Q&A With Evanescence's Amy Lee

The Evanescence profile in the November 22 edition of Westword stems from the following Q&A, a conversation with group leader Amy Lee that's lively and notably frank.

Lee begins by talking about the group's current tour, including a side trip into Mexico, where aficionados are at their most rabid, before discussing her recent wedding, and the benefits of having married a professional therapist, Josh Hartzler; misconceptions about her work, including her insistence that the darkness of her lyrics always masked a core of optimism; her currently more upbeat frame of mind, and the reactions of fans who've always loved her dour takes; her love of classical music and movie scores, linked to the prospect that she might someday compose for Broadway or Hollywood; the reasons why a song she wrote for The Chronicles of Narnia didn't fit the film; the ways in which Evanescence's assorted lineup changes have contributed to her being branded as something of a diva; the contrast between her work with current guitarist Terry Balsamo and departed co-writer Ben Moody; and the pressures inherent in being female in a musical genre overrun by men.

She is woman. Hear her roar:

Westword (Michael Roberts): Where are you right now? Are you on vacation?

Amy Lee: Vacation?

WW: I heard something about Mexico, which sounded vacation-y.

AL: Oh no, that's work. That's extra work, because it's extra security. Right now, we're in Orange Beach - I believe it's Alabama? It's in the Pensacola, Gulf Shore type area. We're playing here tonight.

WW: Tell me about the extra security in Mexico. What's that about?

AL: We just have a very strong following there. It's kind of like you're the Beatles. Mexico's crazy. They're definitely big fans. It's a big show down there.

WW: So if you're walking on the street down there, you're instantly mobbed?

AL: I've never done it, so I wouldn't know. I've never been able to do that. It's always been police escorts and stuff.

WW: Is that kind of cool? Or kind of disturbing?

AL: It's cool for a couple of days. It wouldn't be so cool if I lived there. It's nice to be around people in America who, for the most part, don't really care. (Laughs.) At least in New York, where I live. But it's very cool to have that kind of excitement about what you do. Of course, what you want at the shows is to have everyone freaking out, like it's the best show on earth. It makes you perform better when the fans are freaking out, so I love our international audiences. Not to say I don't love our American fans, because of course I love Americans. But it's very special to play in some of those places, because they don't see American bands every day.

WW: You've been on tour pretty steadily since The Open Door came out. What kind of toll does that take on you when you're away from home for the vast majority of the time?

AL: I'm happy right now, so it's hard for me to complain. It's beautiful out here. I'm sitting outside the bus in a lawn chair. (Laughs.) I've learned a lot. The first time we really toured, when we were touring Fallen, it was like, I couldn't say no. Everyone would basically tell me I had to go-go-go-go, and there was no option for a break. And we were really being worked to death. Management was different then. So I felt really depressed sometimes, like I wanted to tear my hair out, because we were always working really hard to the point where I had sore throats and stuff like that. A lot of stuff went down through that and after that, so I had to learn how to say no and set limits for myself and put my health and my life first and my work second. We still work hard. You have to in the rock industry, for sure. But at the same time, we have taken breaths in between tours. There's always a few weeks off or a month between legs. Last time, we had four weeks off in between. So I'm ready to go.

WW: One of the breaths you took this year was to get married.

AL: Yes. That was a short breath, actually (laughs). We flew in from South Africa and got married three days later, and then went on a honeymoon for a week and went straight back on touring.

WW: In reading past articles about you, I know you've spoken about how music is therapy for you - and then you went ahead and married a therapist.

AL: Yeah!

WW: Is there any irony in that?

AL: I'm so healthy now, it's crazy! (Laughs.). No, I guess it's ironic in a way. But I think everybody needs an outlet. For me, Evanescence has always been my biggest outlet. It's where I dump all my negative feelings and my fears and my sorrows, but also now my love and even my happiness. And I think it's really cool that the band has been able to grow that way for me. It's not like I had to do something else in order to express myself completely and not just talk about the sad side. I thought it would be better for Evanescence to just evolve with me, because I think the heart of Evanescence has always been me, my heart. I don't even remember what I'm talking about. I'm rambling. Is it ironic that I married a therapist? No, it's just cute, and we've known each other forever. It's a great story. He's always been the guy I had a crush on and never told and wrote music about. He's been my muse. I wrote "Bring Me to Life" about him, and other pieces of music. Also "Good Enough," our new single, actually. So it makes perfect sense that I'm with Josh.

WW: Along the way, since you have known him for so long, did you turn to him during some of those dark times? If so, I'm sure he talked to you as a friend and not a professional therapist - but was it nice knowing he was trained to know what to say?

