Not long ago, it almost seemed like curtains for Evanescence. The Grammy-winning gothic rock band fronted by Amy Lee had seen several members cycle in and out, citing personal and creative differences. And there were a spate of lawsuits between the band, its manager and label Wind-Up Records. Then, after Lee made a jailbreak of sorts, and with a new lineup rerecorded the band’s greatest hits in a 2017 symphonic album titled “Synthesis,” came the 2018 death of Lee’s brother Robby, who had suffered from severe epilepsy.
But Lee and Evanescence’s current members used the pandemic shutdowns as an opportunity to write the band’s first record in 10 years. It’s called “The Bitter Truth.”
“I want to show the way around the human heart,” says Lee. “With music you can explore every dimension of it in ways words cannot express.”
Lee, 39, was a classically trained pianist in Arkansas before Evanescence, which began with a heavy dose of high drama. Though the band’s 2003 debut, “Fallen,” would become the fifth best-selling album in the 21st century, its everlasting first single, “Bring Me to Life,” was considered for airplay only once Lee, then a rare young woman in hard rock, was vocally chaperoned by singer Paul McCoy of nu metal group 12 Stones.
“If there’s one thing that I have fought for in my own personal life and in my career, it’s the right to use my voice,” Lee says in a recent interview. “Nobody’s going to take that from me.”
Lee is calling from the Nashville, Tennessee, home she shares with her husband, Josh Hartzler, and their son, Jack. Behind her, a stuffed Alf toy from the 1980s sits politely on a cream tufted sofa; Lee wears a black tee and her hair piled up in a precarious bun, held together by a single chopstick. It’s a dressed-down version of Lee, known best as a steampunk Victorian fashionista whom pop stars like Ariana Grande, Halsey and Doja Cat have breathlessly emulated in their own work. Over the last two decades, Lee has helped light the path for many dauntless young women in music; but she’s not out of the ring just yet.
In “The Bitter Truth,” Evanescence continues to own the space where frosty electronic currents collide with volcanic surges of metal catharsis and coagulate into hard rock candy. Tendrils of doo-wop nostalgia come up for air in the lead single “Wasted On You,” and alt sirens Taylor Momsen and Lzzy Hale join a chorus of women in the stadium-size protest song “Use My Voice” — which soundtracked a 2020 PSA by HeadCount urging fans to rock the vote. Lee, who usually avoids the fracas of American politics, says, “I would be tone deaf not to use my platform, not while millions of people are still listening.”
She spoke with the LA Times about what finally drove her to speak her mind and eventually write her fiercest songs to date.
Q: “The Bitter Truth” is your first studio album in 10 years. What did it take for you to finally start it?
A: We got together [in 2019] to record this Fleetwood Mac cover — “The Chain” — and it set everything off. We scheduled a European tour with [Dutch metal band] Within Temptation last March. So in January, we went to [producer] Nick Raskulinecz in Nashville, who did our self-titled album, and put down four tracks. ... Then the tour was canceled, so we went on lockdown and decided  was going to be our creative year.
Q: How did you pull it together during the pandemic?
A: Well, we’re from all over the world: Troy McLawhorn [guitarist] is in Atlanta. Will Hunt [drummer] is in Orlando. Tim McCord [bassist] is in Sacramento. And Jen Majura, our newest member and second guitarist, is in Germany. Because of travel restrictions, I haven’t seen her in person since the pandemic hit. We started working remotely, but by the end of July, I sent buses across both coasts to pick up the guys. We all got tests and stayed bubbled up in an Airbnb for about six weeks. Having limited time, my only way out was by nailing the songs. So it became this really urgent mission, and it saved me last year.
Q: Much of “The Bitter Truth” is proper metal, with these electronic twists and balladic turns Evanescence is known for. How do you retain that core sound, despite changing band members?
A: Every album we’ve done has had a slightly different lineup. We’ve had only one swap out since the last album from 10 years ago. But it matters, because Terry [Balsamo, former lead guitarist] and I were the primary writers during his time in the band; now it’s more of a group effort. I don’t think [bandmates] are expendable; they add more personality to the music. When you open your hearts up to each other and create something together, you should hear that. I hear Jen on this album, even though she was stuck in Germany. Troy and Nick would spend hours on the wildest, weirdest sounds, and I’d be falling asleep — then wake up like “Wow!” In all those little details, that’s where you get the character.
Q: Maybe it’s because I haven’t been to a concert in so long — or because I got bigger speakers — that it resonates like a live album. So many of us are starved for the physical sensation of the feedback and the drum beats just coursing through your body.
A: It’s funny because I’ve had times when I didn’t really miss being on the road, especially when I was [newly] in mom mode. I mean, I’m still in mom mode! But after feeling creatively frustrated and just lonely, being able to reunite — we took that pent-up frustration and desire and just exploded. It’ll feel so good to immerse ourselves in the music in real time with an audience.
Q: When you titled your record “The Bitter Truth,” what came to mind?
