It’s 8PM on a Friday night in New York City and Amy Winehouse wants a tattoo. Another one. Her left arm has already been graced by an upside-down horseshoe and a topless model, and her right has been inked with a greaser chick in red pumps, a tied-up shirt and the name “Cynthia,” but somewhere inside the neon yellow tattoo parlor next to East Village Radio, a buzzing needle whispers her name. “Don’t get one now!” says DJ Mark Ronson, who brought Winehouse over to the station to guest on his show. “It’s going to make you too tired to sing.”
After listening to Winehouse’s Back to Black, exhaustion seems like it would be as much an asset to the singer as an impediment. The album is a showcase for Winehouse’s smoldering voice—a ragged, throwback croon that makes you wonder why anyone would ever stop calling nightclubs “gin joints”—and her deeply confessional lyrics, which detail broken hearts and broken bottles in equal measure. “This album was so easy to make,” Winehouse would explain over the phone, back home in London for a live show a few weeks after the EVR stop. “I mean, I wrote songs about relationships that almost ended me. When you write about stuff that’s so personal, you don’t have to dig that deep.”
Yet for all its inky tears, the actual music on Back to Black, produced by Ronson and beat extraordinaire Salaam Remi, is a rather upbeat nod to Motown classics and Phil Spector’s girl group backbeat. Lead single “Rehab” might be the happiest song to ever contain a line like I’m gonna lose my baby, so I always keep a bottle near, and it’s follow up, “You Know I’m No Good,” is no less poppy, even as Winehouse wails to an ex-lover, I cry for you on the kitchen floor.
Ghostface Killah recently added verses to “You Know I’m No Good” for his More Fish album, and as that track gets spins on US urban radio—and Back to Black’s US release draws near—Winehouse finds herself positioned as an unlikely R&B diva and hip-hop guest star. But who else is going to share her fondness for tats and top shelf liquors? “You know that Ronnettes tune, ‘Be My Baby?’” she asks. “When I was with Salaam last time, he had me sing that chorus, but make it B-boy, be my baby, Then he tried to get me to do a verse! I was like, ‘I thought you were going to get Nas or something?’”