An Amy Winehouse album comprising 12 tracks, including new material will be released in time for Christmas, it has emerged.
In a Soho recording studio, journalists heard most of the record, entitled Lioness, in the company of executives from Winehouse’s label, Island Records. Her manager Raye Cosbert and producer Salaam Remi were also present. Remi worked with the singer on her two albums Frank and Back to Black and was slated to produce her third.
Remi introduced and played seven songs – those he declined to reveal were a Frank-era live set opener, Best Friends; an early version of the hit Valerie; a demo of the song Wake Up Alone; a version of the Shirelles’ Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow; and the Tony Bennett duet Body and Soul, which has already appeared on the veteran singer’s own recent album.
At best, the seven tracks sounded like the basis for another hit album, although it’s hard to make any kind of judgment on the basis of one listen. Several are based around demos or early versions of songs, to which Remi subsequently added vocal parts, backing tracks and more. He insisted that since Winehouse’s death on 23 July, he has only spent two weeks polishing the material. “Touching things up, adding some strings,” he said. “Just what you’d do with any recording.”
Nonetheless, it is hard to believe that Winehouse herself – who oversaw every aspect of the two albums she released – wouldn’t have reworked much of the material that is to be put out. There are certainly times when her vocal on a song sounds more like a sketch, even if she was an instinctive artist who appreciated the magic of capturing a first take.
As Remi said, however: “Lots of people are going to want to remember other aspects of her life, but what we have here highlights that musically and creatively, she was the tops. She was a great musician and a great songwriter as well. She wasn’t a musical fluke.”
These are the seven tracks played at the listening session:
Our Day Will Come
Remi explained that during the recording of Winehouse’s debut, Frank, the pair of them would play around with different versions of songs that they liked, once a vocal take was in place. Hence a reggae version from those sessions in 2002 of this 1963 hit by doo wop outfit Ruby & the Romantics. “It also points the way forward to the doo wop sound of Back to Black,” Remi added. The producer subsequently added backing vocals and the result is an deep, rich and uptempo call to arms that is also touching in its sentiment. “Our day will come and we’ll have everything,” Winehouse sings. “No one can tell me that I’m too young to know … ”
Between the Cheats
Recorded six years to the month after Our Day Will Come, in May 2008, for possible inclusion on Winehouse’s planned third album. The song is another with a heavy doo wop influence, and “shows one of the main directions in which she was heading”, according to Remi.
The song title has led to speculation that it references Winehouse’s tempestuous relationship with her ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, whom she divorced in July 2009. But – starting with a spot of whistling – it’s another big and brassy song, not a maudlin ballad. Nor in this recording of the song can the lyrics be clearly heard – at least, not on a first listen – although there is a reference to “my husband”.
“Amy was mostly a one-take person,” said Remi. “Going through all the [computer] files of her music: it’s mostly all one or two takes.”
A version of the song that appears on Back to Black – in fact, the first version to be recorded, in Miami in November 2005 with Remi. “It brings another light to the song,” said the producer. “It’s not so much about the production: it’s her … making a direct connection with the listener.” So, a ballad to which strings have subsequently been added. But not – for this listener at least – a real tearjerker.
Recorded two weeks after Between the Cheats and featuring a guest appearance from the New York rapper Nas, whose verses were added subsequently to the recording. “He was one of Amy’s favourite artists,” Remi said, adding that the song In My Bed from Frank, effectively sampled one of his tracks, while Me & Mr Jones told the story of missing one of his gigs. “They had an affinity,” said Remi. “Besides which, they were both born on 14 September.”
The producer also explained the meaning in Nas’s verse behind the phrase “colder than a penguin’s pussy”, saying it was a phrase that Winehouse herself – who could be “quite the comedian, and very clever” – taught the rapper. “If you think about it,” Remi added, “a penguin drags its ass on the ground all day”. Nas also references Winehouse’s death, when he raps about a visit to Camden, and his belief in heaven. The song is another strong Remi production, with lavish strings and a flute in the mix. It seems to detail the end of an affair.
“This was part of her repertoire when I met her in 2002,” said Remi. The song was recorded three or four times but missed the cut for the record that became Frank. It did, however, give that album its title, as Winehouse mentions Ol’ Blue Eyes himself in the lyrics (” … and when Frank Sinatra sings, it’s too much to take … he pacifies my ache.”)
It is Winehouse’s vocal and guitar playing that form the basis of the track, but Remi later invited Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of the Roots to add a drum part. The song starts in acoustic fashion, but when Winehouse sings “when the beat kicks in, everything falls into place”, on cue, Questlove does his thing.
Again, as with so many Winehouse songs, it’s a tale of heartache and fierce pride. “You can try and stop me,” Winehouse sings. “But you won’t get the chance.”
The Girl from Ipanema
In May 2002, Winehouse met Remi in Miami for the first time. “I didn’t even know what she looked like at the time, but she came in with an acoustic guitar and sang this. Her voice just filled and lit up the room. She really put something into the song that I’d just not heard before.”
This track takes that recording as its basis, and it’s daft and fun, so never mind that it’s clearly a half-finished take, with Winehouse resorting to scat singing.
A Song For You
Introduced to journalists with the warning that a debate surrounded the inclusion of this version of the Leon Russell classic made famous by Donny Hathaway. “It may not be the best song technically,” said an Island Records executive. Nonetheless, the recording has its own story – being recorded in one take at Winehouse’s house in north London in early 2009, where the singer had built a home studio. “She said to me, we can make the new album here,” Remi recalled. “We don’t have to worry about the paparazzi.
“She was just lying down on a couch, with the mic in her hand and by about halfway through the song she was crying, really weeping, with makeup running down her face.” Remi took this recording and added further production to it, including the sound of rain with which it begins.
The song concludes with the lines: “And when my life is over/ Remember when we were together/ We were alone and I was singing this song for you.” It would have made an appropriately sentimental end to Lioness, and it is sequenced as the last track on the album. But after the song finishes playing, we hear a snatch of Winehouse talking to Remi, discussing the relative merits of Marvin Gaye and the singer who first made the song famous. “Donny Hathaway,” she says. “It was like he couldn’t contain himself … he had something in him, you know.”
After playing the seven tracks, Remi explained that he was in London the weekend Winehouse died; he had planned to attend a friend’s wedding with her on the Sunday morning, but “before I could make it from Shepherd’s Bush to Notting Hill, she had gone”.
“For me, working on a record was a healing process,” he continued. He said he had only needed to spend two weeks of further production on the tracks since his friend’s death. “I had a big brother relationship with her – with me, there was a musical space where she could be herself and not worry about anything else. And with this record: I wanted to get it off my chest. I knew what material was there, and I didn’t want to rehash the pain that I feel now, in 12 months’ time … These songs: I’d like people to know them. I didn’t want them sitting on a hard drive, wilting away.”
This may not be the last we hear from Winehouse, with a label executive acknowledging that there is a trove of live material from which to draw for a future release, as well as other previously unheard songs. “We’re not looking to paper over any cracks with this record,” he insisted, adding: “We want this album to be good enough to exist on its own merits, and we think it’s faithful to her legacy. Whether you can hear every lyric on every song or not, you can always hear the emotion there.”
Remi added: “I know there were times when she wasn’t in great shape – although personally, I didn’t really see that side of her; it didn’t go on in my presence – but music for her was her escape.”
Caspar Llewellyn Smith, The Guardian