amy winehouse and blake fielder civil
Winehouse with her husband Blake Fielder Civil at the 2007 MTV Movie Awards. Image: Paul Smith/Featureflash

Amy Winehouse, St. Lucia and the third album that never was

12 Apr 2024 | |By Rob Crossan

As new biopic Back to Black hits cinemas, we look back at a last-ditch attempt to save Amy Winehouse's career - and her life

In the late 1940s, six decades before Amy Winehouse would set foot on the island, the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor sailed around the Caribbean, making notes that would eventually form the basis for his book, The Travellers Tree. Wandering on foot around St. Lucia, Fermor was taken by a gang of local children to the crater of the island’s volcano. Fermor described it as ‘… a few patches of boiling mud among grey rocks. He [the child tour guide] threw some stones into the biggest cauldron and stirred it up with a long stick to its hissing maximum of ferocity. Then he took a shilling and buried it in the mud; when he dug it up again the fumes had turned it black.’

60 years on, one of the world’s most famous female singers was experiencing a not-dissimilar St. Lucian experience. The aftermath of her Back to Black album was Amy Winehouse’s own ‘shilling in the mud’ moment, where her immense talent and monumental success began to disintegrate amid the hissing caldera of fame.

We already know the consequences of the reverse alchemy – literal in Fermor’s case; tragically metaphorical in Winehouse’s – that these famed composers of thrillingly-original yet pathos-laced works experienced. While Fermor lived into his 90s, his reputation firmly intact as the greatest travel writer of the 20th century, Winehouse’s experiences on St. Lucia paved the way for a final descent into addiction.

“Many times she was really scared; scared of all the people outside her house,” said Winehouse’s friend, Stefan Skarbek, who, like all of Winehouse’s closest acquaintances, was by the latter months of 2008 desperately worried about the singer’s mental and physical health. “She thought there were ghosts… I felt like I talked her off the ledge a couple of times. Not off the ledge literally, but she was crying out for somebody.”

Still only 25 years old, the release of Back to Black, along with a string of smash-hit singles followed by a slew of Grammy, Brit and Ivor Novello awards two years previously, had hurled Winehouse into a world of stratospheric fame. What ensued was an inevitable corollary of paparazzi harassment alongside bouts of heavy drug use with her on-off husband Blake Fielder Civil.

Vieux Fort, Saint Lucia
Vieux Fort, Saint Lucia. Image: Shutterstock/Noah Densmore

Yet, as the winter of 2008 blew into Camden Town, an end to the most destructive elements of Winehouse’s life seemed imminent. With Fielder Civil in prison on charges of GBH and perverting the course of justice, their brief marriage crumbled as Winehouse began to see other men and resolved to quit hard drugs; a feat she managed after checking into the London Clinic that November.

Free of crack cocaine and heroin, Winehouse decided to embark on a trip as far away from her failed marriage and the temptations of drugs as she could. St. Lucia, a small island in the West Indies with a population of barely 200,000, seemed ideal. Undisturbed forests, fishing villages, vanilla-coloured sands and enough luxurious resorts to attract the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Nicholas Cage encouraged Winehouse to fly out on a one-way ticket.

Winehouse’s management hoped that the island paradise would give the singer time and space to craft the songs that were urgently needed for what was already a long-overdue third album. But, at first, work seemed to be the farthest thing from Winehouse’s mind. Her friends quickly noticed that, rather than getting clean, she was immediately abusing alcohol as a substitute for Class A drugs.

Fellow guests at the Cotton Bay Village Resort complained that Winehouse was permanently drunk over the first few weeks, with some stating that she had taken to crawling around the hotel bar on her hands and knees begging for drinks after bar staff refused to serve her.

Moved to a private villa, and with no return date to London set, recording equipment was shipped out to the island by her management, along with her band members and producer, Salaam Remi.

Signs of a return to work were fitful but moderately encouraging. Intending to call her new album Kill You Wiv Kindness, Winehouse seemed to enjoy singing again, impressing everyone in her coterie with an impassioned version of Oasis’ Don’t Look Back in Anger. Winehouse’s drummer Tony Miller noted that, ‘[A] couple of us were almost in tears, because it sounded so beautiful.’

