Rock's a hard place -- ask Evanescence

Times Staff Writer

YOU might not immediately recognize Amy Lee's name, but you'd know her if she plummeted past you from the top floor of a tenement building. That's how anyone with basic cable first saw the singer for the band Evanescence, in the video for the song "Bring Me to Life": falling backward in slow motion, her hair unfolding like a long black veil as she headed for hard pavement below.

"Bring Me to Life," with its mix of voluptuous singing and metallic guitar (the latter steroidically enhanced by guest vocalist Paul McCoy's rap-rock declamations), began the groundswell that resulted in U.S. sales of nearly 7 million copies of "Fallen," Evanescence's 2003 Wind-Up Records debut. The song also set off a chain of associations that made Lee, whose band releases its latest album, "The Open Door," this week, the most successful uncool rock star of the last few years.

"I've always been a very passionate, sometimes overly emotional person," Lee, 24, said in a cafe down the street from her apartment near Gramercy Park here. "Sometimes things affect me more than they should. That's the struggle, because that's part of what makes me a good artist. These very powerful feelings that make me want to write music about it, and just bleed my heart out on the page."

Bleeding on the page is not a good credibility move for a woman in rock. Evanescence's sound aims for mainstream radio; it's also trying to forge something new from influences as diverse as choral music, trip hop, heavy metal and Tori Amos. But "Bring Me to Life," with its lyrical drama and crunchy guitars, branded the band as overdone nu-metal. A Gothic streak hasn't helped, giving rise to the double standard that afflicts women in pop who strive too openly: eyeliner-loving boy bands may mine Goth glamour to counter emo-rock's earnestness, but Lee's unironic interest in high art and religion have pegged her as sophomoric and pretentious.

Then there was the Jesus problem: Lee met band co-founder Ben Moody at a church youth camp in their hometown of Little Rock, Ark., and when the band signed to Wind-Up, the label pushed "Fallen" toward the lucrative Christian market. The band objected -- Lee calls her music "spirit-driven," not specifically religious -- but couldn't shake the association.

New and abused

IN 2003, the year of conceptualists the White Stripes and OutKast, a 21-year-old former Arkansas choir leader singing about immortality while four beefy, tattooed boys bashed out aggressive rock stood little chance of being an "It Girl." The band did win the best new artist Grammy, but fellow nominee 50 Cent felt so little respect that he bum-rushed Lee's acceptance speech. And so the dichotomy unfolded, as it had for female rockers, mainstream rockers and God-minded rockers many times before: Evanescence became huge, and hugely unhip.

Still, somebody has to like Evanescence. Wind-Up Records Chairman Alan Meltzer says that the band occupies a rare spot in the hearts of today's savvier-than-thou music fans.

"Amy is a guilty pleasure for male fans," he said in a separate interview. "We commissioned some market research to find out exactly who Evanescence's audience is. The demographic ran from 13 to 54. There was something for everybody there: 18-to-24-year-old boys go to the show with their girlfriends, and they like it.... They're not supposed to like a female singer. It's a cultural thing, almost."

Lee hopes that "The Open Door," Evanescence's absorbingly ambitious new album, will be heard as transcending limits, both personal and artistic. "The Open Door" comes after several crises for Lee that could have been ripped from the Women in Rock handbook -- a struggle with her male songwriting partner and ex-boyfriend Moody over leadership of the band; her lawsuit against ex-manager Dennis Rider alleging, among other things, sexual harassment; her breakup with longtime boyfriend Shaun Morgan, whom she says inspired the first single from "The Open Door," "Call Me When You're Sober"; and the menacing attentions of an overzealous fan, which gave rise to another song, "Snow White Queen," a harrowing account of a stalker and his victim.

"I was really, really looking forward to being able to trust," Lee says of writing and recording "The Open Door." "The studio was like a free place where we could just be musicians and see what came out....I was going through a lot of personal drama unrelated to the band. But the actual music-making was the best it's ever been."

"The Open Door" is Lee's debut as Evanescence's undisputed leader. She stands firmly at the center of its whorl of personal confession, high theater and head-banging rock. The music probably won't convince the cognoscenti: It's too pop for some and too hard for others. The lyrics are youthfully earnest and sometimes obvious. But it is exciting to hear, throughout this avid music, a major young talent kicking against the restrictions of the rock she loves.

"I had so many things I was afraid to try," Lee said of her band's platinum debut. "I felt I wasn't good enough -- my voice wasn't good enough, or my idea was silly, or someone would laugh at me. Success gave me confidence as an artist. And now I'm able to do what I want without anybody thinking it's dumb."

That America's most popular young female rock singer would entertain thoughts of herself as "silly" speaks volumes about the ongoing predicament of women in the shrinking market niche of hard rock, where traditional ideas of male prowess and female weakness still rule.

Women have succeeded in the many rock hybrids: country rock, punk rock, blues rock. But it's rare to hear a female voice in plain old rock, especially one as forthright as Lee's.

Though she professes a fondness for Soundgarden and Korn, Lee's musical heroines are trailblazers who'd never qualify as metal queens. "Portishead was really big for me," Lee said. "Beth Gibbons' vulnerability is just frightening. And Bjork -- Bjork's very, very big for me in a lot of ways. There are so many things that she does that when I hear it, I think, she's gonna get [criticized] for this. Because nobody's gonna understand it. And she doesn't fit into this perfect, hot-girl, strong-woman category."

Gibbons and Bjork, who mix dance beats with rock elements, found freedom in being hard to categorize. More of such elusiveness could benefit Lee, who's got the range: She wrote all the choral parts on "Fallen," and even based the new song "Lacrymosa" on part of Mozart's Requiem.

