Photos courtesy of Dominique Lacroix.
“I felt the loss. It was just so tragic and she deserved so much more. The world can be a very cruel place,” says Ottawa vocalist Renée Landry, remembering how she felt when she heard the news that Amy Winehouse, at only 27 years of age, had died of accidental alcohol poisoning.
“I don’t think people saw how big her impact was till it was too late,” Landry tells Ottawa Life before her Winehouse tribute show on July 2 at LIVE on Elgin.
“She brought this incredible new jazz sound full force into mainstream music, and opened the doors for other artists like myself to do so. Amy had such a unique sound and writing style. I actually became a big Amy fan after she had passed away. I received all her albums for Christmas and just fell in love. Isn’t that always the case though? Great artists are never appreciated in their own time.”
While Winehouse grew up in London’s Southgate district, Landry was a Sault Ste. Marie kid catching concerts at Loplops Lounge or camping at Pancake Bay. Her parents always had music playing around the house and, even early on, it was clear that she was born to be a performer. Her parents still have pictures she drew at four that relay Landry’s dream of becoming a singer.
“Being a singer was never a choice; it’s who I am. There was never another option, or a back-up plan,” she says, recalling how she started performing at a young age. Dancing, singing, anywhere there was a stage, Landry wanted to be on it.
Tribute art new Winehouse’s Camden town home in London. Photo by Andre Gagne.
Picking up their first guitars in their teens, both Winehouse and Landry become more serious about pursuing music when they were in high school. Landry became focused on the dynamics of performance, watching and re-watching Britney Spears videos for hours to try to emulate every single step of the choreography. The earliest performance she can remember was at Boo Soo, a local winter festival, where, dressed in an Alicia Keys style outfit complete with fedora, she belted out the Keys 2001 soul hit “A Woman’s Worth”. It was only a taste of what was to come.
One year before Winehouse’s death, Landry moved to Ottawa to study music at Carleton. She believes this was her first big step toward making those childhood dreams a reality. Here she made her first real connections, started performing alongside other musicians and, paid or not, played live anywhere she could.
“I think the main thing is not waiting around for opportunities to find you,” Laundry, who would go on to graduate with honours, says.
Winehouse mural in Camden Town, London. Photo by Andre Gagne.
It’s this mantra that drove her to create her own projects when offers weren’t coming her way. The singer wasn’t going to compromise her vision even when people were telling her to change directions. Looking back, Landry doesn’t regret not following the advice that she should change her sound to be more modern, but she does admit that comments regarding her weight stung.
“Having someone tell me I needed to change who I was or comment on every little flaw tore me apart. I used to really stress about losing weight, how I looked, and I hated my curly hair. I don’t focus on my flaws anymore; I just work on being the best self I can be, and loving me for me. I don’t think I could have said that a few years ago, and unfortunately in this industry it can be very destructive for a young woman. It’s very important to me that I remain a good role model for girls, and I think society is slowly shifting their beauty standards as well. This is why I’m grateful for the journey I’ve been on.”
At the same time in her life, Winehouse was far from a role model, spiraling fast into drug addiction while damaging her image and career with disastrous public appearances. The opening night of her 2007 tour saw the crowd turn on the singer and a critic for the Birmingham Mail wrote that it was “one of the saddest nights of my life. I saw a supremely talented artist reduced to tears, stumbling around the stage and, unforgivably, swearing at the audience.” She wouldn’t finish the tour, cancelling the remaining dates stating that she needed rest. A few years later she was dead.
Landry sees through a lot of the tragedy in Winehouse’s life and says that she shares many of the musician’s more positive traits.
“I think we are both very strong, confidant women. She knew who she was and she stuck to it. She never let anyone push her around or try to change her when it came to her music, and I feel like I’m the same way. Amy was also a very emotional and sensitive person. She loved and felt very deeply. That can be the downfall of being an artist. We’re so in touch with our emotions,” she says, adding that she is not without her own dark moments, stresses and periodical depressions.
“Thankfully I’ve always been able to pull myself out of those moments and find my happiness.”
The idea to tribute Winehouse was an obvious choice to Landry, who is often compared to her because of their similar jazz vocal style. She says trying to learn Amy’s songs has been difficult, but it was important to pay the musician the respect she feels is deserved. Along with performing, Landry has arranged the event, worked on the marketing and promotion and put together the musicians sharing the stage with her. The work paid off. “Back to Black: A Tribute to Amy Winehouse,” sold out three weeks ago.
Artwork in tribute of Winehouse near her Camden Town home. Photo by Andre Gagne.
Landry plans to release her first EP, Chin Up, by the fall and during the holiday season will be performing a Christmas show in tribute to one of her greatest influences, Ella Fitzgerald. She also gives private vocal lessons and those interested can book a trial now for only $30.
As the show nears, Landry doesn’t know how performing Winehouse’s music will affect her on stage. Through putting the show together she feels an even deeper connection to the musician, but admits she wouldn’t have been the one to give Winehouse advice even in the singer’s worst times.
“Amy was extremely smart. She was a strong but fragile woman. I think she knew she was on a dangerous path, and that she had to clean up her act, but she was sick. You can never judge someone unless you have been in that position yourself. She tried very hard to get clean, but in the end the disease of addiction overcame her.”