A: There are things lurking in everyone that we don’t want to admit. The longer you wait to admit it, and the more you try to push it down, the more it consumes you. Inside, I was holding so much grief for the last two years. And in the outside world, between the pandemic, racial and gender equality, voter suppression ... there’s so much pain, there’s so much injustice, there’s so much loss. We can’t fix it by posting “Oh, that’s terrible” on Twitter and going on with our lives. We have to admit that we are broken before we can heal.
Q: All these crises have revealed just how many people in this country live in totally different realities. Your bitter truth can be another person’s “fake news.” How do you deal with that?
A: The Black Lives Matter movement was so moving — to watch so many people from all over the place, all colors, everyone standing together and fighting like hell. I felt so inspired. It is righteous and necessary. It’s very clear what happened [to George Floyd]; we all saw it. People will twist the truth however they want, but what happened shouldn’t be confusing to anyone. So now, when we write lyrics or make imagery for our videos, I have to be clear about what I stand for, because I don’t want our music being used to promote hate and lies.
Q: Over the past two decades, you’ve rarely used your music as a platform for social justice, or anything political. What made you decide it was time to take a stand in 2020?
A: I think music is a beautiful thing, because I have seen it unify people with all kinds of differences, and I want to maintain that. But you get to a place where you have to take a stand and say, “We are not OK with this.” This is a democracy. There’s nothing more rock ‘n’ roll than that. Human rights are more important than the popularity of my band.
Q: In 2014 there was a legal battle between your band and your former label, Wind-Up Records [Lee sought more than $1.5 million in unpaid royalties]. So when you revamped your greatest hits for “Synthesis,” it was like you were declaring ownership of your work. When did you realize that your job wasn’t just making the art but fighting to own it?
A: Oh, that realization came before “Fallen” even came out. And this isn’t a women’s issue; this is a music industry issue from early days. Somebody with money and a smart head for business went, “I can sell this. And guess what? I’m going to give you [hypothetically] $500 to give me everything.” And [artists] went, “OK!”
Q: Many other artists have had to learn this the hard way, including Taylor Swift, who is currently rerecording her early songs. Songwriters are organizing to get royalties too.
A: On every level, people around the world are fighting to change old systems. The music industry is going through a reformation now in a really big way. At the end of the day, artists are the ones who have to live with our music; it represents who we are for the rest of our lives. But in somebody else’s hands, they can use it for whatever they want.
And it’s not just labels; it’s people around you, people you’re under contract to work with. ... All [I] could do for them was just go make “Fallen” again. What they were interested in was my past. I had to put my foot down and say, “I believe in my future.” And it’s the same thing with Taylor Swift. She’s like, “Sure, I can do this again, but can you?”
Q: They can own her masters, but they can’t do what she does!
A: They can’t, and she’s got legions of fans who will support her and buy the new versions. I owe our fan base the biggest thank-you of all because they stood by us between albums and came to shows even when we didn’t have new music. And the “Synthesis” tour was cool, because playing live with an orchestra was something I always wanted to do, and so many fans asked for that over the years. A lot of the things that our fans dream of are in line with things that I’ve dreamed of too. It’s a very beautiful, synergetic relationship.
Q: Your fan base is so expansive. Many young pop artists have cited you as an influence — rapper Doja Cat paid homage to your band in her performance of “Say So” at the Europe Music Awards. Even though you’re an alternative artist, do you feel a connection with this new wave of women in pop?
A: That’s very kind! You know, I have been very inspired by so many women when I was growing up. Some of the things you see in me, in my mind, I’m doing my version of Portishead, or Bjork, or even someone like Erykah Badu.
Q: I think “Call Me When You’re Sober” was written like a Badu song.
A: I love her! She’s part of it; they’re all part of it. I can’t take credit, but it’s good to feel like I’m part of something bigger.
Q: At this year’s Grammys, there were nominations for a record number of women in the rock categories — women who are evolving the genre with new perspectives. It’s a far cry from when you were the rare woman in a metal band, who then won Grammys in 2004 for best new artist and hard rock performance. What were your first Grammys like?
A: My experience, like most things, was totally complicated. As fascinating as it was, rubbing elbows with people we’d only seen on TV — the guy I started the band with had left and was not on good terms. I knew everybody was thinking I couldn’t do it on my own. I had so much to prove, and it didn’t feel like people around me were on my side. My brother was sick at home, and I could have been there with my family, [though they] were very supportive. It was as much of a struggle as it was this incredible lightning-in-a-bottle moment.
Q: That’s a lot to hold when you should be celebrating!
A: We felt like kids who snuck in and weren’t allowed to eat the chocolate-covered strawberries. When they called our name, I thought, “Is this a mistake? Does everybody hate me?” Looking back on it, I’m so proud we won. I just didn’t feel totally supported.
Feeling broken inside and having to put forward that sales-pitch face like, “Everything’s fine! Buy our album! We’re here to stay!” I had to pull off the mask. I can’t pretend anything but my real self, because that real self is in the music. That’s why so many people all over the world connect to it. Brutal honesty, even when it doesn’t put me in the perfect light, is the key.
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