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Amy Winehouse’s manager Nick Shymansky: ‘She’d be so sweet and funny. But there were warning signs…’

Nick Shymansky met Amy Winehouse when she was 16, and worked as her manager between 1999 and 2006. Together they released her debut album, Frank, in 2003. He now works as senior A&R manager at Island Records.

How did you become Amy’s manager?
An artist I was looking after, Tyler James, said he knew a girl called Amy Winehouse who’d dropped out of school, and things weren’t happening for her. Looking back on it, I was 19, working in the music industry but I didn’t really know anything. I called her and pretended I was this big manager who could make things happen, giving it all the showbiz talk, and obviously she thought I was a wanker, she made it very clear. She flicked my ego away like it was a pea on my shoulder, and I realised humour was the backup plan, and that’s how we connected. The whole time she was saying she had absolutely no interest in making music. I got this package through the post with a demo tape with two songs on, and the jiffy bag was covered in stickers of hearts and kisses, and it had “Amy” scribbled over it about 100 times. It didn’t fit with the girl who didn’t want to be noticed. I put it on in my car and it blew my mind. As soon as producers heard her they were in. From the off, she was very funny, very blunt. She was different, she used to make a lot of her own clothes. She was a personality.

What was your relationship with her like as a manager?
We connected on music, we used to go to a lot of gigs. I’d feel completely inadequate because I thought I knew my music – I assumed, I’m the guy in music, I’m gonna know more than you – and I learned very quickly that she knew so much more. It was my job to get her from A to B. If I booked in a session and didn’t literally get her out of bed, in the car, drop her off, pick her up, sit in on the session, it just didn’t happen. There were two motivations: one, you had to make it fun. Two, there had to be a strong musical pull. If there was a good studio with loads of instruments, or some musician who could really play, she’d be out the door like a flash. We were young, we were kids, we were figuring it out in our own ways.

What was her songwriting process like?
There were two sides to how Amy would write: either playful, tongue-in-cheek, almost concept-based, like I Heard Love is Blind and Fuck Me Pumps, or extremely personal and deep. I remember the first two songs she came up with for Back to Black were two completely opposite styles of her: Addicted, which went “you got me addicted, more than any dick did”, although this was way before any signs of any problems. The first really serious one I heard was Unholy War, where she used this very current phrase that was all over the news, and she’d made it about her own mess and unsolvable problems.

Nick Shymansky with Amy Winehouse.

What was Amy like to hang out with?
At times it would be very difficult, but most of the time she’d be so sweet and funny. There are lots of things though which I now look back on and think, shit, that was a sign [of things to come].Once we were out in this really nice hotel in Miami, having the best time, and she came downstairs in a bad, bad mood, and she just kicked a metal chair across the restaurant. She must have felt instantly bad, and said, “I’m in a really bad mood and I don’t know why, I’m just really angry, and it’s not your fault, I’m really sorry.” Looking back years later, I realise that there was depression. That’s something I learned from the film: I didn’t know she took Seroxat as a teenager. I didn’t know about the bulimia either, until towards the end of working with her, when she dropped a massive amount of weight real quick. It’s very easy to look back, it’s very hard to see things all around you at the time.

How did Amy change in later years?
I’ve never experienced such a drastic change in a human being. I’d been on holiday in 2005, and when I got back she told me she’d met this guy and fallen in love, and that he was “a right wrong’un, but a good boy”. I walked in and he was there, and that’s when I first met Blake [Fielder-Civil]. And I thought, something’s really wrong. I don’t have any evidence of this, but I feel instinctively that she was doing something heavy, like crack or heroin. It was horrible to see her going from someone so tender and brilliant and warm to being kind of derelict and lost. But at the same time there was something vulnerable about Blake. I get angry when I see him in the film, and I’ve been very angry with him in the past, but at the end of the day he wasn’t a grownup, he was a lost kid who had his own issues.

What happened after that?
The next year was just hell, things got very dark – phone calls in the middle of the night, her talking gibberish, “come and get me, I’m in the toilet at the pub”, “what pub”, and the phone would hang up. I’d be driving round Camden at 2am, trying to see where there were lights on in pubs. She knew that I knew something wasn’t right, and around me she was kind of ashamed. I felt really protective. There were glimpses of [the old] her here and there, but she never got back to that place ever again.

You famously tried to make her go to rehab…
Yes, we got through a few arguments, the denial, and I got her to a place where she said, “OK, fine, let’s do this, I can’t lie to you, there are issues.” So I got her to go and see the guy about rehab. At the time I didn’t really know her father, but she made it clear to me she’d do it if he backed her. So I got on the phone and lined it all up, he assured me she needed help and that he’d back me. I drove her all the way to Bluewater where he lived, and he completely backtracked. It was like she manipulated him. She sat on his lap, gave him this look like, “I don’t really need to go, do I?” and he was like, “Of course you don’t need to go.” [This issue is covered in Amy: her father has since disputed the film’s version of events]

How did you feel when she made it all into a song?
I knew at some point she’d write a really big hit, and it was ironic that the hit she wrote was, verbatim, that day, and it was mocking me. Not only was I not her manager any more, but she’d written this huge hit that’s undeniably brilliant, that was a complete mockery of our friendship and of what she needed. And the whole world’s dancing along to it, and really she was writing about a decision that five years later would result in her being dead. It was really fucked up.

What do you think about the song when you hear it now?
I can’t really listen to Amy any more, unfortunately. If I walk into a shop and she’s playing, I always get a little sense of pride and warmth, but I can’t put it on. The greatest songs, like Motown, are happy, uptempo songs that are heartbreaking when you actually listen to them – there is that tonal contradiction. It’s like The Detroit Spinners’s It’s a Shame: people dance to that song and all the hooks are brilliant, but if you listen to it it’s a guy desperately begging someone to not break his heart.

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Did you lose touch after that?
We carried on as friends for a bit, but I kept on seeing bad things happen. So I decided I was going to disappear, and make it clear she could call me if she wanted to sort it out. I was so sure – being young and green – that I could make this huge statement for Amy, and within two months max she’d be in rehab, sorting things out. The huge mistake I made was I thought nothing could continue without me: Amy had missed half a dozen planes in the past two years. Any time I wasn’t around, things didn’t happen. Then I heard whispers that Raye [Cosbert], her promoter, was to be her manager. Her career exploded six weeks after that. I had friends call me – over the past seven years everyone had known I’d been completely behind this girl, Amy Winehouse, put all my time into it – so when she had that massive hit people would call me and congratulate me, and I didn’t have it in me to say: I’m not her manager any more. It took me a while to realise I was out of the picture.

In the film Yasiin Bey [Mos Def] says she “wanted to disappear”. Does that fit in with the image of Amy you knew?
Yeah, no doubt about it. But just because someone’s self-destructive doesn’t mean that you should just leave them to it – you should still try and make them realise they don’t have to chase that demon. The other thing is, from when I met her at 16 until 2005 she was stimulated and busy, and at the end of the last tour was the first time she’d been able to go “kind of been there, done it, and now I’ve got to figure out what’s next”. She was very bright – when we used to travel she used to do sudokus at the speed of light, crosswords. She used to read books that even now I can’t read – she needed stimulation.

Amy Winehouse photographed in Camden by Karen Robinson.

The family have distanced themselves from the film. Do you think they were portrayed wrongly?
As a film-maker you have to get a lot of different people’s realities, look at facts, timelines, ask questions and piece it together. I don’t want to pass judgment on her family – they’ve lost their daughter. They all loved each other as well, it’s just that different people handle things in different ways. But I feel like the film was consistent with how I saw it. I think a lot of the stuff that is angering Mitch [Amy’s father] are things that he is shown saying in the film. I think he loved Amy, and Amy loved him, and it’s a very, very delicate part of telling the story, which I think they’ve handled about the best they possibly could.

