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On Amy Winehouse: Nick Shymansky Interview

Amy Winehouse (from "Amy," A24Films, PR)

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Four years ago, on July 23, the dynamic, intuitive and soulful singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse died at her London home from complications of alcohol abuse and bulemia. She was only 27.

Now a new documentary called "Amy," directed by Asif Kapadia, powerfully wrests Winehouse's story away from the harsh, ruthless censure of the tabloids and strives to resurrect this young musician's legacy with dignity and compassion. In the deeply moving arc of "Amy," this charismatic, gifted and misunderstood artist is revealed through extensive and previously unseen footage, including personal home movies from friends, family, and business associates.

Via extensive film, radio and television archives, Kapadia and his team rightfully make Winehouse the main narrator of her own story, accompanied by voiceovers from those who knew her best, including Nick Shymansky, her first manager. Although there have been critics of Kapadia's documentary—namely Winehouse's father Mitch and her ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil—the film, ultimately harrowing and heartbreaking, has received far more praise than disapprobation.

Earlier this month, I sat down with Shymansky, now a senior A&R manager at Island Records, at the Bowery Hotel in New York to discuss his friend Amy Winehouse and why he chose to participate in Kapadia's documentary.

I'm surprised that you decided to join director Asif Kapadia to do promotional interviews for “Amy” here in New York.

Nick Shymansky: I really believe that this movie is important for a number of reasons. I think the film’s been received much better than anyone thought ... and it raises some important questions about Amy. [It also reveals] her mental health and her character. She was a great person. So I’m happy to do this. It’s very surreal.

But weren't you initially wary about being involved with the documentary?

It’s not that I didn’t want to be involved with this film—I didn’t want to talk about Amy. I didn’t want anything to do with anything because I felt that the whole thing was in a terrible place. I had lots of requests while Amy was still around and then even more requests after she passed. I just thought, "No I don’t want to do this."

Then I heard that Asif was making this film and I thought, well, he did an amazing job on "Senna."  And if there’s anyone who can get stuck into this, it’s Asif. When I first met him it was to tell him that I wasn’t interested. But I guess it was the fact that he wasn’t pushy, he was relaxed about it. He said, “Look Nick, I’m making this film and I’m going to be doing this for the next couple of years. If you don’t want to talk, that’s cool.” But I had a real sense after spending some time with him that he’s probably the first person with real intelligence, time and energy for Amy, [to find out] what she was about, and what went wrong.

Everything was left in an awful place [after Amy died]. The closing opinion on Amy was the tabloids, the trolls on Twitter, the tacky showbiz gossip  outlets. This is the first time that anyone with real intellect has got stuck in. And I thought, if I’m ever going to do this and put my two pence into it and try to show the Amy that I knew, it’s now. That’s why I made the decision. I didn’t sign a release form until I saw the final cut. If I felt that it wasn’t genuine, I wouldn’t have signed that.

But you gave Asif about 12 hours of film footage?

I was very vulnerable because I didn’t know what was on those tapes. There was a lot of personal stuff; it wasn't just Amy. It's my life, those tapes. Asif trusted me enough to not make me sign a release form, so I trusted him.

When you saw the final cut, were you surprised at how Asif had shown the arc of Amy’s life in such an empathetic way?

Yes. For three years, I said that he wouldn’t be able to do it. There were a lot of people who had controlled the perception of Amy. I just didn’t think he’d have the freedom. Thank God I was wrong about that.

It must be difficult for you to watch the film. Did you question yourself more after seeing it?

Wrongly or rightly, I don’t have any regrets. I felt that I stood for something with Amy. I always said what I felt. And I did what I felt was right. I think that’s all you can do with people you care about: be honest and direct. Have a bit of backbone. I don’t watch [the movie] with personal regret, but with sadness and frustration. I find it very difficult to watch. I saw it for the first time on my own and then with my wife and my mum. They both knew Amy too.

None of this has been a fun, happy experience. It’s been … pretty emotionally draining.

But also cathartic?

Totally. It’s like therapy in a way. I talked about stuff I didn’t know I needed to talk about with Asif. But I’m lucky. My life moved on. I got married, I worked with other artists, I have a beautiful kid … Amy’s the one who didn’t get all that. That’s the bit I find hardest in all this. It’s a constant reminder that she’s 27 forever now and we’re all getting older and moving on and she’s not a part of that.

