Voice Notes: How Evanescence's Amy Lee brought her powerful vocals to life
Voice Notes is a recurring column where we ask singers how they developed their vocal approach.
"I've got to be honest, that came after I'd been doing it for a while," she tells EW. "I was pretty insecure in the beginning; I always felt like I wasn't that good. I started playing music with people in what eventually turned into a band when I was 13, and I was singing only because it was the vehicle for the poetry I used to write."
Lee laughs as she reflects on being a "wannabe dramatic 11-, 12-, 13-year-old" who poured all of her emotions into those poems — along with her original dream of becoming the next Mozart. "I wanted to write genius symphonic opuses and impress everyone with my skills that I didn't have," she says. "I was kind of halfway down the path of realizing that that would be an extreme challenge when grunge hit and I started playing with boys in bands."
Yet she credits joining choir in junior high as a major factor in her becoming a singer, a role she initially saw as "blending in" rather than standing out. It wasn't until she realized how much people liked her voice that she gained the necessary confidence to bare her soul on her own. "The more I did it, the more positive attention I received," she says, adding with a chuckle, "Ugh that feels so weird and insecure to say it that way! I don't feel that way now."
Lee's voice has never sounded more passionate than it does on The Bitter Truth (out March 26), Evanescence's first album of all new material in a decade. Written partly before the pandemic and featuring the band's first ever political anthem, "Use My Voice," the 12-song project explores grief, fighting for truth, and not giving up even when things feel hopeless. "Suddenly there was this fire, this aggression — just frustration and rage at the things that we were seeing go down," says Lee, about the political climate while the band was recording. "We all feel broken sometimes. It's really, really healthy to be able to say that everything's not okay. You have to let it out."
Lee, 39, arrived at a similar epiphany as a teenager, when she learned to lean into her vulnerability by harmonizing with her own voice, pushing herself to achieve the type of natural emotion conveyed by singers including Björk and Portishead's Beth Gibbons. In doing so, she found the freedom to channel her honesty. "I truly see it as an expression of myself," she says of singing. "It's not a job to me; it's my heart. And I definitely hear a physical difference in my voice now. When I sing, I'm not thinking about anything, I'm not nervous. I feel a spiritual, centered transcendence. Something takes over and I lock in and I know I'm where I'm supposed to be."
That's why Lee doesn't put much stock in the long wait between Evanescence's last album with all original music and The Bitter Truth, which will receive its own behind-the-scenes documentary, Evanescence: Embracing the Bitter Truth (out Friday on the Coda Collection on Amazon Prime). "I know that 10 years is a long time but there have been a lot of different projects in there, including a kid's album with my family" featuring her now late brother, Lee says. "That being said, whenever I am in full 'making Evanescence music' mode, I put a lot of my real life on hold. I put my family on hold. I put my friends on hold.... You just have to go with the wave of inspiration if you're going to come up with something great."
But the band's path hasn't always been easy to maneuver, even after achieving global fame with their 2003 debut album Fallen. Evanescence originally received pushback from record label executives who thought the group needed to use a full-time male co-vocalist alongside Lee to make the album more "marketable." They eventually settled on Paul McCoy for lead single "Bring Me to Life" — a decision Lee has spoken out against in the decades since. "I can see alternate realities where that's what helped it be mainstream and what gravitated everyone towards us, so I am grateful," she says. But she also sees that decision as a "timestamp" of 2003, which ends up dating the song.
"That was honestly my biggest problem with it, or part of it," she adds. "It's like, 'You think I can't do this by myself? I got males all around me, there's enough.' Part of me wonders if that one sacrifice hadn't been a part of it, maybe things could have gone an even bigger way for us. Or maybe we would have been understood better."
Lee looks back on that time in the band's (and her) career with the clarity that only comes from maturity. "More than anything at this point, I'm over that hump of frustration of feeling misunderstood, and I'm just grateful that we've made it so far and improved so much," she says.
It all comes full circle on The Bitter Truth, with Lee and her bandmates exerting full creative control. For example, on "Use My Voice," they decided to bring in an army of frontwomen including Lzzy Hale, Deena Jakoub and Taylor Momsen to provide vocals. "It's awesome. It's beautiful. It's what I always wanted," Lee says. "I don't even know how to put that other than like, women! Standing up together! Talking about the rock world and women in rock, of course there are less of us, and that's why it's a pretty tight-knit group."
Along with tracks including the piercing, grief-inspired ballad "Far From Heaven" and the vulnerable "Broken Pieces Shine," Lee is proud of what the band is still accomplishing. But she also admits a lot of the songs are going to be difficult for her to perform live when the world opens back up — even after all these years of honing her voice.
"I keep making our songs harder and harder, I don't know why I do that to myself," she says. "They keep getting higher in my range, and then every time we're going to make another song I'm like, this time I'm going to take it down a little bit. I'm not going to make it so hard for myself. But then it gets to the chorus that I have to! And then it's like, higher than ever."
She laughs as she deadpans, "So, we're f---ed. When we have to go out and sing these songs live, I don't know what I'm going to do. But the challenge is what keeps me inspired and on fire about it."
A version of this story appears in the April 2021 issue of Entertainment Weekly. To read more, order a copy or find it on newsstands now. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.