“I needed to face the abyss head on”: Evanescence’s Bitter Truth laid bare
When it was finally finished, Amy Lee slipped outside of her house by herself. It was late; everyone inside was already fast asleep. She ventured out into the garden and climbed into the sanctuary of her son’s tree house – away from the world, away from all distraction. After months and months of gruelling writing and soul-searching, there was nothing more to change. Nothing more to be tweaked. Nothing left for Amy to do but lay on top of a sleeping bag, get her headphones – good headphones – and press play. As she looked up at the surrounding night sky and branches, she listened to The Bitter Truth, Evanescence’s first all-new studio album in a decade.
“It was a perfect feeling,” reflects Amy today of that moment. “It was just satisfaction, true satisfaction.”
She is recalling this experience from her parents’ home in Arkansas, where Amy and her son are visiting at the time of K!’s call. That she sounds in such high spirits is not only down to her being liberated from the pressure cooker of album deadlines, but also the fact that they’re snowed in. Like, really, really snowed in. And that means one thing. “We’re doing a lot of sledding,” she laughs.
Loathe as we are to ever have to interrupt some well-earned rock star tobogganing, the imminent arrival of Evanescence’s excellent fourth album – and let the record show that Amy considers The Bitter Truth, not 2017’s record of orchestral re-workings Synthesis, their fourth album – trumps all other concerns.
You might think you know everything about it by now. Recorded during the pandemic, and drip-released throughout, no other Evanescence album has been preceded by so many singles. Last year, Amy opened up about the power and poignancy of some of these tracks – how, for example, the testimony of Chanel Miller, the survivor of a 2015 sexual assault by her fellow Stanford University student Brock Turner, influenced her to write Use My Voice. But make no mistake: in sound and theme, the singles so far are just the tip of the iceberg.
Hear Amy Lee discuss how Evanescence pushed themselves on The Bitter Truth with the help of producer Nick Raskulinecz
Amy conceived of The Bitter Truth as a journey. It begins with the compelling abstract noises of two-part opener Artifact/The Turn – the former the product of her “by myself in my hotel room on tour”, the latter a collaboration with Scott Kirkland of the Crystal Method. “I see the beginning of the album as starting from a Ground Zero place after a tragedy, and then, when the guitars come in, for me, that’s getting back up,” she explains.
Which brings us neatly to Broken Pieces Shine: a stunning track that sees Evanescence – completed by guitarists Jen Majura and Troy McLawhorn, bassist Tim McCord and drummer Will Hunt – in world-beating form. It is also, arguably, the greatest song ever conceived during a spot of grocery shopping.
“We were in Canada on a writing camp trip out in the woods in 2019,” recalls Amy, before noting how the hunter-gatherer duties in the band were split. “The men went to go get music stuff that we forgot, like a snare stand and whatever else, and the women went to the grocery store (laughs). On the way back, we were just showing each other ideas in the car on our phones, little pre-recorded demos and stuff. Jen had this really cool idea that turned into that chugging verse music. I just started rewinding it and singing on it over and over.”
It may have started out life as a fun way to pass time in the car, but it has come to mean much, much more to its creator.
“I see Broken Pieces Shine as an anthem for us and our fans,” says Amy. “From the beginning, I visualised us onstage in that ‘together moment’. It’s about letting yourself fall apart, letting those flaws become the things that we not only accept about ourselves, but also embrace. To be your true self rather than holding it in is truly freeing. We have things about us that we may see as flaws, but just change your perspective a little bit – our flaws can be our superpowers. That’s what makes us different. That’s what makes us unique.”
It’s a song about the pain and beauty of survival, the wisdom bred from suffering, the grace that can be found in the acceptance of what is. In so many ways, Amy Lee has learned these lessons the hard way…
“Thanks!” enthuses Amy Lee. “I don’t fit into metal categories for nothin’!” This is her response when Kerrang! observes that, on some of the lyrics on The Bitter Truth, Amy sounds like someone you really wouldn’t want to piss off. She had given us fair warning about this, of course – last year hinting that we would once again get a glimpse of the “catty vibe” that defined Evanescence’s classic single Call Me When You’re Sober. It’s just that on some of these new tracks, Amy comes across as someone who will, if you push her too far, not only stick the knife in and twist the blade, but also break it off at the handle. And then make you eat the handle. The aptly-named Take Cover, for example, sees her threaten to become ‘the bitch you make me out to be’ over rumbling blasts of bass and twisted riffs. It’s hard to tell what she’s out for in the song… is it justice or revenge?
“Caaaaaaaaan’t it be both?” she laughs, elongating the can’t so much it almost morphs into a creaking sound.
It’s one of many songs on The Bitter Truth in which Amy toys with both the illusion of fame and the people who have tried to gaslight her during her career. Recent single Yeah Right lit this particular fuse – it not only stunned with its deft move into Goldfrappian electro territory, but also its acid-tongued sarcasm. ‘Yeah, I’m a rock star,’ sings Amy over bubbling synth notes. ‘I’m a queen resurrected just as messed up as before.’ This is something dialled up to 11 on the ominous throb of Better Without You – a song that sees Amy deliver the lines: ‘’Cause this is my world, little girl you’d be lost on your own… I’ll do you a favour if you sign on the dotted line.’
