Evanescence’s Amy Lee: “No matter what sex you are, you have to stand up for yourself”

Evanescence vocalist Amy Lee reflects on the success of Fallen, dealing with instant fame and how life has changed.

Evanescence’s Amy Lee: “No matter what sex you are, you have to stand up for yourself”
Matt Allen
Originally published:

For a minute there, Amy Lee’s life was a whirlwind. On the release of their debut album, Fallen, in 2003 – which has now sold 17 million copies – her band Evanescence were marked as a melodic crush of haunting, baroque harmonies and heavy guitars, and immediately became a household name.

The singer’s day-to-day turned a little crazy. Fame enveloped the band, causing a break with original guitarist Ben Moody. But the springboard for Amy Lee was set. Evanescence have since released a further three studio albums, an orchestral reimagining of some of the band’s older material, including UK Number One single Bring Me To Life, a track which seemed to follow Amy around everywhere she went – even on the New York subway.

“I was riding the train, running errands,” Amy Lee laughs. “You hear all kinds of noises on the train, but when you hear your own voice, you recognise it. I was looking, thinking, ‘Where’s that coming from?’ It was on a guy’s headphones; he was sitting across from me. It was really crowded, rush hour, and I was watching him, thinking, ‘How funny would it be if he sees me?’ I tried to make eye contact, and stepped off, still looking at him, and right before I left, I saw him see me. I smiled, the train went off and I never said anything to him. It was so awesome.”

Much has changed since that opening flurry of acclaim, however. Performing live, which Amy Lee admits was once “a roller coaster”, has become a more connective experience. “It’s scary, you’re terrified and then you ride it and want to do it again.” Her life seems more settled now, too, and four-year-old son Jack now rides along with her on tour. (“He’s obsessed with buses!”) Then there’s the portfolio pieces away from Evanescence, among them Amy’s solo soundtrack cuts for the movies Indigo Grey: The Passage (2015) and War Story (2014), not to mention Dream Too Much (2016), an album recorded with various members of her family.

“I entered this world where it seemed like anything was possible,” she says. “It’s weird to still be there in your 30s. You think like that when you’re young and it goes away. It dies down a bit. But I feel like I’m in a place right now – especially the last four or five years – where I think, ‘Why not?’ There’s no reason not to try. Life’s too short…”

Did you ever envision still playing the songs you wrote when you were much younger on 2017 album Synthesis? Much less with an orchestra?
“You know what’s weird? I did. It was very much a childhood dream come true. When I was young, the first type of music that really got me thinking, ‘I want to be a musician, I’m obsessed with music,’ was Mozart and Beethoven. I was nine or 10 years old. My original dream was to be a classical or film score composer – something with the cinematic drama of an orchestra. That changed as I became a teenager and my tastes got darker.”

Which heavier bands instigated that change?
Nine Inch Nails were one of the first bands that inspired me. Soundgarden, too. Nirvana was huge. Then Björk and a lot of electronic artists like Massive Attack and Portishead. I started seeing similarities between the drama of classical music and the heavier stuff I was listening to, and I wanted to bring those things together for myself.”

When did you realise you had a voice to carry those melodies?
“That took a long time, honestly. Even on our first album, which was the most commercially successful. I was 21 when we recorded that, and even listening to it now I remember being in the studio and feeling very insecure. I was afraid to take too many chances with my voice, so I’d always play it straight, not doing anything beyond anything I knew I could handle. It’s hard to explain because it’s a beautiful album, I’m very proud of it, but even then I was still trying to force myself to feel secure enough to do it. I always saw myself as a singer second or third, and a writer and musician first. With singing, I used my voice as a vehicle to get the words I wanted to say out.”

When you were starting out, was it difficult trying to overcome your shyness to perform in coffee shops and smaller gigs?
“Yeah, terrifying. I was a teenager in those days, and you’re so concerned about what everyone thinks of you then. Everything you do is such a capture of your identity. ‘If I don’t do this right, then I suck.’ Not just that I had a crap night, or a bad show, it’s that I suck. Or, ‘My identity is in music, so if people don’t like it then people don’t like me.’ Everything is so tied up in itself. And that’s part of being an artist. If you’re gonna express yourself in an artistic way and share it with people, if they reject it, you have to find a way to not feel that they’re rejecting you. And you also have to learn what the difference is between an audience and your family and friends, and the people that actually know you for real. At those coffee shop gigs, pizza places and bar gigs as a teenager I was shaking, standing with my eyes closed, doing my best to get it out and survive the moment. But most people have to go through some of that, especially when you’re that young, to learn, ‘Hey I survived! Everyone doesn’t hate me, and life goes on even if I wasn’t that great.’ It’s basic experience – you do it more and more and it becomes more comfortable.”

Did the success of Fallen in 2003 catch you off guard?
“My life has been so full of extremes. It’s hard to sum up what it was like when it was all happening because it was happening fast, but there was so much else happening at the same time. I’ve had major tragedies in my life and major victories, too. But at the time the first song, Bring Me To Life, made it to Number One in the UK, and the next song [Going Under, which charted at eight in the UK]… It was all happening and we were at the GRAMMYs. That whole year, as much as it was wonderful, at the same time, my brother Robby was having brain surgery and facing the fact that he might not ever be okay. And my family was so happy and so excited for me, and I realised there was a lot of turmoil within the band behind the scenes at that time. There was so much going on. The only way to sum it up was to say it was a time full of extremes. It was wonderful and also terrifying, and a lot of learning happened. I’m grateful for it all. In some ways, I’m a lot happier to be where I am now than where I was then.”