"If the band hadn't taken off," she said, "I would have been through college by now as a music theory and composition major." Instead, she's grappling with the rules of metal, where classical training is only a plus if paired with major machismo.

The terms that define heavy rock are stereotypically masculine. Feelings can be expressed, but girlish sentimentality must not get into the mix. The metal man can mourn, or be angry, but he should do so fiercely. Theatricality, though prevalent, is also risky; a spaghetti tenor like Meat Loaf (a high school favorite of Lee's) always teeters on the edge of self-parody. When women try to find their place in metal's raw landscape, they usually end up as cartoonish leather chicks, or else give up and just become singersongwriters who occasionally cover Nirvana.

With "The Open Door," Lee is seeking a woman's place within this virility-obsessed milieu.

"You can't be hard all the time," she said. "I mean that's in there too, but you know what? This goes for the vulnerability and the strength, for the quiet moments in the music, and the big moments in the music -- the dark side isn't as dark without the light."

Ann Wilson of Heart, whose bold vocals helped define the rock goddess role, considers Lee's straightforward femininity to be her strong point.

"She's not doing a bunch of backflips or the Mariah Carey dog whistle, she's just singing it pretty much straight and letting her emotions carry the punch," Wilson said from her Seattle home. "All these chicks think they have to be athletic with their voices. It's always such a relief to me when someone just sings."

Wilson admires Lee for forging ahead with a rock band. "Most women who have incredible, dynamic range, like Amy does, will go into pop," she said. "And they'll go off by themselves. They won't be a team player in a band. There might be people around them going, 'Come on little girl, you don't need these guys.' And then they get whipped into the pop quagmire."

One of the boys

LEE'S dedication to the team remains firm, although she talks about going solo in the distant future -- to write for film. In one way she is a quintessential rock chick: She gets along great with rock guys, sharing in fart jokes during rehearsals and loving the jackhammer force of amplified guitar as much as anyone. In guitarist Terry Balsamo, her main writing partner on "The Open Door," she found a rocker who viewed her ideas as bold, not frivolous.

Balsamo, whose large frame and twisted dreadlocks belie a natural sweetness, says their intricate collaborative process was a joy. "Every little part, we would write bit by bit, and come up with something that we liked," the Florida native said during a break in band rehearsals in Weehawken, N.J. "Each part took a lot of concentration on the little things."

According to Lee, this careful interchange differs completely from her work with Moody, who quit the band mid-tour in 2003 and was replaced by Balsamo.

"Ben was very controlling and very judgmental," she said. "It was a fight every time I wanted to try something creative. I felt like any moment he would slap at me or tell me, 'We can't do that, we're not Christina Aguilera.' "

Her bandmates echo her words. "Amy gained authority as soon as Ben Moody walked out the door," said guitarist John LeCompt, who's been with the group since 2002. "They had an equal partnership, but he was the man, he had to strangle the band, all the life out of it."

(Moody, who is working on a solo project and writing songs for pop stars such as Kelly Clarkson and Lindsay Lohan, declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this article.)

Wind-Up, a small label known for intense involvement with its artists, had moved the band members to Los Angeles before "Fallen" was recorded to connect them more closely with the music industry. This time, said Meltzer, their strategy was hands-off.

"Amy needed to experience life post-Ben Moody, she needed to build up her self-esteem," he said. "That meant no outside involvement. She locked herself in a room with Terry and [producer] Dave Forman and just wrote."

It took time for the isolation to bear fruit.

"L.A. doesn't have any big personality to me, it's not inspiring," said Lee, who prefers the grit and crowds of Manhattan, where she moved last spring. "I hadn't written anything for a month or so -- and then there were mudslides. It rained for four days straight; people were stuck, houses were sliding down the road. And I wrote more music in those four days than I had in the past three months. It was that moody, wonderful space where you just wake up and it's all snuggly and you're in that whole metaphor of sadness, this perfect release."

The storms released Lee's creative flow -- then a far more personal cataclysm nearly destroyed it.

Working alone in the studio early one morning, Balsamo, only 33, had a stroke. Lee, who has endured several major losses since the death of her younger sister when she was 6, was blindsided by this one.

"It was a horrifying experience because he didn't have health insurance," she said. "The ambulance took him to this community hospital where they weren't even going to give him an MRI until the next morning. Meanwhile, the first 12 hours after a stroke, long-term effects are happening. And 12 hours goes by, because we're filling out all this paperwork. It was hell....

"This is so silly, but he had a room in my house -- it was a little guest room that I'd jokingly painted pink, with feather boas on the mirrors. I called it 'the princess room.' And that night I slept in his room. I just put on Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side of the Moon,' and stayed up all night, praying and thinking about him and what was going to happen."

Lee calls Balsamo's subsequent recovery "a huge miracle," though he shrugs it off with typical modesty. "I'm not appreciating stuff more now or anything," he laughed. "I never took anything for granted before. I'm pretty much the same old dude." Physical therapy is helping him regain the use of his left side, which was paralyzed; 11 months after the stroke, he's rehearsing for Evanescence's world tour.

If Lee really were the Little Red Gothic Hood her public image suggests, Balsamo's stroke would fit right into the fairy tale: one more peril on the way out of the dark woods. But Lee is a real person. She's not sure, yet, if she believes in happy endings. She does, however, enjoy the sensation of being in charge of her own path.

"This is a rough industry, and it's really rough for girls," she said. "I'm not a badass who's been around. I'm a young, impressionable kid, who's also a woman. So basically I'm being told what to do, like a little girl. And I'm really only now learning to stand up and say, 'Don't treat me like that.' "

ann.powers@latimes.com

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