 11. I felt almost thrilled when spoke publicly of her love for Camden, the same place I spent all my weekends and pocket money. I borrowed the trend of filling my similarly messy, long black hair with random objects; flowers, hearts, cocktail umbrellas. I went further than Amy; ending up with animal ears, these days my trademark when performing.
I sang at home to Ella or Frank or when writing songs. I practised every day, but I was terrified of people thinking of me as a singer, because I didn’t think I was good enough. Back to Black became the first album I knew word for word. I roamed between social groups at school, feeling bored of all the other people there. With Amy in my ears I shrugged them off, who cared? Her albums became my most constant companion. I bought the sheet music and analysed the chords at my piano when I should have been practising for my grades. I studied the production on the album instead.
During university studying music I still spent long hours listening to Amy. I couldn’t understand how people listened to her passively. Her songs weren’t some crappy pop radio fodder; there were layers, depth, rich emotional meaning. People who merely sang along to Valerie on the radio were missing out on a whole world of wonder. I’d listen to other artists I loved, reading about her influences and connecting the dots. We both loved Dinah, but I preferred Ella whereas Amy often mentioned Sarah. An ex introduced me to Fred Perry, but Amy made me stick around. I gravitated towards messy buns and thick eyeliner anyway as I’ve got big eyes and thick hair, but it was a tiny subconscious homage, every day.
Songwriting had become my strongest modus operandi; everything I thought, felt, said, did, wanted to remember and wanted to forget made it’s way into a song. I kept them largely private, but I wrote songs because I was messed up in the head; if there was no trauma, there was no song. I found my attitude to boys, and to love, and to life, reflected in Amy’s words.
I’d grown up from my teenage crush, but in growing as a musician I was able to better appreciate her musicianship and craft. I often went back to that one unreleased demo I had discovered in my early teens. I’d rarely felt as much of a connection with an artist. I wrote about my relationship to Jimi’s music for my dissertation; but I analysed my empathy with Amy on my own terms. I knew every word of every song. I read every autobiography, watched every interview. She seemed different to the girl I had first seen. I heard her lyrics in my head. I tried to work out her chords on my guitar whilst sat at home, but she was too good.
Two weeks after I finished university Amy died. I was away from home, on a course with strangers, on my first night of a long and bizarre and life-changing summer when I found out. I was heartbroken; I was so far from Camden, from London, from the huge metropolis home we shared, from my guitar, from my notebooks, from my gin, from the things that always made me feel a little bit closer to the girl I’d long ago wanted to grow up to be mates with.
During Edinburgh festival in August of that year, such was the depth of my desperation for Amy’s death that I shared the magical song I’d discovered age 13 with a random stranger. This song I’d listened to and pored over for hours, dreaming of understanding the chords and the words and making music like that of my own some day. I told this guy the whole story. The very next day he told me he’d worked it out; he knew the chords. He started playing it. “Aren’t you going to sing it?” he asked. I tried to explain I wasn’t a singer – I didn’t sing, I played instruments. I was 21, and by this point had spent 8 years writing and singing songs that nobody except me had ever heard. He coaxed me into it and I sang Amy’s song.
We took the song on stage. We got asked to play more. We set up a band, and another band, and another. His name was James, he became my best friend. We got asked to sing some Amy songs at an Amy vigil 2 months after she died. We sang them again at numerous Amy tributes towards the end of the year. We were not a tribute band, and I was not portraying Amy. How could I have? But I felt a connection with her songs, her outlook, her songwriting process and the way she expressed myself. I was not a singer, but I felt like I could sing her songs. I thought I understood her on some level. I thought often about those gigs I’d seen of hers years before; she’d been around 21 then, and I was 21 now. I got it. Eventually, Amy’s songs turned into our own original songs, which turned into my songs, which turned into my life. James got me singing, but Amy got me onto the stage.
I’ve spent four years studying singing. James and I have played more shows and gigs then I care to remember, but the whole thing started back there, a few short weeks after Amy died, with me and Amy’s lyrics and James and Amy’s chords, and both of us crying and wishing she could be here to play that song instead of us working it out from that one unreleased demo, a recording that ranks way up in my most played tracks. That song is my fall-back song, the song I could sing at any moment. I sang along with Amy’s recording in my room aged 13, I sang it the first time I raised my voice on stage, and I sang it last year for my best friends funeral when he died unexpectedly aged 25. I had learned a thing or two about loss firsthand, and it made me think of both of them when I sang it. I almost feel a sense of honour that this one song has given me so much in my life. Maybe I would have sung other songs at some point anyway, or shared my songs with people at some point further down the line regardless. But it was Amy that got me there.
I saw the film last week. I felt a sense of loss and heartbreak all over again; more than ever before I realised why her songs meant so much to me. My friends turned round to me and said how much I had in common with early Amy; the nonchalance, the flirty, friendly teasing, the sarcasm. Her friends said things my friends have said about me. I recognised my own feelings when she talked about needing to have a personal connection to her music. Amy herself said she wrote songs because she was fucked in the head, something I had known to be true about myself years before. Everything she said about music, about songwriting, about her attitude to boys, about her family; it could have come from the script of my own life. I spent the first part of the film nodding and going “Oh my god! Exactly!”. The overwhelming connection I had always felt to her and her songs became clear. I felt my heart ache thinking about how I too had grown up in the suburbs and moved to my own Camden flat, how I’d spent similar nights writing, how I’d doodled over countless notepads.
13 year old me daydreamed of her as an older sister and growing up to be like her, so it was a shock for 25 year old me to watch the film and feel the empathy I’d always felt to her intensify. Amy’s accompanied me for half my life. I never met her, but I’d always felt she never got the credit she deserved, her smart lyrics and impeccable musicianship and witty lines never rated highly enough. The early footage and performances of her are incredible. I hope people re-visit her songs. I hope people change their opinions. I hope people miss her and remember her.
I’m happy with how I write songs now, it’s all I can do and it’s all I’ve got. I’m happy with my little gigs in bars across North London and the odd house. I’ve got my own favourite pubs in Camden now, my own favourite jazz singers, my own songs, my own signature hair, my own style and my own broad London accent. I’ve got my own story and heartaches and life. But I would have liked to have known Amy’s better.