Tuesday 9 April 2024

The Amy Winehouse I knew at Mill Hill Music Complex Studios

On Sunday, Absolute Radio aired a special show dedicated to Amy Winehouse, coinciding with the release of her new film. I was asked to contribute to the show. I did this on the basis that I wanted to talk about Amy as the musician,  I knew, rather than her personal issues.  You can hear my contributions and the rest of the how here.

I wrote this article a couple of years ago, based on my personal experiences of Amy at Mill Hill Music Complex studios.

Let me start by giving some perspective on this. I have always felt slightly uncomfortable talking about Amy Winehouse. She was a studio customer from the days before she was famous until the day she died. Shortly before she passed, she'd called about doing some recordings. She wanted to do something stripped back, without the big production, but primarily where she was in control and calling the shots. We were sworn to secrecy about the project (no big deal, many artists do this). The sessions were booked provisionally for September 2011. When Amy passed, I was in France. When I came back, the saddest moment of my professional life was getting the Tippex and erasing the sessions from our diary.

I have never been so genuinely excited as when we took the booking. It's not often we get a Grammy winning artist wanting to record an album worth of material in our little North West London studio. They normally prefer Abbey Road. Although this was likely to be pre prod demo's, Amy would most likely have ended up recording the final versions at Abbey Road, she said that she needed a less formal enviroment to create and said that if it came out well enough she'd do it all with us.  It was still hugely exciting. She said she wanted to lock herself in the studio with a couple of musicians and simply create. 

It is a well known fact that Amy had her troubles. When we last spoke, it was not to a troubled soul. It was to someone who wanted to open a new chapter. She told me she'd been listening to lots of music and was feeling really inspired. This was not inspired in a whacky or drug addled sense. It was in a serious, professional and purposeful manner. She wanted a stripped back, unplugged vibe, more jazz based. She wanted to put out an album that people didn't expect. Something with a raw depth that maybe she felt the super polished previous albums and the pop tunes hadn't addressed. I was given the impression that almost no one knew about it. She most certainly didn't want her label involved until she had what she wanted in the can. She didn't want someone saying "This is a single, we need XXXXX to produce it now". 

I've waited ten years to really talk about this. Why? I was sworn to secrecy and that was important, but now, ten years later, I think the time has come to say this. There were two things that spurred this on. The first was that I watched 'reclaiming Amy' on Saturdya night. My thoughts? I was really disappointed. I get that her parents needed to set the record straight and that her friends wanted to put some perspective on her life and death. But what disappointed me was that we are yet to see something that tells the story of Amy, the musician. What made her tick, what made her so influential. What did the people who played with her, produced her, toured with her think. I am not interested in the stories of alcohol and drugs and breakdown. I am interested in how this little sparrow of a girl from North London became the most infuential singer of the last 20 years. When Amy first came down, she was a sassy, funny teenager. She would wear her white leopard skin print trousers and was shy and respectful. As she got used to us, the shyness gave way to cheeky banter. Occasionally she'd bring a guitar and ask us what we thought of  a song. Her Dad Mitch would hang around on occasion, chatting, drinking a coffee and telling us Amy was going to be massive. Mitch is a typical London cabbie and it was clear he adored his daughter. As she progressed, Amy started playing with better musicians. She got a management deal and when she was booked to play her first TV performance, she bounded into our shop, looked up at the wall and said "what is the blue Fender guitar like?". Our senior tech Fil Ross, replied "It plays well and has a good tone". She added "Sort out a gig bag and I'll pay when I've been to the loo". Fil set it all up so she could try it out. When she emerged, Fil said "Here, try it out". Amy replied "I trust you, I'm using it for filming a TV show tomorrow". That was Amy. Maybe she was too trusting. What you saw in that appearance was how I remember Amy best.