You met Amy when you were 19 and she was 16. You were introduced via [British singer] Tyler James?

He was talking about her. He was exasperated that she wasn’t doing anything and he was and he just said, "Nick, I think you’d get on with this girl I know, Amy. You should hear her, she’s amazing."

I was really hungry, I thought he was great and if he said she was good, she’s gotta be good. I called her and I got what he was saying straightaway because she wasn’t forthcoming. It took quite a bit of perseverance before I could hear some music. I heard the music and the rest is history.

Why do you think she was so reticent? Was there a fear of exposure? Of being thrust into that kind of life that she knew might not be good for her?

At the time I wasn’t thinking like that. I was 19. I was thinking, “Oh, you’re a talent! Why don’t you want to meet me?”  I didn’t get it. I wanted to be in the music business and I assumed everyone did. But I look back and I think it was her defense mechanism, [thinking] “I don’t want to chase this in case this doesn’t work.” 

This is touched on a bit in the film, but had she remained a jazz singer in more intimate venues, might have things gone differently?

She was sat best in that, in hindsight. In the film I say something like maybe if she’d sacked off making the second album and focused on getting better. That might have been a better thing for her and I still believe that. But we’ll never know.

Did Amy's debut album Frank come together easily or was it a hard process?

It was hard. In my experience with artists, I don’t think the first album is ever what you imagined it to be.

Was she disappointed in it?

There were two songs she didn’t want on the record: “Amy Amy Amy” and “Help Yourself.” Which are the odd ones out, really, the only two not produced by Salaam [Remi] or [Gordon] “Commissioner Gordon” [Williams]. In hindsight, I think she was right about that. It was the label that really wanted [those songs] on there. It was quite tricky because we had so much freedom on that record. They funded us, they backed us, and she took her time. We made most of the record in Miami, we worked with who we wanted to work with, and she wasn’t writing obvious pop records.

So when they came in with their one request, which was that there were two songs that they loved that they felt were more commercial and needed to be on the record, it was hard not to see where they were coming from. I tried to defend Amy and back her on not having them on there, but it got to a point where we had to make a compromise. The compromise was that they were the last two songs on the record. At least that didn’t stop the flow of the record. But I think that it tarnished it from being a work that she was really happy with. 

It seemed very natural for her to be a lyricist and songwriter. Did she have confidence in that aspect of herself?

That’s a good way of putting it because that’s exactly what she had. She had real confidence in her writing. Probably [it was] the only part of her that was truly confident. I never saw her nervous about or debating a lyric, or even asking anyone’s opinion. She’d ask, “Do I look good in this top?" or  "Does this sound all right to you, do you like that vocal?” She’d want reassurance on everything, but never on a lyric. That was her thing.

There were times that people would comment on lyrics in the studio and she’d look at them like, “Don’t even go there.” The title Frank has a double meaning. It’s called Frank because she loves Frank Sinatra, but it’s also "frank," talking frank. There’s things about Amy that are so astute, descriptive, and natural. That’s what she was about. So many lyrics have a really funny angle and a really sad angle too.

Can you listen to that album now?

It’s a really strange record because [it was] such a happy time making it. On one level I hear it and go back to Miami in 2002 where we were having such a laugh with Salaam, the smell of the studio, and the long lunches we used to have. We were young, in a warm holiday destination and making a record. Everything was covered by the label. We had a convertible car, we loved the same films, and we listened to loads of music: it was brilliant. I go back to that time with fondness. But then I can’t really bring myself to put on Amy’s music without getting emotional. So I don’t sit down and listen to it. 

Over a span of four years, from 2002 to 2006, a lot happened. Initially, Frank came out and got great reviews.

It was all good. The only tough bit throughout Frank was that she constantly upset the record label, which was tricky. But funny as well.

How did she upset the record label?

She wasn’t quick to play the game. She could sometimes be a bit insulting in interviews towards the label. [If] you’re a huge artist, you can get away with it, but before you’ve sold your records, that can be quite delicate, singling out individuals at your label. Amy wanted her vision to be her vision in any situation. [But] until you get your power—and your power comes from sales—there’s a certain amount of compromise that’s required.

