Amy Winehouse takes a while to warm up to new people, and until she does, she stammers—badly. "I'm. Really. Sorry," she says, pausing for what seems like a minute between each word. "It'll. Go away. Once I. Relax." This hardly seems like the British singer who's almost as well-known for her sharp tongue and alcohol-fueled antics as she is for her emotive soul music. But in a cozy rehearsal room in New York, Winehouse tries to gain composure by telling jokes and showing off her numerous tattoos: a naked lady, an anchor—she's got, like, 13 total. The nervous energy dissipates when the conversation turns to—naturally—her favorite drinks: "If I've just finished a show, champagne. If I'm depressed, champagne. If I'm really depressed ... anything."
Now that's the Amy from the British tabloids, the brassy soul siren who punches people, the one who says Madonna is an ancient also-ran, the one who heckled U2's Bono during his acceptance speech at a British awards show. Winehouse, 23, is a perfect storm of sex kitten, raw talent and poor impulse control. She's compulsively honest and, unlike celebrities who keep their publicists on speed dial, she embraces her dark side and pours it into guileless, confessional lyrics.
Here is the first line from "Rehab," the barn-burning single from her new album "Back to Black": "They tried to make me go to rehab, I said no, no, no." "They" is her management team, who intervened when she was drinking to dull the pain of a messy breakup. At their insistence she went into a treatment facility, told the doctor she was lovesick, not alcoholic, and left. The only thing she quit was her manager. Suffice it to say, as Winehouse prepares to take "Black" to America on March 13, she's bringing plenty of baggage along for the trip.
On "Black," which evokes Billie Holiday and Lauryn Hill in equal measure, Winehouse conveys her own intriguing contradictions. In one song she's unapologetically unfaithful ("You Know I'm No Good"); in another she's fiercely loyal ("Some Unholy War"). She's resilient after a breakup here ("Tears Dry on Their Own"), a shambles there ("Wake Up Alone"). It's a warts-and-all self-portrait, some of it written on champagne days, some on anything days.
While her music portrays her accurately, her wild behavior, she insists, does not. She has a perfectly reasonable explanation for every tabloid tidbit. When she punched that woman at her show? "I was drunk, and the bitch was rude," she says. The comments about Madonna? "I used to smoke a lot of weed, which made me care less about what I was saying." When she heckled Bono? OK, totally sober that time. "I was just bored and I'm tired of listening to his s--t." Predictably, beneath the bluster, Winehouse is all feathers and down. "I'm just very insecure," she says. "And when you're so insecure, alcohol brings your demons out. I can be very nice." But what fun would that be?