Were they goth? Nu-metal? Rock? Maybe a Christian band? Nobody was quite sure what exactly Evanescence, a female-fronted rock band from Little Rock, Arkansas, was doing when they first started climbing the charts. All anybody knew was that it was working. “There were plenty of frustrating years where I felt like the mislabeling and the regurgitation of articles about things like that were just almost too much to overcome,” said Amy Lee, frontwoman of Evanescence, who cofounded the band in 1995. “But you know who you are and all we can do is be who we are and create what we create.”
In 2003, a year when global pop sensations like Britney Spears and Beyoncé both released albums, Evanescence crashed onto the mainstream music scene with the song “Bring Me to Life.” The instantly recognizable, eerie opening piano riff crept onto radio waves across the country and paved the way for their debut album, Fallen, to become one of the best-selling albums of the 21st century, earning a spot not far behind artists like Adele and Lady Gaga, with over 17 million records sold worldwide.
It’s been 20 years since Lee and the band made their debut, but their influence remains. When I speak to Lee, who’s piercing blue eyes still pop against her long black hair as they did on the cover of Fallen, like a goth Priscilla Presley, Grammy nominations have just been announced. The album was so unique with its dark, piano-forward sound that nobody quite knew how to categorize it, though they endlessly tried to. It skyrocketed the band, racking up five Grammy nominations, including best new artist and album of the year. “We were new and I was a 22-year-old, boot-wearing…I don’t know—I just felt like I was being punk’d,” said Lee from her home in Nashville. While the group accepted the award for best new artist that night, rapper 50 Cent, who was also up for the award, walked onto the stage and did a lap around them. “It’s one of those things where it was wild and crazy and I’ll never forget it,” she recalled. “But I was just as surprised as 50 Cent was that we won. I had my shoes off.”
Being misunderstood became something Lee and the band were accustomed to, and defying expectations became their secret weapon. “I think that is the true attitude and spirit of rock,” said Lee. “It’s not about me fitting into a box that you like or me selling you the product that you want to buy. It’s about me doing me without any shame, and I hope you like it. And if not, fuck you.”
The music spoke for itself. During an age of boy bands created by music industry execs, Fallen, 12 tracks about an abusive relationship, cut through the commercial noise and resonated with young people across the world. “Go for unique. If you have unique on your side, hold onto that, lift that up,” said Lee of their success. “I think that turned out to be true. I think just being authentic, being ourselves, making something that we really believed in and loved and not compromising on what that was, under all kinds of pressure, I think that was right.”
Nonetheless, it was a difficult time to be a woman in rock. “I felt like so much of the beginning was fighting for credibility as a creator,” she said. “You get up there, and just for being a woman, people assume that it’s not yours. And some of the people around me were more than happy to let them believe that.” Looking back at Rolling Stone’s review of Fallen, the critic praised the album but still missed the mark, writing: “The gimmick? It’s a woman on the mic, and she’s on a mission from God.” Lee says that she “hated the press back then so much. They were just out with a picture that I didn’t feel like was a good representation of the band.” She continued: “Before we would even start an interview, I already felt like all the questions were gearing me towards being the thing that they wanted to write about. It’s frustrating. The word gimmick used to be such a trigger for me because I read interviews of myself back then and they sound like I’m on the defensive immediately, like, ‘No, no, I’m not this, I’m not that.’”
One thing was for sure though, Lee wasn’t a bubblegum pop star. “Girls needed an alternative to that. And no dis on any of that, it’s great, but we’re not all that,” said Lee. “I did it for me because it’s what I like. But at the same time, it’s cool because it’s something that I think a lot of people needed.” Controlling her own image was essential to Lee; fashion became like armor, and she’s been designing her own clothes all these years. She looked to other artists like Björk and designers like Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood for inspiration, sketching dresses on hotel notepads and bringing them to life onstage and in music videos. “I had a vision for all of it. I had a vision for the music, and it was such a beautiful specific thing in my mind that I wanted to represent it visually,” she says. “The sound, always to me, translated into an idea with fashion. It was a mixture of something beautiful and something broken—something tattered, but somehow pure…. I was trying to represent myself visually the way that the music sounded, because every little piece of everything that you do is the ability to further fill in the blanks on what you’re trying to express.”
Lee’s authenticity and persistence paved the way for many women in rock today—artists like Billie Eilish, boygenius, and the now female-fronted Brazilian band Ego Kill Talent keep her optimistic about music. Though there’s still a long way to go, she’s seen firsthand how the industry has changed for the better. “[In 2003], I was usually the only woman there,” said Lee. “There [were] hardly any women backstage. Now, I haven’t had that experience in a really long time…. The more of us there are, the more of us there will be. I’m proud of the way it’s changed.”
On the road, Lee encounters fans around the world who tell her that Fallen changed their lives. “A shocking amount,” she says. “It doesn’t get old. It makes me emotional almost every time, because I’ve been through a lot of loss. I know what it means to be known in a song and to feel like you’re clinging to that music with your soul. I know that feeling, and the fact that we could be that for anybody is so moving to me still.” Lee begins to get emotional, hesitating to continue her thought and fighting back tears, but she persists. “I could get really existential. I could get really weird.” Lee contemplates love, grief, connection and spirituality as she explains the impact this album has had on her life. She could go on, the way she has all these years, but lands on this: “It’s just universal connection.”
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