AL: Yeah, it's funny. We sort of had this very distant relationship over the years, because we were both in other relationships. I knew that every time I talked to him, I had feelings for him, so I sort of almost cut him out of my life, but he always found me. There were a lot of dark times I definitely went through on my own, or at least without him. So it's great to have him now - but things aren't so dark.

WW: You mentioned that your outlook in general is pretty upbeat now, even though a lot of people thought of you as someone who looked at the glass as half empty. Were you more of an optimist than maybe people knew all along?

AL: Definitely. I went through tragedy very young in my life and contrary to what people think, that didn't make me brood and think about how horrible life was and how I wanted to die. It made me think about how much I appreciate life and how I want to make my life the best it can be, and how precious and fragile it really is. And there are a lot of things in the world that are sad, and it's hard not to pay attention to them and let them get you down at times. Definitely, singing and writing music about all of that stuff - I wouldn't call it death obsession, but definitely a fascination, an interest, because I realize how precious life is. It was always kind of from that vein, and I think a lot of people misunderstood it a little bit, just from the images and the dark tones and stuff. I think if you listen to the music, it's always been from the perspective of somebody who wants to live and wants to be happy and wants to love life, but I've grown as a writer and definitely as a poet and everything else. I think it's a lot clearer in the lyrics now, especially since I'm not in an abusive relationship or any kind of suffering place where I need to be so angry and bitter all the time.

WW: Was there any fear on your part that sharing the more optimistic turn your life has taken might alienate some fans who may have looked at you as the one-stop shopping place for downbeat lyrics?

AL: All I can be is myself. I don't want to feed somebody what they want or they need or they expect. All I can do is talk about what I'm going through, and that's how it's always been. I don't think we have alienated fans, though. I think on The Open Door, the lyrics go through all ranges of emotion. So if people want to feel understood in their pain, that's definitely there. If people want to get over it and get through it and move on, that's definitely there for them, too. And if people just want to feel good, there's a whole song about how that's okay.

WW: Has the feedback you've gotten from the fans been positive in the sense that you see them following you where you're going right now, rather than trying to paint you into a corner?

AL: It certainly feels that way. It's hard to know exactly how real feedback is because fans, they love us so much. I always want to take it like they're just telling me what I want to hear (laughs). But they've been very supportive and I've heard so much feedback about the newer music, and "Call Me When You're Sober" particularly. Because lyrically it was touching on something not only that I hadn't talked about before, but that so many people have been able to relate to.

WW: I know that you had classical training when you were young, and that comes through on The Open Door more strongly than ever. Do you feel that way as well?

AL: Definitely. I wasn't actually the one playing the piano parts on Fallen, although I wrote a lot of them, because we had a keyboard player back then. So now it was my turn to step up and do a whole lot more as a performer and as a musician and a writer and everything. Not only did I want the writing of the songs to be better and more interesting and all over the place, but also, the playing. And I'm naturally a more classical sounding player and writer than a sort of contemporary one. So yeah, I think you can definitely tell the difference in the piano sounds and the organs and the big choirs and everything. That's all me.

WW: I understand that Mozart is one of your favorite composers. Who are some of the others who you really connect with?

AL: I did a pretty in-depth Beethoven study for a while. I've always loved him a lot, too. But other than just classical, I love Danny Elfman. He's been a big influence for me. When I started creating Evanescence's music, that was a huge inspiration for me - the Tim Burton movies and all the scores that Danny Elfman had done.

WW: "Lacrymosa," of all the songs on the new album, seems the biggest and most classically inspired, and it made me wonder if you'd ever had any interest in doing a Broadway show or a movie score.

AL: I think I'm still a little bit intrigued and interested in Broadway, but it would have to be something a little off - a little off-Broadway. Maybe not quite so "Showtime!" But more prominently in my dreams has been scoring. I always wanted to be a score writer, and I feel like I've proven a lot through Evanescence. So hopefully I'd like to move in that direction soon and try to find the right project that I could really work on and not have it be the me show, and let's talk about me and my feelings - to actually write for character's feelings.

WW: Have you been approached by movie folks about something like that?

AL: Yeah, definitely. I'm just looking for the right thing.

WW: There was all that hullabaloo about whether you were or you weren't going to be working on The Chronicles of Narnia. Did that sour you on Hollywood at all? Or did it have no impact really?