But the gargantuan success of Back to Black seemed to have knocked Winehouse’s song writing confidence. Unable to go anywhere on the island without hearing Rehab or Tears Dry on Their Own blasting from bars and cafés, her willingness to believe she could compose more songs with such global impact ossified in the Caribbean heat.

'Amy wasn’t the most confident of performers and if something went wrong, like her forgetting a lyric, her confidence would be blown for the rest of the show'

Mitch Winehouse

The stasis wasn’t helped by the arrival of Winehouse’s father, Mitch. Now director of his daughter’s company, Cherry Westfield, he arrived with a raft of papers for Amy to sign as well as some journalists and filmmakers – all keen to see for themselves if Winehouse had cleaned up her act.

“My daddy is always bringing people [here] for business,” Winehouse told the journalist Daphne Barak, who went on to comment that, during her brief time with the star, Winehouse persisted in “…saying horrible things about her parents”.

Beginning to film his own documentary with Channel 4, My Daughter Amy, Mitch began to regret bringing a camera crew whom Winehouse did everything to avoid bumping into. When the documentary finally aired she turned to Twitter to state, ‘WHY don’t my dad WRITE a SONG when something bothers him instead of going on national TV? an [sic] you thought YOUR parents were embarrassing.’

Despite the ongoing drama, much of it brought onto Winehouse by her own family, a comeback show was planned as part of the St. Lucia Festival. Rehearsals went well but, on the night itself, a deluge plunged the festival into a quagmire and rendered the stage a potentially fatal flood of live wires and rainwater.

Wearing a tight blue dress and high heels, Winehouse sang just four songs through a terrible PA system. When the crowd began to jeer, she screamed “f*ck you” at them at least twice, according to one concertgoer, before walking off stage. Mitch, in his memoir published after Winehouse’s death, tried to put a more positive spin on the fiasco:

‘… as I listened to her, I got the sense that there was slightly more to it… Amy wasn’t the most confident of performers and if something went wrong, like her forgetting a lyric, her confidence would be blown for the rest of the show. According to Raye [Cosbert, Winehouse’s manager] that was exactly what happened. Amy forgot the words to one of her songs, stopped singing and the band started the song again, which threw her. Then the heavens opened and Raye was on the stage mopping up rainwater. He was worried about it – that’s how people get electrocuted.’

After six months on the island, Winehouse, not entirely against her will, travelled back to London in the summer of 2009. But not before Mitch had to spend thousands of pounds paying for a local man, who Winehouse had befriended, to have a hernia operation, and to reimburse a horse owner who had, at Winehouse’s request, let children living near the beach ride them for free along the sands for an entire month.

Back in London, short periods of sobriety quickly became non-existent as Winehouse retreated to the bottle during what would become a very public divorce from Fielder Civil and a continuing deterioration of her mental and physical health. No progress was made on the third album as Winehouse sank further into rivers of hard liquor.

back to black biopics
Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse in Back to Black (2024). Image: Focus Features

Winehouse would live for less than two years after her extended sojourn to St. Lucia. She did make a couple of shorter return visits, the last of which occurred in late 2010, just seven months before an inquest would reach a verdict of misadventure after finding that Winehouse had died from alcohol poisoning.

With this month’s release of the biopic Back to Black, there is no real collective consensus as to what could have been done to help save Winehouse. Before her death, the singer was considering adopting a St. Lucian girl called Dannika Augustin. It has been said that if she’d been able to proceed with her plans, Winehouse might have found a new grounding.

Augustin met Winehouse during the star’s last visit to the island in late 2010. She is now in her early 20s. Speaking about her close relationship with the singer in a recent BBC documentary, Augustin’s words tell of a woman who, despite her myriad demons, was, until the end, still searching for a human connection that would eclipse the temptations and indulgences that blotted her life.

“I know I had a big impact on Amy’s life,” said Augustin, “because when we were together, she was always clean and never sad. She was never drunk or taking drugs because she wanted to be responsible and she was such a kind-hearted person… I am convinced that if I had moved to London, I would have been able to save her.”

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