Few people know that Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” is a cover, so there are several hypotheses out there for why she sang a kind of bluesy, hella bouncy love song to someone named Valerie: Valerie is a man’s name in the UK. Winehouse was bisexual. It was about a friend who stopped talking to her because of her drug addiction.
But no one actually knew (real talk; even Genius is clueless). Until now.
The song was originally written and performed by the Zutons, a British band. Valerie Star, a celebrity make-up artist living in New York, told VICE that she used to date the band’s frontman, Dave McCabe, and that the song is about her.
So we got a hold of McCabe and interrogated him. “Oh yeah, that’s her,” he confirmed, in a thick Liverpool accent. “She’s a sweet girl.”
McCabe wrote the song about Star in 2006, for the Zutons’ second studio album, Tired of Hanging Around, in the back of a cab in about five minutes. “She was in the States and I was home and it was kind of like a postcard,” he said wistfully. McCabe corroborated everything Star told me about the song’s narrative: Star allegedly caught a charge after several driving offenses, nearly went to jail (hence the line Winehouse most notably sings as “Do you need a good lawyer-er-er?”), and couldn’t move to the UK to be with him. And that’s how the whole “why don’t you come on over, Valerie?” thing happened.
Mark Ronson produced the 2007 cover with Winehouse on vocals, and it surged past the original to number 2 on the UK charts. That very year, people remixed it, and a music video dropped. Winehouse wasn’t in it—by that time, she was battling pretty severe heroin addiction. McCabe tells me he never would have dreamed it’d blow up like this, but he’s thankful that it did, regardless of the avenue it took.
On a breezy spring afternoon in, the Valerie—her hair still ginger as hell—sat down with me to spill everything about how a fateful fling became the sweet, enigmatic, ubiquitous track that it is today.
So this musician wrote a whole song about you that actually saw the light of day. What’s that like?
I always say it’s like we’ve got this really weird alien baby because we’ve got this connection until the day that we die. It’s bizarre and crazy—and yeah, I love him to death. He’s a good cookie. We didn’t have a bad falling-out or anything.
I remember when he told me about the song. It was like, “I kind of wrote a song about you. And they picked it up as a single.” And he wouldn’t tell me any details. He was really super shy about it. And I was thinking to myself, oh dear god Valerie, what does this song sound like?
I was enamored with the fact you both said really nice things about each other even though you’re each other’s exes. Maybe you guys should get back together.
I love him profusely, but he’s on the other side of the world. And just logistically, it’s not feasible long-term. It’s like a candy-coating sprinkled with unicorn dust, but in reality it just doesn’t work. Because both of us are rooted in our cities. Neither of us do things that are portable—I can’t just uproot and go there. I mean, have you seen the makeup looks in Liverpool? No, thank you. It’s a look of its own.
Tell me how you guys met.
A friend and I had gotten tickets to go see a show [in Florida] but the band we had wanted to go see actually called out last minute. I was like, Oh crap, I don’t want to go see the opening band. And my friend, Erin, was like, “Valerie, come on, we’re already dressed up, we have the tickets, let’s just go.”
And I walked in there with this kind of pretentious air of...too good to listen to this other band. And then I heard Dave go on and I was like, ah! This is amazing. They had such a unique sound and I hadn’t heard anything like that before. Just the electricity they made on stage together as a band was just beautiful.
When they came off stage, I saw Dave walked out and grabbed him. I was like, “I need to buy you a drink. You guys were great.”
One drink turned into god knows how many. A lot. We didn’t stay. We all went to another bar. And then another. And then we all went back to Erin’s place and drank champagne on the rooftop until the sun came up. And that was our first meeting.
After that first night, Dave said they were doing another show in Jacksonville or something—four hours away. So we went to Jacksonville and it just kind of snowballed into this craziness. I would meet him in different [cities]. I’d fly out to see him. It was great. We had so much fun together.
How did the song happen?
I got arrested the week before I was going to go to Liverpool to be with him. It was my, I want to say, seventh felony driving on a suspended license.
Why didn’t you have a license?
Well it was really stupid in the beginning. I got a speeding ticket and I thought the policemen were dumb, so I thought well, by me not paying the ticket, that’s me sticking it to the man. Clearly not, because then they put a warrant out for your arrest. It becomes a whole ordeal.
And also I might not have stopped immediately, which apparently is evading the police. And I might have spat on the officer because he was very rude—and that’s assault.
So I spent every penny I had, which was like 30 grand, to not go to prison. I did get my license taken away for like 15 years, but that was much better than jail. Since I was stuck in Florida and dealing with the courts and the lawyers—this was like a few months of legal [issues] I had to deal with—that’s when Dave wrote the song.
I was supposed to have already been [in Liverpool] and I was like, “I’m just going to be a little longer. I just have to deal with a little bit of a law thing. I kind of got arrested and spent every cent.” And that’s how he wrote the song. And it was like, “Did you have to go to jail / did your house go up for sale?.”
So then what happened?
Fast forward about nine months, and I’d gotten out of my legal trouble at that point, but I was poor again. And it’s not like I could just uproot my life and go to Liverpool with absolutely no money. Because I’m not going to be one of those people that’s like, “so you’re just going to pay for everything, right?” Yeah, I can’t do that. Those people, I want to kick.
So I stuck it out in Florida and saved up to move to New York because at that point I was like Valerie, let’s weigh your real, feasible options. That’s around when he’d told me he wrote the song, the record label loved it, and they’re making it the new single.
And you guys were still doing the long distance thing?
Oh yeah. Because I had all these delusional thoughts that I was going to walk away scot-free without spending a cent. I was like, “yeah, I’ll be there really soon!” And that just never really transpired.
Do you have a favorite line from the song? I like when he calls out your ginger hair.
I do like that part. And I used to dress really ridiculous back then too, per that line (“I’ve missed your ginger hair / and the way you like to dress”). It really was about that part of my life. I was dressing ridiculously fabulous, following around this boy in a band, and getting arrested really well.
How’d you feel when the Amy version blew up?
She was a brilliant artist. She was beyond her time. It’s so sad and tragic, in so many aspects. Like even the video—she couldn’t be in it because she was in her world. That part is heart-breaking.
I remember meeting Mark [Ronson] when he was doing a radio interview alongside Dave. Mark said [to me], "I feel like I should open up my wallet and just hand you money." It was really funny. It’s also kind of surreal. I can’t keep the song on my shuffle playlist. Not that it’s narcissistic but I feel like it would come up at the most awkward times. Like, hey, just listening to a song about myself—don’t mind me.
Do you have very high standards for the people you date now?
Well I always kind of have. They have to be taller than me in my tallest heels. I like giants. And I’m a sucker for a musician. They have to be artistic in some way. And an accent doesn’t hurt.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.