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Beauty and aggression mix in universal messages

Special to The Times

Amy Lee’s family wasn’t thrilled when she quit college after one semester three years ago when her band, Evanescence, got a record deal.

It’s hard to argue about the decision now, given how the band burst into the top 10 after its debut single, “Bring Me to Life,” was featured on the soundtrack to the movie “Daredevil” and in a stunning video. And the album, “Fallen,” has been a fixture near the top of the charts, with current U.S. sales totaling about 1.8 million since its release in March.

Lee’s folks are hardly in a position to criticize. For one thing, her father also had dropped out of college to pursue a rock dream before choosing to raise a family and work in the relatively steady world of radio. But they’ll be glad to know that their daughter is using her opportunities to engage in some cultural anthropology, studying concert audiences as closely as they’ve been watching her.

“I swear, it’s 50-50 guys and girls, which is so unusual for rock concerts,” says Lee. “I haven’t seen that ever.”

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But then, the band’s female presence is less -- Lee is the only female of the four members. And in the world of hard rock, at least top-selling hard rock, it might be possible these days to count the women on one finger.

Lee’s sensitive, pained lyrics and soaring voice, which give the band a sound described as what it would be like if Tori Amos or Kate Bush fronted Linkin Park, are an anomaly in hard rock, yet she wonders why there aren’t dozens of young women doing something similar.

“I don’t understand why it’s strange,” says Lee, 21. “The pain and experiences we talk about in our songs are totally universal. It doesn’t have a gender. There are very aggressive parts and very beautiful parts to our music. But don’t men and women have both of those parts in their personalities?”

The Evanescence blend has been in place since Lee was 13 and met Ben Moody, a junior high school mate in Little Rock, Ark., where the Florida-born Lee’s family recently had moved.

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“I played music before, but with Ben it felt like we were playing music for a long time together,” she says.

Lee brought to the duo devotion to both Nirvana and Bjork, as well as to Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Janis Joplin and, yes, Tori Amos. The duo worked on honing their vision while in high school.

“We had all these ideas, but couldn’t do it because we didn’t have the means,” she says. “So we would do cheap imitations of what we wanted it to be on demos recorded in Ben’s garage.”

The vision was so intact, though, that some of the songs and some of the actual demo tracks ultimately were incorporated into the album.

“On ‘Fallen,’ some of those songs are 5 years old and they survived,” she says. “It wasn’t just a childish effort -- we did have the vision from the beginning. For the song ‘My Immortal,’ we did a real quality version with the strings, and our label was stuck on the demo. That’s me singing when I was 18. Ben worked in a recording studio in Arkansas, so he had the key and we could sneak in after dark. That’s where we recorded that.”

Those demos got the attention of Wind-up Records, the New York-based label best known as the home of Creed.

“It’s something Diana Meltzer, our senior vice president of A&R;, had heard,” says Wind-up President Steve Lerner. “It was so different musically, and that voice so unique, that we followed up.”

There was no question about the music being ready, but the company was concerned that Lee and Moody weren’t ready in other aspects. So a program of slow development was initiated, reminiscent of Motown’s old “finishing school” for its artists.

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“We sent them to L.A. for a year or more for personal development, which included life development by simply being in a city like L.A., exposed to different things than in Little Rock,” Lerner says. “They had acting lessons, movement lessons. This is old-school artist development, not marketing, just giving the artist a chance to grow. It was clear the talent was there. We were just feeding some intangibles of life experience for them to be digging deeper.”

It seems to have worked, though Lee has a natural poise that serves her well in the sudden spotlight.

She addresses a few minor controversies with assuredness -- notably the matter of whether the band is a Christian act. (She does identify herself as Christian, but the band is not, and she’s mystified at the mini-tempest among Christian retailers after Moody used a four-letter word in an interview.)

She also has an assuredness about her future, with interests in acting and art as well (she’s an accomplished painter).

And she’s sanguine about the unwanted attention that comes with being that rare female in the rock world.

“The guys who come to the shows, I’m fairly convinced, are mostly there not because it’s a hot chick rock band singer,” she says. “There’s some of that, and I tolerate it -- people who don’t appreciate the art, want to get drunk and harass me. It’s part of the gig. They’re a minority, and my cool fans take care of them for me.”

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Evanescence

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Where: Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City

When: Monday, 7:15 p.m., with opening acts Cold, Revis and Cauterize

Cost: $22.50

Info: (818) 622-4440


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