AL: Well, I'm already permanently soured on Hollywood. I lived there for five years and I just never, ever want to go back. I think it wasn't anybody's fault. I was just a little misguided about what they wanted. I did write music for the movie, and I still have a song in my back pocket that hasn't been released that I love, which was originally intended for that movie. But it was darker than what they wanted. They wanted to not scare kids, and I can understand that now after seeing the movie. But when we were talking about it beforehand, I think they were telling me a little bit what I wanted to hear - that it was going to be very dark and very Lord of the Rings and all this stuff, and it turned out to be a lot more childlike. The way I was writing was a lot bigger and more epic and dark than all that. I still think it would have been a beautiful song in the movie, but it didn't make me bitter. It's just one song in the bank.

WW: One of the common questions you're asked is about the people who have left the band over the years, and I know you've downplayed that. But do you think the comings and goings have unfairly given you a reputation? People assuming you're difficult?

AL: Of course. I definitely feel that. It's hard for it not to work that way. But it's been almost more than half and half of people leaving for different reasons, and not being kicked out, or I'm impossible to deal with or anything like that. It's kind of funny. When people aren't on the inside, they can't know what it's like and what's going on and what the real story is, and I'm not the type of person to go around talking badly about people who I've loved and who I've worked with. Anybody, really. I don't like talking crap about other celebrities I don't even know. I hate it when it happens to me. I think it's really wrong, it's unfair. But there's a lot more to all of the stories than has been told, and I don't think it's anybody's business. I don't think there's any reason to hurt people even though they've hurt me.

WW: Is it creatively inspiring for you to work with a lot of different people? Do you get an energy infusion?

AL: There's never really been more than two writers at a time in this band. But I guess it just gets complicated after that. You get too many people, and they go in too many directions at once. But writing with Terry was so incredibly inspiring for me, because he was so open-minded and creative and wasn't trying to imitate something he'd heard before at all, which was kind of what I was used to writing with Ben. He was always kind of trying to fit into the mainstream and sound something-esque. But Terry and I were trying to create a whole new sound together, and he really was so positive in pushing me to try the weird things I wanted to try without squelching them in their bud. So yeah, I definitely felt huge inspiration writing with Terry. I really, really loved it.

WW: Do you feel you've gotten to the stage now where Evanescence's sound is so well-established that there's no pressure for you to imitate anybody? And that people are now out there imitating you guys?

AL: Yeah, I definitely see a little bit of that. It's hard to imagine anything that's completely new anymore. There's so much music that's been written, and everything sounds like something. But yeah, I do feel that we've established our sound, and there's a lot of people who don't really know what it is because they've only heard "My Immortal" or "Bring Me to Life," and neither of those are a good representation of what we are or what we really sound like. It's worth listening to the whole album.

WW: It's amazing to me in this day and age how few major rock bands are led by women, especially given how many women love rock music. Is that surprising to you, too?

AL: It's hard to say. I guess it's a world that I'm used to. I've always been into music, and ever since I've been into rock music, it's meant playing with boys (laughs). Having guys over to the house to play guitar or whatever - jam. It's never really been women because they weren't around and they weren't into it, because they were into gymnastics or whatever. I don't know why that is. I know that there are a lot of girls, especially now, that are into it, and us girls can be talented musicians. It's not a gender thing. I think if you're talented enough, then you should be successful. I'd still like to hope that's true. But there are still very few, and I don't know how to explain it. I think a lot of people see women in the music industry as just a face or a gimmick. It's not like they expect them to be writers and creators. They just imagine, especially if they're good looking at all, that they're being fed something or sold something. It's like, "Look! A chick! She's good at this, and she looks hot, too!" And then they're like, "No, that can't be possible!" (Laughs).

WW: As one of the most visible women in rock, does that put additional pressure on someone like you? Do you feel that you're in a more difficult position because there are so few?

AL: No, I don't like to play that card. I feel like we're all pretty equal out here. In the beginning, and even more recently, I feel like I've got to fight the fight to prove that I'm a writer first and a creator first. A performer and a singer, that's all very important, but I feel like I'm a frontman last. And the most important thing to me has always been making the music, and I feel that's the only thing I've had to fight to prove to people. But other than that, nah. I think we're all pretty equal in this.

WW: Where I was going with that was thinking about those young women out there who you mentioned -- the ones who are so talented, and perhaps look at you as a role model. Do you feel pressure knowing that there are so many women out there looking at you like that?

AL: I don't know. I guess I'm used to it. We've got a lot of fans, and I love them a lot, and I think there are a lot of talented people. I don't know. It's hard to say anything these days, hard to give good advice, just because the music industry's in so much peril. I feel like even though the successful artists are struggling to still do this. So I don't know. I don't know what to tell anybody who's interested in coming into this. And as far as being a role model, I don't know. Men, women, boys, girls, whoever. I know people look up to me. And again, all I can be is myself.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts