Under Covers: The untold story behind Amy Winehouse’s vivacious Frank artwork
Under Covers is a new series tracing the stories behind classic and groundbreaking album artworks. In the second part of the series, photographer Charles Moriarty tells us how he captured Amy Winehouse at her liveliest for the artwork for the singer’s striking 2003 debut Frank.
Before Back to Black blew up and the paparazzi circled like vultures, Amy Winehouse put out Frank. A far gentler record than its 2006 follow-up, Winehouse’s debut spliced genres with a playful curiosity – its creator instantly marking herself out as the spiritual successor to both Nina Simone and Erykah Badu.
Arguably, later on, Winehouse’s lyricism became morose and soaked in darkness, but on Frank she’s just a 19-year-old taking the piss out of groupies (Fuck Me Pumps) and rubbish men (What Is It About Men), all with a wit way beyond her years.
Frank fearlessly wears its influences on its sleeve, no matter how conflicting they might be. It somehow brings Nas street anthems (In My Bed), heavenly, Billie Holiday-esque, scat-singing (Intro/Stronger Than Me), and confessional ballads (I Heard Love Is Blind) together in one neat package. Many artists, including Miles Davis with 1992’s Doo-Bop, had already spectacularly failed in creating potent jazz rap hybrids, yet Winehouse succeeded right out the gate.
Backed by a more stripped-back acoustic sound, Winehouse’s beautiful voice and confessional lyrics are allowed to take centre stage on Frank. Help Yourself feels like a warm embrace, as if you’re sharing heartbreak with a mate over wine and cigarettes, Winehouse reminding you that: “You can only get so much from someone”. Take The Box, meanwhile, is a much more atmospheric pop song with no time for sentimentality, where Winehouse’s bleak storytelling (“I punched all the buzzers, hoping you wouldn’t be there!”) paint a vivid picture of a doomed romance.
The fact this record is filled with both light and darkness means we see Winehouse at her most relatable and human, and less like the mythical beacon of tragic romanticism she later became. It’s a reminder that Winehouse was once an optimistic newcomer using the studio as a playground, having the time of her life doing so.
Frank’s artwork shows a smiling Winehouse walking two Scottish terrier dogs through the streets of London. She looks like a vivacious, gobby teenager, quite literally taking the world by its leash. Shot by then amateur photographer Charles Moriarty, this artwork captures Amy Winehouse full of life. Crack Magazine caught up with Moriarty to find out how the striking Frank artwork came together.
How did you and Amy meet? And did you immediately sense something special in her?
It really was by complete chance! Me and Amy had a mutual friend, who wanted me to do some test photos as Amy wasn’t happy with the way the photos for Frank were turning out. I had no idea what I was doing, I had no training and was just a kid myself, but I agreed to do it. I would say that lack of experience allowed us to create freely. There’s no barriers between us; we’re just two kids having fun! She hated the fact that [around 2003] there were a lot of acts holding guitars on their covers, looking all posey. It was fake as hell to her so we wanted to do something less staged and more human, something that was distinctly Amy. I didn’t really know Amy, but I could quickly tell she had a strong character that was unique. Amy was a contradiction in many ways, very old and very young at the same time. She had really strong characteristics of someone in their 40s, an older soul, but at heart she was just a young girl full of life.
Why the dogs? And do you remember much from that day?
One thing about Amy is that she was very shy. She really hated having her photo taken. If it wasn’t a completely necessary thing to do then she would tell you to fuck off! For her, the music needed to speak for itself. It was June 2003 and I remember we were shooting on Princelet Street in Spitalfields when this man walked past with these two beautiful black Scottish terriers, which he had attached to this colourful rainbow lead. I asked if we could borrow them for a photo and thankfully he said yes! We were a little hesitant until that point so I’d say the dogs allowed Amy to become distracted from the fact we were doing a photo shoot and to be more present in the moment. I actually kept in touch with the owner and unfortunately the dogs passed away a few years ago. As you can imagine, it was a pretty surreal thing having your dogs appear on this classic album cover!
"Looking back now, it’s quite prophetic as the makeup became a big part of her artistry later on and I got the beehive for the first time too!"
I know you worked with Amy in both London and New York on photos for Frank. The photos in New York, in particular, really capture just how striking her look was. You can see how modern stars such as Kali Uchis have been inspired by her gaze…
For the shots in London, we would walk around drinking from a bottle of wine while figuring out angles. It was a lot of fun. In New York it was more professional, we were trying to get photos for the sleeve and I was given this brief to make it look as London-like as possible. We researched locations in the day, but there was this huge thunderstorm so we had to stay back at the hotel for most of the evening! Me and Amy drank wine for about seven hours and she played me her demos, which sounded remarkable, and we then went back out, slightly drunk, in the early hours of the morning and I got the shot of her on a yellow telephone.
The shot of her applying makeup is at my cousin Dan’s apartment. Looking back now, it’s quite prophetic as the makeup became a big part of her artistry later on and I got the beehive for the first time too! You’re right, she’s stunning and sexy in these photographs. I would say her whole appeal was the fact she couldn’t see that in herself. When you’re that young, it’s hard as a woman to look in the mirror and be truly happy with yourself.
You worked with Amy right at the beginning of her career, but I know you stayed in touch later on. Did it surprise you how much things exploded with Back to Black?
I remember finding out that the paparazzi would camp outside her house. When she opened the door they would try to hand her a bottle of vodka so they could get the perfect photograph for the morning spread. She just wanted to continue living her normal life, but they wouldn’t let her! It all had a horrific effect on her. The intrusion was quite staggering.
The documentary really shocked me as when I knew Amy she wasn’t interested in journalists. She was just enjoying life and loved to create and laugh. She would happily sit and watch Sex and the City for hours on end; just a normal 20-year-old really! I would say in the Frank-period she was making music purely for herself and just to get shit off her chest, she didn’t really consider an audience.
She did all her own make-up, clothing and hair so I was just trying to capture her in her natural state. It was just the two of us so it was raw, and I think that worked best for her. Later on there was too many people. When you bring in all these stylists and rail upon rail of clothing, it overcomplicates things and Amy found all that exhausting. She doesn’t look happy in any of those later photos, and I think those shoots really took a toll on her!
Unfortunately, people still get lost in the tragic romanticism of Amy Winehouse. Rather than celebrate her artistry, they get lost in her darker side, which was largely driven by the media. Do you hope your Frank photos can show Amy and her legacy in a different light to future generations?
I just hope this work lets people see Amy’s heart. She wasn’t always Amy Winehouse, she was once just Amy, a girl from east London, with a dream and a smile. I got a brief glimpse of a pre-frame Amy starting out and dipping her toe in the waters, someone really feeling the thrill of making music for the first time. I guess my photos capture someone at a point of pure beginning. The reason I decided to go back and re-introduce these photos to the public was to re-balance that negative image of her that had been created. I want these photos, which are full of life and possibilities, to be how people really remember Amy Winehouse.
This conversation has been edited for clarity. Charles Moriarty’s book Back To Amy, which shows the photographs he took of Amy Winehouse in 2003, is out now and can be purchased here.