Amy Lee on writing The Bitter Truth's moving opener Artifact/The Turn – and how producer Nick Raskulinecz convinced her to keep it raw
It’s hard to read this and not think of the misogyny and double standards Amy Lee has spoken about encountering while traversing the alpha male-riddled rock world, both onstage and off. Be it recalling how she was told Bring Me To Life had to feature a male co-singer against her wishes, or revealing to K! last year how she felt the pressure to “look my best, be a certain weight and be beautiful”, she’s had no shortage of battles.
Amy explains that she’s spent a good deal of time sifting through her past of late. She’s even gone so far to allocate some time to going through old audio and video that she had stashed away in her attic for years. Terrified they would be lost, she’s been converting old cassettes to digital.
“It’s just making me zoom out and see my life as a whole,” she explains. “It’s been really, really fascinating, and jogged my memory about a lot of things. So that actually influenced me in some of this writing and seeing things from a new perspective, but also seeing them how they were.”
So where does this leave a song like Better Without You?
“The song is really hard…” she begins. “I can’t lie in the music. And over time, that’s become truer and truer. I’m peeling away more of the layers of imagery and really being specific at times just saying what I really need to get off my chest. Some of what I’m saying are things that I’m not comfortable breaking down and explaining, because I don’t want to bring up old drama. Better Without You is a difficult song to describe and go into detail about. And so is Yeah Right, actually.”
Amy Lee is an extremely open interviewee: friendly, impassioned and intent on driving to the heart of a question, even when it hurts to do so. That said, there have still been times in K!’s interviews over the years where she’s referenced parts of her story that she didn’t wish to re-inhabit; parts of her life that she wanted to fence off to the world, and even herself. We wonder if we are finally hearing some of those untold stories now in the lyrics on The Bitter Truth?
“You are,” she says. “Take Cover, Yeah Right and Better Without You all touch on some elements of my past that I am…”
A brief pause.
“I have moved on,” she continues. “But apparently there’s still some things that I needed to get off my chest.”
Was that a surprise that those old feelings of anger were still there and came out this way?
“Well, I should say this: the seeds of both Yeah Right and Take Cover, much of them were written, from a lyrical standpoint, a decade ago,” Amy replies. “So think about what was going on in 2010 and some of the stuff that was a little bit closer to the forefront of my mind. Better Without You, though, that’s real and in-the-moment. It’s not like there’s one big secret [person] to blame. Better Without You talks about all the obstacles along the way, moving from the past into the present time. I have different parts of the song that are assigned to different people and entities in my mind. But I don’t think calling people out when I’ve already defeated all my monsters along the way is really something I want to do.”
Will these people know these songs are about them when they hear it?
“I don’t know,” she ponders. “Probably. I’ve been seeing it like this: ‘If you think it’s about you, you’re right!’”
Clearly these are songs that cut deep. And yet, there is one moment on The Bitter Truth that goes even deeper…
Amy Lee still remembers the peculiar colour of the sky over Cape Canaveral on January 28, 1986. She was just five years old at the time. Somewhere in the world a picture still exists of her holding an icicle on that bracingly cold day; it was a big deal to young Amy, as she wasn’t used to seeing snow where she was from.
Her family had travelled that day to see Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe board NASA’s Space Shuttle Challenger and blast off into outer space. They waited and waited for the countdown, yet there was no sign of lift-off. Tired of waiting, eventually the Lee family took a break to get some food.
“When we came back, the sky was black,” says Amy, recalling the aftermath of the Challenger explosion that cost the lives of all astronauts onboard and which went down in history as the darkest day in the American space programme. “It had just happened and everybody was standing there looking up at the sky with their mouth open. My dad asked what happened and some guy was like, ‘It just blew up.’”
This was not Amy’s only encounter with death in her adolescence.
“As a young kid I had quite a few impactful moments,” she says. “Obviously, that one wasn’t anywhere near as impactful as losing my sister [when Amy was just a child]. But I was faced with trying to understand our mortality at a younger age than a lot of kids around me. It always made me feel a little bit different, just to have to understand and be aware that I could die; that that happens, and there’s no fair set amount of time that you are entitled to. I’ll never forget what the sky looked like that day.”
The vocalist famously known for singing My Immortal has, then, from a young age, been acutely aware of the spectre of mortality. Last year, she told K! about the devastating loss of her younger brother Robby – who had battled severe epilepsy – in January 2018. His presence can be intuited on The Bitter Truth’s most astounding track Far From Heaven – a gorgeous piano ballad complete with swelling strings from composer (and Synthesis collaborator) David Campbell. Surprisingly, this, the emotional epicentre of the album almost didn’t make the record. When The Bitter Truth was originally finished, it was ballad deficient. And that was fine.
“We were all just going, ‘Hey, you know what? Every album is different – we don’t have to have that [type of] song every time,’” recalls Amy of their thought process.
