If you're inclined to apologize before asking Amy Winehouse about so superficial a subject as what's piled up on top of her head, don't. ''I would rather you did the whole interview about my hair,'' she says, after slagging off a series of questions about success. Not that she doesn't want to be massive in America. ''I've never met anyone who's got bigger hair than me,'' brags Britain's hottest export, ''and if I do, I'll be so gutted. That's my secret weapon.... I'm nothing without my hair.'' Seizing the opening, we wonder how many inches the 'do adds to her 5'2'' frame. ''On a good day, easily six,'' Winehouse says. She puts her fingers above her head to read current mountaintop conditions. ''Today...four, four and a half.'' Her disappointment is slight, but palpable.
Already huge in the U.K., the 23-year-old bouffant-wearing Blighty songbird's U.S. debut, Back to Black, has been a surprising mainstay in the Soundscan top 20 since its release two months ago. Though not yet a true blockbuster, it seems well on its way to becoming a true coffee-table album one of those CDs like O Brother or Norah Jones' debut that every self-respecting urban professional has to cherish and display, even if the rough language and raw sentiment also make it a favorite of the indie-rock crowd. A classic breakup album, Black's modern spin on soul, Motown, doo-wop, and the girl-group sound is timelessly engineered to sound slightly spooky, as if coming out of a radio, albeit the kind of alternate-reality station where an oldie's first verse might start by asking ''What kind of f -- -ery is this?'' Winehouse is retro enough to be on repeat play at your local Starbucks and badass enough to be the queen of Coachella. They might as well hand her next year's Best New Artist Grammy right now.
Pop's It Girl picked up her gift for perfectly timed vocal phrasing from some of the obvious greats: ''I learned to sing from listening to Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, and Minnie Riperton.'' (But, dismissing other comparisons, she's ''never listened extensively, or even slightly, or at all, to Billie Holiday or Shirley Bassey or Nina Simone.'') Winehouse's truest homegirls, though, were the Shangri-Las, whose records she dumped on co-producer Mark Ronson's lap to let him know what Back to Black should sound like. Pop revisionists may refer to that '60s girl group as proto-feminists, but ''I like that stuff because it's the opposite of [feminism],'' she argues. ''The Shangri-Las were teenage girls who would lie in the road for their boyfriends. They did have songs like 'He Cried,' stuff that is quite heartless, but at the same time, there's 'Dressed in Black' and 'I Can Never Go Home Anymore,' where she's saying, My life has no purpose if I don't have my boy.'' That's a level of commitment that Winehouse clearly aspires to. Her credo as a true romantic, if not obsessive: ''You don't know about things if you don't throw yourself into them.''
Part of Winehouse's intrigue is that she may throw herself a little too hard. Before landing on these shores, ''Amy Wino'' was a favorite of the British tabloids. Her misadventures got picked up by PerezHilton.com and TMZ.com ironically, providing an early promotional platform here, which helped compensate for the fact that there isn't a natural radio format for her music. Her U.S. label decided to hold off on releasing her obvious smash, ''Rehab'' (''They tried to make me go to rehab but I said no, no, no''), as a single, going with ''You Know I'm No Good'' first. Yet viral-video makers stepped in, creating homemade clips that spliced Britney Spears footage to Winehouse's ''Rehab'' vocals. The song's brash theme that rehab won't cure depression, whereas good old-fashioned binges might struck a chord, making Winehouse into an instant antihero for those bored with the Recovery Age. ''I don't have a drinking problem,'' Winehouse asserts, the day before she appears on stage snockered and promises ''a kiss on the lips to the first one to bring me a Jack and Coke!''
If you're over a certain age, it's unlikely you're concerned about the effects the self-destructiveness of a Britney or Lindsay has on her artistic endeavors. But Winehouse is that rare thing: a Hot Mess with cred. ''The songs I wrote on the album are from times when I was so messed up in the head, I had literally hit...not rock bottom, I hate to use such a phrase, since I'm sure I will sink lower at some point. But I was clinically depressed, and I managed to get something I'm so proud of out of something that was so horrible.'' She's talking about her breakup with longtime love Blake Fielder-Civil with whom she just reunited and got engaged to in April. Left in the lurch was interim boyfriend Alex Claire, who responded to the sudden split by blabbing to a London tab that Winehouse held his head underwater during bathtub sex and by reportedly writing a blog calling her a ''b -- -- .'' Responds Winehouse: ''Blake and I are best friends, and it was a strain not to be able to see each other because we were both in other relationships. It's not nice to hurt other people's feelings.... Understandably, [Claire] felt really hurt...but something tells me he'll be all right.''
But will she be all right? And if so, will we since surely a blushing bride is incapable of writing a follow-up this gloriously distraught? ''Well, I've still got loads left over from the last breakup,'' she says, adding, ''It's never gonna be butterflies and sunsets.'' Black does become her.
Check out more of our exclusive interview with Winehouse.