Like so many performers with a strong, specific public image, Amy Lee is not all she seems. Ostensibly her world is one of gothic melodrama and opulent metal. Basques and ball gowns. It’s what she’s been known for since 2003, when Evanescence’s mega-hit Bring Me To Life made her a superstar at 21.
Her next ambition, though? It might surprise you…
“Y’know what would be really cool?” she says over our Zoom audio call, in chipper tones. “I’ve always thought it would be fun to be a part of creating the score to a great nature documentary, like Planet Earth, one of those amazing David Attenborough ones, underwater particularly. Every time I watch something like that I think, ‘God, it’d be fun to work on the score for that!’”
Now 39, Amy is a woman of many sides. The oddball child of the grunge era and poster girl for nu metal, who owes as much to Nine Inch Nails and Björk as her old classical flame, Mozart. The compulsive busy bee with two pianos in her house and heaps of keyboards in her home studio. The chatty mother of one and former New Yorker, who moved to her current Nashville base just before Covid hit.
Here, she’s kept herself sane by writing, gaming and cooking, rather than sitting passively in front of Netflix. “I get anxious!” she chuckles. “I mean, I’ll play a videogame for four hours straight but I’m doing something, y’know? I have a say in what’s happening! I’m just a person that needs to keep my hands busy, to some degree.”
There are media-savvy edges to her warmth. In conversation she’s unfailingly sweet but holds a certain amount back, glossing over some points with the polite but firm ease of someone who’s been doing interviews her entire adult life. Not to mention the philosophical but bullshit-free manner of a successful woman nearing 40, who’s weathered her share of speculation and ‘Sexiest Female’ awards.
“Ha ha! Erm yeah, no comment there!” she laughs, a warning note coming into her voice, when we ask if it’s helped having a qualified therapist in the house – husband Josh Hartzler – during these weird times. “What’s helped is having a supportive husband. He really has helped just be there to support me and do the dirty work, and do a lot of dishes and all the stuff that piles up.”
In the end, much of Amy’s 2020 was filled with work on Evanescence’s long-awaited fifth album, The Bitter Truth. Working again with producer Nick Raskulinecz (Mastodon, Halestorm, Code Orange), they have been drip-feeding singles to the public and now, finally, the full record is done. A rich, heavy smorgasbord of all the classic Evanescence ingredients – muscular nu metal riffs, punchy electronics, lush orchestral layers and colossal, gut-grabbing tunes – it was worth the wait.
Seeds of some songs go back as far as 10 years, but the bulk began to germinate on tour in 2019. After 2017’s Synthesis, on which they reworked previous material with orchestral arrangements, the band were ready to record again.
“We went back to that same room where we wrote a lot of the songs for our  self-titled album, and just got together in a circle, plugged in our stuff and started jamming. What headspace were we in? Feeling no pressure that we needed to do something, but just that we wanted to.”
Recording began at Nick’s Nashville studio in early 2020, until the pandemic hit and sent everyone packing. As people started to gingerly emerge from their homes, the band reassembled in Nashville when it was safe to do so. Bassist Tim McCord, drummer Will Hunt and guitarist Troy McLawhorn all stayed in tourbuses, while guitarist Jen Majura collaborated remotely from Germany.
For Amy in particular, it marked the culmination of an eventful decade in which she wrote music for films, made an album of children’s music (2016’s Dream Too Much) and reconvened with Evanescence for the aforementioned Synthesis. And, of course, the band continued to tour. Still, the question ‘Why 10 years?’ has featured consistently in recent interviews with the band. How does she feel about being asked that, at this point?
“The question is interesting because it assumes that I am the girl from Evanescence, and that is what I do, and it was only ever gonna be a matter of time before I came out and made another album,” she muses. “That’s just not really real life. I am very proud of all that we’ve done and it’s a huge part of my life, but I’ve always had an open mind about whatever the next chapter might be.”
Emotionally there have been significant highs and lows. Amy became a mother (her son with Josh, Jack, was born in 2014). There were “major tragic losses” among her bandmates. News outlets began buzzing when she filed a lawsuit against their old label, Wind-Up, amid rumours of unpaid royalties and other allegations.
