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Monday 20 November 2017

Me and my friend Amy

It's a crying shame that the person best equipped to give us the skinny on the new Amy Winehouse album -- that is, Amy Winehouse -- is no longer with us. The premature death last July of the 27-year-old singer robbed the music world of one of its brightest stars and most singular talents.

Alas, there is to be no body of work stretching out through the decades, like Aretha or Ella Fitzgerald; no 50th anniversary all-star concert special in Madison Square Garden; no evolution into a regal grand dame showing the young turks how it's done.

Instead, we must make do with raiding the vaults for any diamonds that got left in the mine. The new album, released yesterday, Lioness: Hidden Treasures is a patchwork quilt stitched together mostly with songs recorded during the sessions for her two previous studio albums Frank and the multi-platinum Back To Black but which never made the final cut.

The album, whose profits are being donated to the Amy Winehouse Foundation, also features tunes recorded sporadically throughout her career, going right back to the start with 'The Girl From Ipanema', which she laid down in 2002 as an 18-year-old in Miami, and concluding with her last ever studio recording -- a duet of the 1930s jazz standard 'Body And Soul' with her idol Tony Bennett in London, a brief but highly charged creative union that was poignantly documented in our features pages a few weeks ago.

There had been numerous attempts to buckle down and fashion a third album in the years since Back To Black catapulted the sassy diva with the towering beehive and outré tattoos to stardom. But, alas, her crippling drink and drug addictions got in the way, and the prurient stalking of the paparazzi every time she dared to set foot outside her house can't have helped either.

But there is plenty on Hidden Treasures to remind us why we were so smitten by Amy. While some of the tracks here are overseen by her friend Mark Ronson, the lioness's share of the material is produced by Salaam Remi, the Los Angeles-based studio whiz who has fashioned a string of hits for artists as diverse as The Fugees, Fergie, Mis-Teeq, Nelly Furtado and Ini Kamoze (remember 1994's 'Here Comes The Hotstepper'?).

Speaking exclusively to the Irish Independent, Remi feels that the record does Amy proud -- new single 'Our Day Will Come' is a potential Christmas No 1.

"We wanted to do the best that we could to honour her," says Remi.

"I was talking to her father Mitch at the funeral. The project has his blessing. I got the go-ahead to assemble the best songs I could find that, for one reason or another, were held back but which represent the spirit of Amy. I think the album does that."

How did Salaam first meet her?

"She was only 18 and she flew over to meet me in Miami. The first song we recorded together was 'The Girl From Ipanema'. I remember she was quite shy when she walked into the studio but as soon as she started to sing into the microphone, I knew that she was something special. She just had it, you know. You can tell within seconds.

"She was able to switch effortlessly between styles -- jazz, r'n'b, hip-hop... I would say to her, 'OK, let's do a reggae version of it' and she would be able to fit right in with that straight away. I was blown away.

"Also, she was really good fun to be around. She enjoyed hanging out in Miami. I think she saw it as an escape from all the craziness that was going on in her life back in England."

One of the songs on the new album is her collaboration, 'Like Smoke', with New York rap superstar Nas. Amy had name-checked the hip-hop icon on the song 'Me And Mr Jones' on Back To Black.

"Nas flew over to Miami and I introduced him to Amy. They hit it off straight away. They even shared the same birthday. Amy was a big fan of hip-hop. I'm glad that people now have the chance to hear this side to her."

Where was Remi when he heard the terrible news?

"I was in London preparing to record with Amy. We were due to go to a friend's wedding together at the weekend. I remember she was talking about what dress she was gonna wear. I couldn't believe it when I got the call. I just felt numb.

"I think you saw from the reaction to her death just how much she means to people. It's important to preserve her legacy and this album helps do that."

Lioness: Hidden Treasures was released yesterday. nkelly@independent.ie

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