The guitar was a Mexican Strat. It did the job. I'm sure that when we watched that Jools Holland appearance, none of us really expected any of the things that happened as the story unfolded.  We knew she was a great singer, to be honest, we'd heard her sing better in the studio (she loved studio 9). I recall one moment, she was doing an important showcase, I can't recall if it was for a label, a management deal or whatever, but when she mentioned it, I suggested that we give her a free upgrade to Studio 7, our biggest and best room. We often do this for struggling artists on limited budgets, if the room isn't booked and they have important guests. This is as much so that the VIPs see the best of us as they see the best of the artist. Amy replied "Thanks, but Studio 9 works for us, I don't want to risk loosing the vibe". The show went well and she told me later "I really appreciated that offer, but music is all about vibe and we know that we always get it in studio 9". 

Several years later, at the height of her problems, I was in a pub in Camden with a couple of non music industry mates. Amy and her entourage were at another table, clearly not in the best shape. I didn't want to intrude on their space. As I went up to the bar, she approached me and said "Hi, how's it going in Mill Hill". I said things were great. She then said "Sorry we've not been down for a while, but Studio 9 is a bit too small for the setup I'm playing with at the moment". We had a little chat about this and that. The mates I was with said "Do you know Amy?" I replied "yeah, she's been a customer of the studio for years". One said "I've heard she's a bit of a nightmare". I replied "She isn't with us. She just came up and asked me to say hi to all the guys at the studio". 

As to the issues of addiction. It is clear that Amy had major problems with substances. I never really saw this side of her. Part of this was because we saw most of her before it became an issue. When I saw her in Camden, she was a bit worse for wear but was charm personified. I know a few people with serious abuse issues. From what I've seen, for them, their addiction was their promary reason for existing. Everything else, music, relationships, work, everything was simply a conduit to feed their addiction. I felt with Amy, this was never the case. I honestly don't believe she was aware of how badly alcohol was damaging her. I don't think you can really blame anyone, even Amy. I have long believed that we should educate children about addiction. We hear that alcohol can kill you, but we see friends getting bladdered night after night and they don't die. Maybe what we need to do is to learn the warning signs that it is starting to kill you. My view is that Amy had sorted out the Class A problem and was unaware that the booze was as dangerous. She wasn't someone planning to die, so I have to assume she didn't understand the damage it was causing. 

I said there were two reasons I felt that now is the time to write this. The first was the Reclaiming Amy film. The second was a conversation I had in The Bridge Tavern with our chief engineer Fil Ross last night. Fil had spent two days at the Finchley Community Carnival, doing the sound for a whole host of local artists. This was the first PA system we've done for a festival for nearly two years. After we put the gear back in our store, we retired to The Bridge Tavern for a debrief. Fil knew Amy best of anyone at the studios. He commented that all of the aspiring young female artists are really heavily influenced by Amy. We laughed as we recalled seeing her at The Torrington, long before she made it, never thinking that in 20 years time a whole bevvy of young artists would be onstage in a car park down the road from the site of the long gone and much missed venue, trying to be the next Amy. 

There are many singers who can put a really good Amy style performance on. What I think many miss though is that Amy wasn't just a singer who played to backing tracks. She cut her teeth with a band. She wrote songs. She played guitar. She knew the music of the greats. If she heard a track she liked, she wanted to understand why it sounded so good. She wanted to know how a singer got a certain sound. She wanted to understand why some songs worked so well for some singers. She wanted to know how she could fill her songs with her personality. When she covered a song, such as Valerie by The Zutons, she wanted to own it, to make it better. That is why she won five grammys. I'd love to see a documentary that told that story, if I could, I'd make one. I'd speak to musicians she worked with, the producers, the engineers. It would probably screen at 3am on Sky Arts, if anyone ever saw it. But for me as a musician, it would tell the story I really wanted to know about Amy. Not the drugs, the tantrums and the boozing. It would tell the story of why she was such a genius and how she became one.

The rest is pretty unimportant to me. She is and will always be the most important UK artist of the first decade of the century. Remember her for that as that is what matters. 


ToniLD said...

Thank you for this blog post, Roger - a nice corrective to the 'established' narratives about her

(Robert Elms Facebook Group)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing Roger
A lovely piece … 👍