“I don’t want to spend too much time talking about the business struggles,” she says when we bring it up, “for a lot of reasons. But I just want to say that I think people might think, from the vague way that I talk about it, that there was this one label and they were so bad; it’s really not that simple. It’s about the people around us, the people working with us, the people representing us, a whole lot of… housecleaning that needed to be done.”
Real tragedy, however, came in 2018. Following long-term struggles with severe epilepsy, Amy’s brother Robby died at the tragically young age of 24. Listening to The Bitter Truth, it’s hard not to interpret much of it – the lyrics (‘I don’t know if I’ll be alright, but I have to try’ in Broken Pieces Shine), the orchestral swells, the heartbreaking melodies – as an expression of grief.
“All over it,” she says simply, of her brother’s presence on the record. “He’s all over it.”
To really understand Amy Lee today, it helps to go back to her formative years. The oldest of five siblings, all of whom learned an instrument, she fell in love with the piano and from there delved into a mix of styles. The family moved a lot, settling in Arkansas when Amy was in her teens. Her attic bedroom there was a haven of hard rock, alternative music posters and dolls. It was here where she started writing songs.
“I had that [Pearl Jam] Ten poster with all the guys with their hands up touching,” she remembers, “and this big Kurt Cobain poster of him in the white glasses, and I remember having a Down poster that I ripped out of a magazine ’cos it was like, ‘Look how cool!’”
The posters have gone, but the dolls still live in her studio (you may have seen them behind her on the band’s recent Jimmy Kimmel live stream). “I’ve always kinda kept them as my mascots to remind me like… the way it looked when it all began.”
Her father, a radio DJ and multi-instrumentalist from Florida, was her earliest musical influence. “He’s like me in that he’ll just get inspired by something he likes and have to learn it,” she says. “I remember when I was a teenager the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? came out, and he just decided he was gonna learn how to play the banjo and… god, all the siblings, I just remember us being like, ‘Durrghhh!’ Ha ha ha! It was hours of loud banjo, we were always asking him to go play outside!”
Guests at the Lee household were entertained by the family, cajoled by their father into giving performances of Beatles and Neil Young classics, among others. “It was so dorky and embarrassing!” she guffaws, before pausing. “But I look at the pictures and look back on it and it was so precious.”
Understandably, Robby’s death brought it all home in a major way. “It changes you,” she says, “it really does, when you lose someone that you love so much. It’s not something that heals, it’s not something you get over. It’s a part of you now. You have to learn to live with the new you. A big part of who I am is being a big sister and having him in my life, that’s just part of my identity. So to have to look at this big part of yourself and go, ‘OK, that part of me is gone… or is it gone, and what does that mean?’”
It’s not the first time she’s had to grieve the death of a sibling. Amy’s sister Bonnie died suddenly at the age of three, which she poured into early Evanescence tracks. The loss of Robby in adulthood, however, has been a different thing to process. “We had a life together,” she explains. “We knew each other for years. He’s part of who I’ve been since I was 12 years old.”
She tells us it’s brought her family closer. Playing the album to her parents, over Christmas, was a powerful moment. “I just took ’em out here and we listened to the whole thing. It felt really good to do. There were a few tears shed.”
At this point, she’s ready for life as we knew it to restart. Ready for shows, travel, seeing her fans and, erm, guacamole competitions on tour. “I’m a purist! Mine is totally smooth and it doesn’t have tomatoes or onions or anything chunky going on…”
She chatters on about her recipe, painting a cheerfully everyday picture of life in a world-conquering metal band – far removed from the epic sounds and luxury production values she’s known for, and from the heartbreak that shaped The Bitter Truth.
With nothing to prove as she concludes her 30s, and a thirst for the next chapter (whatever that might be) Amy Lee could do anything. She might surprise all of us. “Time is short and important,” she says thoughtfully, “and you think about your life and the things that are really important, and sometimes it’s a really hard choice, because we have the opportunity to do something so amazing, and yet at the same time… how incredibly amazing is it to have a family? How precious is that? So you have to weigh your time.”
Published in Metal Hammer #347