How did you react when you heard of Amy’s death?
I was getting married the next day. It was beautiful weather, and Amy was coming, she told me she was really excited. The wedding was a chance for her to see a lot of people from the past and show that she’d got it together. It was about four o’clock, we were in the garden: it was an amazing atmosphere, we were so happy. And then my cousin came running into the garden, shouting, “I’ve just turned on the news, Amy’s dead,” and it felt like someone had punched me full pelt in the stomach. I justcouldn’t comprehend it, and I went into shock. I kept thinking, “But she can’t be, there’s a place on that table for her, she’s coming.” The happiest weekend in my life turned really dark. I did get married the next day, and it was beautiful, but it was also a bit like a wake.

Why do you think Amy’s legacy has been so powerful?
In a landscape where artists can be quite safe and average at times, she was special. Many modern artists are very strategic and business-minded about their career, whereas Amy was totally music. She just really didn’t give a shit, and I think that really projected through her interviews, her music, her persona, and that’s what connected with people. I think this film had to happen, but I think after this she should probably be left alone for a while. Then we’ll see where her legacy naturally sits in 10, 15 years.

Jude Rogers, music writer: ‘I argued for Back to Black to win the Mercury but it didn’t – the tabloid version of her had taken over’

Her size got me first. She was tiny, a doll under a huge beehive, which threatened to topple her over. Tottering across the stage in a baby-pink, acid-blue and neon-yellow dress, she sang Love Is a Losing Game like none of us imagined she’d be able to sing it. Her voice that night was mature, world-weary, stripped of the ornamentation with which she’d lately been cloaking it. Looking at her then, as I look at her now, I remember thinking, bloody hell. How is she only 23?

Watching Amy, and remembering her performance at the 2007 Mercury music prize ceremony, I was amazed how quickly after that I forgot that she was a human being. It was my first year as a Mercury prize panellist, my first glimpse into that big, shiny world. Back to Black had been released the previous November, and at the Word offices, where I worked as reviews editor, I remember its first run through my headphones, then playing it again, again, again.

Was it just me that felt like this? It usually was. But by the next September, its fresh, bloody mix of raw lyric-writing, jazz, pop and hip-hop – a description that denies it its full power, its instantly identifiable style – had become a global soundtrack. Its success felt like a victory already. I argued for it to win the Mercury prize, but it didn’t; somehow the tabloid version of her had taken over. This album had become much bigger than her.

Amy broke my heart in several ways. It showed, very vividly, how this tiny woman wrote these songs: here are touchingly neat handwritten lyrics and scribbled hearts, here’s her instinctive guitar-playing. Here is her youthful and gleeful intolerance of media bullshit, before she became immune to it, blank-eyed and hollow, as that fame grew.

And before her name became comedy shorthand, and her struggles ours to plunder, there was Winehouse’s wit and her cleverness and her daftness. I remember interviewing her on the phone one Christmas; she was in a cab going back to the house of one of her oldest friends for a bath. She was funny and wry and happy as Larry. Later on, we never thought of Winehouse as a young woman, more a billboard poster, or a cartoon. Maybe that’s why the voices and images of her oldest friends in this film, circling around this tiny girl we felt we all knew but never did, got me most of all.

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Molly King, executive director, Other Voices festival: ‘I was at the front, as close to Amy as you could get. And I was totally enthralled’

In December 2006, a couple of months after Rehab was released, Amy came to Dingle to play on the Other Voices TV show. My dad, Philip King, created the show and the festival that grew out of it, and I’ve been working on it since I was nine. I was 14 when Amy came. It was my job to make sure the cameraman’s cables didn’t get tangled up, so I was right at the very front of the church on a little cushion, probably as close to Amy Winehouse as you could have gotten, and I was totally enthralled.