Not only was she exhausted, time was also fast running out for any new songs to even make the deadline.
“I was really struggling,” she says. “I wasn’t feeling full of aggression, and all the strength and power – and there’s so much of that on this album – I just didn’t have any left when we got to that point.”
Only it turns out that she did. All Amy had to do was sit down at the piano.
“Far From Heaven just came out,” she says. “It just needed to come out of me. That was the last thing on the album. It completed the puzzle.”
Far From Heaven not only showcases the maturation of Evanescence’s sound, but in particular the power and nuance of Amy’s songwriting. Upon first listen it seems to address her late brother Robby, her voice freighted with emotion as she delivers piercing lines like, ‘What I wouldn’t give to be with you for one more night.’ And it is, she confirms, about him indirectly. Far From Heaven details a state of mourning that distorts both time and memory; the crosscurrents of grief that register not only as a permanent scar on the heart but also as a tremor in the soul.
“It’s about questioning my faith,” explains Amy. “And it’s not like it’s the first time, but it’s just very raw, real and in the hardest way I ever have. Having to really look at it and wonder, ‘Is anybody out there?’ That’s a real question I’ve been asking over the past couple years, through everything, and I don’t have the answers. I never have had the answers. That’s the whole thing that makes belief belief. We just can believe, we don’t know. But it’s not just about that. That’s part of the reason it was so hard to write, I spent two or three weeks just stuck in this funk, like in this depression, trying to get it off my chest because it’s not the way that I feel all the time. But it is a feeling that I have that comes up in me regularly: wondering where the people are that I’ve lost, and thinking about time in a more fluid way.”
There are no easy answers here.
“I do believe love exists beyond life, part of that is connected, I think, to holding on to [lost loved ones] inside ourselves,” she continues. “It’s more than a memory. It was real, it really happened – what existed still exists. I’m talking about it, so it does. It is really deeply hard to talk about, not because it’s so painful for me, but because it’s very difficult to put into words. I just needed to face the abyss head on. That was one thing that was missing from the album. Honestly, part of me, in this time, has been facing the grief and darkness. And with all the hope, and joy and empowerment that I truly do feel – and so much of the album comes from that place – I just can’t gloss over and not also admit the other side… I talk about my siblings, because those are the obviously to the closest to me, but there’s been a lot of loss in my life, I’ve been through it plenty of times. I’m reminded every time with grief that there’s a choice you have to make for yourself between life and death; between getting up or not. You have to talk about the struggle of that.”
It strikes K! that a song like this could be the kind an artist makes and either feels an enormous sense of catharsis, or one they write and never want to hear or play it again…
“While writing it, I felt so low,” Amy admits. “I was just living in it without an out. When it was finished, I really loved it; it’s beautiful. Even when a song is openly dark and about pain, it can bring me joy. Sometimes you just need to say that hard thing you’ve been locking down inside, get it out, process it, and then move on to the next song.”
This past Christmas, Amy played the album for her family. Her dad is, she says, “a music guy”. He was once in a band himself before he made the choice to pursue a family life, and explored a career in radio. He’s 10 years retired, but even now Amy says she’ll hear him doing voice work on TV for insurance companies (“You’d never know it’s him, but to me it’s like, ‘Dad!’”).
“He does a lot of studying on artists and songwriting,” she says. “He’s that guy. So after every song we sit, break it down and talk about it.”
What did he make of Far From Heaven?
“That song,” says Amy, softly, “that song made him cry.”
Amy Lee on how Part Of Me details her move from grief to re-embracing the magic of life
Were the album to end on this note, it would make for a very different record. As stands, The Bitter Truth ends on a note not of doubt, but of hope with Blind Belief.
“I believe it’s in us as a human race to survive this time,” she says. “Absolutely, I believe we will get through this. But, of course, I don’t know for sure. Ending the album with Blind Belief was deliberate, particularly the line ‘love over all’, because that’s impossibly hard to say, especially when we’ve seen the evil that’s crept out of the dark corners in broad daylight in the last few years. Not that we’ve never seen that before, but it’s just been so in our face, especially as Americans. Even so, I believe we do need love over all. It should be simple, but it is complicated. The album is a journey through grief, among other things. The ending is reaching that seemingly impossible point of acceptance. Forgiveness, honour, remembrance and love over all. And when I come to the end of all those feelings – including the rage, the grief, all of that all mixed up – I feel released. I feel like I want to step into the future.”
About the future, then. It’s taken a year of hard work to end a decade of waiting for Evanescence fans. Not to get greedy, but when will it be acceptable to ask Amy about another album after this one?
“Ten years!” she says. “Just kidding. I mean, I already feel like I need to do something creative again.”
For now it’s time for the world to experience what Amy Lee did that night she pressed play on The Bitter Truth in her son’s tree house.
“We left nothing behind on this one, so I hope people like it,” she says. “And if they don’t? No regrets from me. I’ll tell you this: I put my whole self into it.”
Evanescence’s The Bitter Truth is released on March 26 via Sony Music.
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