Monday, December 17, 2018

Amy Lee: A Great Artist Who Keeps Getting Better

Amy Lee's birthday was last week.

If you read this blog all the time (😉) you know that I wrote about her last Summer when I went with my kids to her amazing concert with her band and a full orchestra and Lindsey Stirling too.

Amy Lee is one of my favorite people in the contemporary music world and she is a whirlwind of creativity in more ways than people realize. What we see up front with Amy is a striking, talented performer who has had a variety of stage personae over the years but who always pours all her energy into giving a powerful, dynamic show. But...

WAIT. STOP. Some of you, no doubt, are thinking, "Who is Amy Lee?" I must say that I am proud of her for the fact that she is not ridiculously famous. She is certainly well-known among the significant circles of people who value her music.

Amy Lee is an extraordinary musical artist, and I want to write something more about her.

I am aware of the fact that the world of contemporary music and art is a deeply ambivalent domain, but there is much good and much beauty in the work of artists today. There are also admirable resources of humanity in artists who live and endure their psychologically complex creative personalities—sometimes under enormous external pressures and expectations—and try to bring together sounds into original forms of beautiful expression.

Artists are peculiar people. That is a fact that is not always pleasant or comprehensible to others. Creativity pushes the limits of human energy, and it takes its toll on those who are called to it.

I am particularly concerned about the overwhelming, overheated tension that envelops a creative person in today's world when they enter the strange space of intersection between art, communications media, and celebrity status. It's like a vortex that often opens suddenly and unexpectedly, where it is all too easy for the creative person to lose their footing and be sucked down.

Amy Lee was a celebrity in this wildly artificial way, once upon a time, as the frontwoman of a rock band that sold an avalanche of CDs and "blew up the radio" (and also the nascent digital streaming world) with their first industry labeled album and several major hit songs in the year 2003.

"Ah!" ... some of you (late millennials, mostly) are thinking, "you mean Amy Lee from Evanescence. Oh yeah, I remember her! I loved that band when I was 12 years old. Way back in the early Aughts, 'Bring Me to Life' and 'My Immortal' and all those desperate, sad songs, and those videos where Amy Lee is drowning or falling from a skyscraper in a big billowy Victorian dress. Yeah. I still have that album ... somewhere. Whatever happened to them, or her? Didn't they do something recently?"

The short answers are "they have been around and active in music the whole time" and "yes, they sure did."

The hard rocking band Evanescence made a huge splash in 2003. A group of young people from Little Rock, Arkansas, some of whom had been playing together since 1998, caught the trend of the times which was swinging away from highly produced glitz and glamor and toward a loud edgy sound and more fringy fashions. But Evanescence had a unique factor that remains the defining feature of their sound: the brilliant, intuitive, visionary, persistent, wildly talented, relentless musical volcano named Amy Lee.

In those early days she was a diminutive oddball kid with long hair dyed black-as-night, and a variety of mixed outfits that ranged from Gothic dresses to calf-length black boots. She had brooding eyes with a stud poking through one pierced eyebrow. You could be forgiven for wondering if she even knew how to smile.

But behind all of that costume was a very nice, intelligent, determined girl who dreamed of making great music. She was a classically trained pianist and the student leader of her award winning high school choir. Intensely artistic and melancholic, she wrote sad, introspective songs as an outlet for her emotions. She had begun studying composition at a music conservatory when Evanescence was offered a record deal.

Amy could write music using actual music notation. She could arrange music for choir. But Evanescence put her under the spotlight as a lead singer. A female-fronted heavy rock band was an unusual thing back in the early Aughts. But Amy absolutely "killed it"! She made history.

From the start, her voice soared over crunching guitars and heavy drumbeats with a haunting beauty, and then it would suddenly dive down into her rich lower register. People were "shook" by it.

And her voice continued to develop as she continued to challenge it with the increasingly complex songs she was writing. It's hard to describe the unique sound that Any Lee has developed over 15 years. It's not operatic or choral but it's not exactly like any contemporary style, though she draws on elements from all of these.

She has an "epic voice" that is compelling and cathartic to listen to, almost regardless of the words. She could sing from a grocery list and make it like bells ringing inside your soul. But Amy does more than sing. She plays the piano impressively. She is also a serious composer; she creates layers of bold, original vocal and instrumental music with texture and depth. She is authentic, passionate, and focused. She works very hard in the studio to record melody and harmony with precision and naturalness. Her voice and technique include idiosyncratic elements (one could even call them "flaws") but she integrates these into her overall vocal presentation to underscore the emotions of a song.