What did you learn about yourself through the prism of phenomenal success?
“That’s the hard part. When you’re trying to project that idea of ‘Everything is awesome! Follow me! Buy my album!’ that’s not actual reality. Something that’s helped to balance all of that is that I love being able to show – through my art, and the hardships of my life – the struggle it honestly is. Because the more honest I can be about how I really feel sometimes, about my darkest moments, the more I can feel like standing on a stage and accepting applause. I feel more complete, and it makes sense when I know that people know that it’s not easy and I’ve been through something hard, and it’s not a perfect picture. To display a perfect picture of, ‘Happy, awesome, rock on’ is not real. It’s pointless.”

Did fame freak you out?
“It was weird. I talked about that on the second record [2006’s The Open Door] because it was a new thing for me. A lot of what I needed to write about was the weirdness of it. I was really young. It was hard to realise, ‘Oh, every little thing I do, everybody is watching.’ So there’s pressure, which was difficult at first, but you’ve got to find ways to make it make sense in your mind, to not let it become everything. You have to not buy into your own hype and keep yourself grounded, because otherwise you lose yourself and it gets insane. I’ve seen it happen to other people and it’s sad and horrible. I love my friends, I love my family – there have always been things that are more important to me than my band, no matter how big the band got.”

Did you feel like you were treated differently because you were one of the few prominent females in a very alpha male-centric era?
“It’s funny, but it was really hard for me to separate what was me being a kid and what was me being a girl. I think the treatment you get from people is sometimes the same. Either they treat you like a dumb kid, and you don’t know what you’re doing so you should shut up and listen to the guy. Or you’re a girl and you don’t know what you’re talking about so you should shut up and listen to the guy. It gets hard to know the difference. At the beginning of my career I felt like I was fighting a lot against being a kid. Looking back on it, I recognised that some of that was definitely about being a woman.

“As I grew up and things changed for us, I learned how to recognise it more. I learned how to have more confidence in my gut and how to stand up to that. Even in my band I’ve always been the youngest. It’s funny, I’m the leader, I’m a chick and I’m the youngest one, so it’s gonna take everybody either being really cool or standing back. No matter who you are, no matter what sex you are, you have to know when to stand up for yourself, especially when it comes to art. To say, ‘This is my art, I believe in it and you don’t know better than me because art isn’t about better or worse, it’s about being true to the heart and true to the art. So only I can say what I feel, and you’re going to have to let me say it and not change it.’”

How do you deal with criticism?
“I try to tune it out and not take it seriously. I have one rule I try to stick to, which is: just be true to yourself and make music that you love, then you don’t have anybody to answer to. If someone doesn’t like it, that’s okay – they don’t have to. I’m not making it for them. It’s okay to be criticised and I’m always going to be. That’s what it takes if you’re gonna put your work, your art and your heart out there. People will judge, but that’s not the point of it. I’m not basing my idea of success on that judgement.”

Your brother Robby tragically passed away last year. Has that given you fresh impetus to write and create?
“Strangely, yes. At first I couldn’t even speak and the fact that I had to get up onstage and play was something that I couldn’t even think about, or process. I didn’t practise one single song before getting up onstage in Australia when we did the Sydney Opera House. We had that booked and it was something I was so excited about, but after everything happened, it was like, ‘I don’t want to do this. I can’t do this. There’s no way it’s physically possible for me to stand up and be the leader in front of people right now.’ But then we went there – we had to do it. I wanted to do it.

“I was so grateful in that moment onstage, because I really felt the truth that was in the words I had already written. I didn’t have the strength to write anything new in that moment. You’re just broken, but I was able to hear my own words from a decade or more before and… If I had to get up and sing about sunshine and rainbows, I would have had to cancel. I couldn’t have done it.

“The fact that I had that real place to go to was therapeutic and transcendent. I was able to channel it and hear it in different ways, and just listen and be so tuned into it that I could hear the music singing at me. I felt connected to a much bigger picture than just me, myself and my show. I felt connected to my band, to the musicians onstage, to the people in the audience, live, in their realities, and I felt connected to the world beyond our world. But as hard as it was to come back, it was beautiful to come back, too. And it got easier, slowly, to be up there.”

You recently got your first tattoo – three pixelated hearts from The Legend Of Zelda video game – in tribute to Robby. What did that mean to you?
“It was a beautiful experience. I went by myself. It was a personal thing, but it made me feel happy. For the first time in my life I wanted something to be changed forever. I’ve always felt like, ‘Oh, I don’t know who I’m going to be tomorrow. I want anything to be possible, I don’t know what I’m gonna want to do, I would never get something permanent.’ But I’m never gonna wish that tattoo isn’t there to remember him by every day.”

How has being a mum on the road changed you?
“It’s beautiful, and it’s a lot more work, but it’s so rewarding. I’ve never felt so complete on the road as I do having my family with me. My son is four and he’s totally spoilt from the road. I’m not saying he’s a bad boy – he’s a good boy – but we’re home now and he’s like, ‘Where are all my friends?’ He wasn’t afraid of the crowd, he would run out there and by the end he was taking a bow with us every night. It makes everything more fun, because it makes everyone see how cool what we get to do is – they get to see it through his eyes. It made it a beautiful thing – for everybody, I think – to have him around on the road.”

Do you feel like you have any creative itches left to scratch?
“I don’t think you’re born with a set of itches that never change, that you scratch and then you die. I think you keep developing new ones. The itch continues, for sure. I’ve only been home for a week and I’m already working on a little collaboration idea. I do feel creatively inspired, but with a very open mind. We’re planning on starting the writing for the next Evanescence album next year, so yeah, we’re moving forward. It feels good to make music right now. I don’t have a big vision, but in the moment, when you feel creative, you just do it and see what it sounds like, following that trail until you’re satisfied.”

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