Before the gig, I carried all her bags up to her hotel room. She was like, “Jesus, how did you carry all of them, they’re so heavy?” I remember thinking she was so small, a tiny person. She’d been travelling for hours to get to Dingle, and there was no complaining, no drama. All she wanted was a tube of Pringles and then she was ready to go. Her performance was stunning. I was really struck by how happy she was on stage.

The film was devastating. I loved it but I found it very harrowing to watch. I would have liked to have seen more about her relationship with music – she had an innate sense of rhythm, and her knowledge of jazz, R&B and gospel was encyclopaedic. I think it focused a little too much on the negatives, on her downward spiral, and not enough on the music, which was the real love of her life. Interview by Killian Fox

Tom Oxley, photographer: ‘She ripped the phone from my hand and started singing “Congratulations” to my pregnant sister’

The film was extremely powerful. It seems a long time ago. You forget what exactly went on, and seeing all this footage brings it back. They’ve pieced it together like a jigsaw and the effect is breathtaking. It reminds you how much of a talent she was – a complete one-off.

I was fortunate to photograph her quite a bit over the years. It always seemed to be in dressing rooms before gigs or award shows, and when it was just her and me in the room we used to have a laugh. Once, before an NME awards show at the Astoria, my older sister rang me and asked if I could talk. I was like, “Not really”, and she said, “OK, I’m going to be very brief: I’m pregnant”. I said it out loud and Amy turned around. I told her it was my sister and she ripped the phone out of my hand and started singing “Congratulations”. When I got the phone back my sister was like, “Who’s that?” She couldn’t believe it when I said it was Amy Winehouse.

Amy Winehouse, photographed backstage at Koko.

I’ve met a lot of famous people but only a few make you think, wow, this is a huge personality, a genuine star. She used to do vocal warm-ups before the show, and hearing someone singing properly, from the diaphragm, is a special thing. But she had a lot of baggage, and what was sad in the film was seeing the pressure she was under from the British paparazzi. The flashbulbs going off every time she leaves the house. What I didn’t realise at the time was how constant the attention was – 24 hours a day from all corners of the globe.

When I saw her in a professional capacity she always seemed on good form. I tried not to impose too much, and I always seemed to get invited back. I pop up in the film, backstage at the Q awards. She’s wearing a black and red dress. I never have problems with my kit but as soon as I took my camera out the flash packed up. It was one of those nightmare moments. I tapped the flash against the wall and put it back on. She did one of those pleasant smiles that said: hurry up , I’m waiting. Thank goodness the flash worked and I got a few really good shots.

I can’t imagine how the film-makers were able to collate all that footage and make it work but they’ve done it brilliantly. You really get to see Amy for who she was. The whole thing was really well done. KF

Sylvia Young, founder and principal of Sylvia Young theatre school, London: ‘I had to keep telling her off in school, but we did think the world of her’

I thought the film was beautiful, moving and a worthy tribute. Amy was more than a singer, and the film shows how extraordinary she was. It also shows her vulnerability, and the shots of the paparazzi hounding her were distressing. I was a little concerned about the references to her father, and I can understand him being unhappy. I knew he desperately adored her and she adored him, and I’m sure whatever he said or did would have been in her interests.

She came to our school for just under three years, from the age of 12. She was not the best behaved student, except in classes that she was really interested in. She had a boredom threshold, and it was very apparent. But she was brilliantly clever. We put her up a year, and our English teacher thought she was going to be a novelist because her writing skills were amazing. I had to keep telling her off, because that’s what you do, but we did think the world of her.

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Later on she always said she would come in and see us but she never made it. We talked on the phone – and she paid for her goddaughter Dionne Bromfield to come to the school, so obviously she still thought well of us. Amy was quirky, very different. She was feisty but quite shy, which people find surprising. Anybody who didn’t know her will come away from the film thinking, my goodness, what a talent. KF


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