When Salaam Remi gathered together Amy Winehouse‘s family not long after her death to play unreleased tracks, the veteran producer behind much of the singer’s first two albums wasn’t sure what to expect. “They didn’t know if they could listen to it,” Remi told Billboard.com before a listening session for “Lioness: Hidden Treasures” on Wednesday (Nov. 16). “But as the songs were playing they just started smiling. Like, ‘She wrote this? When did she do this? What happened?'”
Winehouse’s father, Mitch, was awestruck, and Remi believes that hearing the handful of new or unheard songs on “Lioness” helped the family heal from her July 23 death. It also reminded them that regardless of her bad habits and reputation as a mess, Winehouse was a once-in-a-generation talent.
“I felt they spent so much time chasing her around, they didn’t realize how gifted and talented Amy was,” he said. “Not just when she passed at 27 but at 18 when I first met her. It made everyone that knew her feel so much better about her passing, and her life as well. This record is about balancing out all of the bull in things that may have just been uncool, and saying ‘this person existed.'”
“Lioness: Hidden Treasures,” being released Dec. 6 on Universal Republic, is a 12-track collection featuring original or alternate versions of classic tracks and previously unheard songs, including two that would have ended up on her third studio album. Those two songs, the doo-wop heavy “Between the Cheats” and the Nas-guested “Like Smoke,” won’t be giving way to years of nonstop new music from the late singer, Remi warns.
“There were a lot of things she wrote and laid down that haven’t been released,” he admitted. “But it’s not like there are eight albums worth of material we can continue on for the next 10 years.”
Another music website quotes Remi saying there would be no “Tupac situation” with Winehouse — a seemingly bottomless well of unheard music — but he told us someone else said that and it was “glued on me… I wouldn’t use ‘Tupac.'”
“We’re actually releasing what I consider releasable,” he said. “Everything else is through the voice of her family… because they hold the bar up high.”
Remi, whose musical kinship with Winehouse began when she was 18 and covered her two albums, “Frank” and “Back to Black,” told us she came to him in May of 2008 right after a much-publicized opportunity to record the theme for a James Bond movie fell apart. “She was a bit upset” by the whole debacle and told Remi she had a new song, called “Between the Cheats.”
“She had this song with the lyrics written down. She picked up a guitar and gave me her first chord. I asked what she wanted it to sound like and she said, “doo wop.” I said give me 20 minutes,” he recalled. “Amy took her time writing her lyrics. They meant everything to her; she was single at the time. It was one take.”
The other track on “Lioness” that would have been on her third proper album, “Like Smoke,” finds Winehouse playing a more side-woman role to rapper Nas’ spit-fire verses. She sings the hook over a smooth, laid-back soul track and he comes in hard, rapping inside jokes between him and Amy and noting “You know how me and Amy are, straight playas.”
“She was a huge fan of his and actually sang on a couple of things that didn’t make his last record,” he told us. “As they became friends, he became a fan of how much of a realist she was. They had a mutual respect for what was real.”
Other standout tracks on the album include a heartbreaking version of the ballad “Tears Dry,” which ended up quite differently on “Back to Black,” her original slowed-down vision for “Valerie,” and a previously unheard cover of “A Song for You,” an echo-heavy song made famous by Winehouse’s idol Donny Hathaway. The Roots’ ?uestlove also makes an appearance, drumming on “Halftime,” using her vocal track from 2002.
Whether “Lioness” will be accepted by fans as a legitimate third offering from Winehouse is of no concern to Remi; he’s just acting as the messenger.
“This is her musical legacy,” he said. “She left behind inspiration. These songs are one thing, but this is gonna inspire people.”