When you chose to stop being Amy’s manager in 2006, did you think the split would be permanent?

I did everything to try to get her sorted. To get her better. And when I realized that I was being undermined and it wasn’t going to happen, I had to make a decision. Do I stick around and defy my own position? Or do I stand up, be strong and make a statement? And that’s what I did.

I honestly and naively thought that it was a no-brainer; it didn’t occur to me that it wouldn’t work. I thought it was definitely going to work and Amy would not want me to not be part of her career and life. Within weeks she’d be back, we wouldn’t need her dad on board, we could get her sorted and later, crack on with everything else. That was naïve.

But looking back, no matter how hurtful and frustrating it was that we didn’t carry on working together, how could I have carried on? I couldn’t have sat around and watched her smoking crack and booked her gigs. I just wouldn’t do that. I’ve dealt with three people in my life with heavy addictions, drugs and alcohol, and Amy is the only one that my position, my statement to them, didn’t work. The other two came out the other end. But they didn’t have fame, they weren’t worth money to people, so it was a different story.

Amy became a commodity.

Yes, she did. Unfortunately. It’s important to me, that with this film and Amy’s legacy, that the chatter doesn’t become about blame. It’s not going to make a difference. We’re not going to get Amy back. Hopefully, this film is about raising some important questions and putting Amy back in a more positive life.

I found myself in tears watching the exchange between Tony Bennett and Amy, where you could see the perfectionism that drove her as a vocalist.

I find that scene really hard to watch. I know what that would have meant to Amy, to sing with Tony Bennett and I can see that she’s desperately trying to be on form. She’s done herself up, she’s got herself together, put her makeup on, shown up and she’s so frustrated with herself that she’s not quite able to hit that height that she knows she can. I feel the intensity of that scene when I watch it. She’s anxious.

And then, this great guy, Tony Bennett, puts his ego to one side and says, "You’re amazing, I’ve got time and don’t worry. You’re more important than me." That’s all Amy ever wanted: someone of that maturity and strength, who she looked up to and respected, to go “don’t worry about it. You’re brilliant, you’re gorgeous, you sound amazing. Take your time. I’ve done this with the best and you’re the best.” That’s what he did. You feel that he gets her through it. And to me, that vocal is not Amy at her best by any stretch, but his guidance there, his paternal wisdom gets her through that. And that’s what she needed. That’s what she always wanted and Tony Bennett gave her that for a minute. And for that, I think he’s a great guy.

Amy knew so much about music. Is there someone in particular that she turned you onto?

Little Anthony and the Imperials. I knew some of their songs, but not many. Minnie Riperton. I used to watch Amy get ready for a show or when we went out to dinner, like when we were in Miami. She’d be late everywhere and I’d sit and talk to her for an hour while she did her makeup. She used to love Minnie Riperton. Minnie was quite fiery and sexual—all her music is about sex, really—and Amy used to talk about [Minnie’s songs] as the music that defined a female perspective on sex. Amy used to play a lot Minnie.

And Frank Sinatra. Everyone likes Frank Sinatra, but I never really took him as a serious artist until Amy talked about him. She had an amazing connection to music like no one else I’ve ever known. I’m incredibly proud of her as an artist and as a person. I don’t want her to be left in the tatters of the tabloids. People don’t get it.

Do you have a favorite memory of you and Amy in New York?

We were here one July and it was really hot. We sunbathed in Central Park. On that trip, she’d just gotten some money from an advance and the money cleared in her account when we were here. She wanted to go buy music—it was before everyone was buying music on iTunes—so we went to Tower Records. Amy filled up two trolleys. She bought every album that she ever wanted, or heard or ever wanted to listen to. We had to go buy a new suitcase. She was in heaven.

But neither of us thought about the tax and baggage ramifications. So she ended up paying a huge tax and excess baggage bill at the airport. She didn’t care though. She could have bought the same records in London, but she didn’t care. But there we were, at the Hudson Hotel, in those tiny rooms filled with about a thousand albums.

Amy loved America. Her mum’s American. If I remember correctly, her mum was born in Brooklyn. I know her mum had an American passport. She always had a connection here. Amy and I were such excited young kids in the beginning. I have so many happy memories. Amy was brilliant.

The documentary "Amy" is in theaters now.

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