Evanescence was always something more than "just a rock band." Amy's vision was to make music on a grand and dramatic scale, to fuse the energy of rock with the intensity and seriousness of classical and film music and the expansive explorations of electronic music. Her aim was to weave these elements together with her own powerful vocals and the exquisitely written two or three part harmonies surrounding the melody line. And then, of course, sing all of it. The result has been a remarkable collection of songs crafted through an enormous amount of hard work in the studio.

It is also especially awesome to hear Amy present these ambitious compositions on a live stage. Amy the composer is perhaps "ahead" of Amy the singer, at least in live performance. She has some songs that I'm not sure anybody could sing perfectly in concert, but it's thrilling to see her try.... Sometimes in a live show she may strain or fall a little flat, but it's more than forgivable, and when she does nail it, it's stupendous.

But how much music has she made? With Evanescence, fame in 2003 brought a lot of pressures and some personal conflicts. The debut album, Fallen, sold around twenty million copies (and continues to sell even today). But Amy refused to be pushed by the record company into cranking out another album. She took her time and prioritized not only her own artistic pace but also her private and personal life. The second album (The Open Door) did not appear until 2006. It also went multi-platinum in sales, but more importantly (at least in my opinion) it was a significant creative advancement. Then, after extensive struggles with the record company, the third album (called simply Evanescence) came out near the end of 2011.

Through all this time (and even before it), Amy made music together with a variety of other talented musicians who were part of the Evanescence band at different periods in its history. They have also made very important contributions to the composition, sound, and virtuosity of the band's recordings and performances. The story of the band and its many lineup changes is long and complex; it's worth noting that the current group (most of whom were part of the 2011 record) may be the strongest lineup yet in terms of superior artistry and versatility. From the very beginning, however, Evanescence has been "Amy Lee's band"—her vision, her leadership, and her immense and multifaceted creative energy are pervasive throughout the whole catalog of Evanescence music, and are responsible for its consistent and distinctive character. Of all the many factors of Amy's central and defining place in the band, her inimitable soul-stirring voice is only the most obvious one.

When I finally stumbled upon their eponymous third album not long after its release, it was my belated introduction to the whole odyssey of Evanescence as a musical phenomenon and Amy Lee as an artist. I was very late to the game, but I had no trouble working my way backwards to their origins. The third album is underappreciated and never got the attention it deserved. But it got my attention. (What a solid, tight, intricate piece of work it is!) Just when the fickle tongues of American pop-culture-people were saying, "Whatever happened to Evanescence?" there was in fact a great album and a world tour happening in 2012. I had just begun to discover them.

From 2003 - 2017, they released "only" three albums. But the quality of the music on those albums is consistently excellent. This makes sense. Excellence requires time.

Human beings also require time to live human lives. Between those album recordings, Amy Lee became a wife and mother. She also moved to Brooklyn (where there's a thriving young music culture), learned to play the harp, and built a home recording studio.

It also became clear that something had to be done to wrest her artistic freedom out of the hands of an irresponsible record label. Amy sued the record company for financial mismanagement and won (thereby gaining ownership and rights over the whole catalog and taking the emerging "independent" path). Also during this time, she collaborated in writing and performing film music, and released a delightful children's album (which my daughter Josefina loves ... and so do I).

Then in 2017 came the project called Synthesis, which revisits old songs and adds some new ones in a different context, with the accompaniment of a symphony orchestra as well as 21st century electronic instruments. The result is a splendid recording that reached number 1 on the Classical Music charts, and an even more remarkable tour which we got to see and hear with our own eyes and ears. Synthesis remains a beautiful and very moving work, with an unusual level of musical richness.

It's exciting that Amy is now independent from the music "industry" and is working with gifted collaborators who understand her passion for making music. People are always impatient for her to do more, but she does her best work in her own time and integrated into the rhythm of her whole life. In any case, we should realize by now that her creative energy is very fruitful.

After the grand effort and success of this past year, no one should blame her if she just wants to take a break. Nevertheless we will no doubt see Evanescence do more music, and Amy will always be working on something at least in her home studio. I hope she keeps putting things out on the Internet, and that she can count on us to be perceptive listeners who recognize her gifts, encourage her freedom, offer constructive responses, and just generally enjoy sharing in her awesome musical explorations. I would say: "Amy, take your time! The music inside you is worthy of our patience. You are giving us works of enduring beauty."

On December 13, Amy Lee turned 37 years old. I want to wish a belated Happy Birthday to this musical genius and all around magnanimous lady. She is a mature artist who keeps growing and learning more, and she's in a position to be a real leader for the younger generation of emerging artists.

And what a great year of music she has given us! Over nearly two decades, the name "Evanescence" has become somewhat ironic for a group that has made such solid music, and then expanded it into a genre-transcending rhapsodic adventure and brought it to opera houses and concert halls all over the world. Synthesis has blazed a trail and opened up new creative possibilities. What can we say? "Amy Lee, thank you so much!!"