By Andy Argyrakis
From the moment double Grammy Award winners Evanescence broke ground worldwide in 2003, the Amy Lee–fronted act has not only stayed at the forefront of the alternative rock scene, but continues to sow its own earth with electronic and classically-influenced experiments. Along with deeply vulnerable, heart-on-sleeve songwriting that’s literally been life-changing for Evanescence’s legion of fans, the wait between ambitious undertakings has only increased their anticipation. The group’s fourth studio project, Synthesis, shot straight to the top 10 albums on Billboard in late 2017 after a six-year recording hiatus and served as the subject for an epic tour from coast to coast. While the album retains all of Evanescence’s signature elements, including Lee’s near operatic range, it’s anchored by a full orchestra accompanying the band through bold reimaginations of several beloved hits, plus a couple entirely new tunes.
“I think I can be kind of a difficult artist in some sense of the business side of it,” Lee admits with a laugh, talking to Ravinia Magazine about the lavish concept in advance of Evanescence’s venue debut on Tuesday, July 10. “I can only do what I really want to do. I have a hard time forcing myself to do what I think is the smart thing business-wise or from a marketing standpoint. I hear words like that and they generally make me turn in the other direction and want to do something else. This [album and tour] didn’t come from anybody saying this would be a good idea, this might be something that people will love and maybe we could make some money. It’s the opposite. The idea itself was extremely lofty and expensive and crazy and different. And there’s risk involved for sure, because you’re taking music that already worked, people already liked it and it’s been there for a long time, and you’re gonna go in and mess with it, change it, and show it to them in a different way that they might not like, but it’s something I just felt passionate about.”
“I feel like we spend a lot of time focusing on the rock aspect of the band, which is awesome and it’s a big part of it,” Lee continues. “[But I remember] in junior high having the idea of what this band could be. It was about this combination and contrast between being heavy but also like a beautiful film score and programming in the electronic world. I grew up inspired by bands like Massive Attack, Portishead, Björk, Tori Amos, and so many other things that aren’t rock, and I thought it would be really cool to show the different color palette of something that’s really always been there for me that people maybe didn’t see before. I thought it was just going to be a fun experience, but it really snowballed into something bigger because you’re really starting from scratch on the songs.”
In fact, it’s that very sense of deconstruction and synthesis in being accompanied by a live orchestra that will take center spotlight at Ravinia for the co-headlining concert with the virtually unclassifiable but regularly riveting violinist Lindsey Stirling. The pair of mutually admiring artists first linked up on Synthesis for the fresh cut “Hi-Lo,” and though they’re each turning in separate sets, chances are their paths will cross onstage at some point. “It’s a perfect match even if she wasn’t on this album,” Lee observes. “She has this beautiful classical side and is an amazing violin player, but she comes in and mixes that with so many different types of music, especially in that dubstep/electronic world that she fits so well.”
Lee also notes that the tag team will increase the scope and production of their engagements, but at the same time the present orchestral tour is bringing it all in closer to the chest. “I’m looking forward to and curious about what the difference will be, playing in bigger outdoor places with this show—it’s very different from the shows we’ve been working on for my whole career. It has always been such a big part of my role onstage to keep the energy high, keep everything going, keep the crowd from sitting down, and keep everybody screaming. This is such a contrast, as we intended it to be. We’re actually choosing places that have seats and encouraging people to sort of enjoy it like you would an opera or a theater show.
“It makes you focus on a completely different part of your performance. I have a lot more stage to truly focus on musicianship, which is cool, but it’s also kind of scary because it’s very vulnerable. There are moments during the show that are very raw and quiet. You just have to embrace that silence and be totally comfortable in your own skin, focus and make something beautiful. I think for me this show is a lot more focused on the emotional side—I can’t help but get choked up almost every night at some point.”
Although Lee is an enthralling entertainer who can command a stage of any size, she’s also incredibly relatable as a songwriter who isn’t afraid to bare her soul on record or before a live audience. Selecting from her catalogue of songs for either incarnation of Synthesis was literally like going back through her diary, from her teens through getting married and becoming a mother in young adulthood, but the symphonic setting and ongoing reactions from listeners finally allowed her to embrace even the oldest entries.
“The way we were able to go back into the past and not just play the same songs the same way again but to really open them back up and to breathe new life into them was really therapeutic,” Lee reveals. “I was forced to dig back into some of those very old songs where … it’s not that I’m embarrassed by them, but I feel like I’ve grown out of them in some ways, and to go back, embrace them, see the beauty in it and love it again is hard to explain. But that was really beautiful for me and puts this show in that space of respect, like respecting the whole journey and everything that we’ve been through—the good the bad. All of us survived, and the band not only still exists but has become something so meaningful.”
“Every day that we have a show, we meet people that have had a really personal experience with our music,” Lee continues, “whether it’s through grief over losing someone, how they went through processing that and how our music was a part of that journey, or overcoming mental illness or depression or going through a time when things were really hard and feeling like our music was something that helped them through it. I’ve heard those things from a lot of people and for a long time, and I’m at a point where I know that it’s done that for me. I wasn’t [intentionally] making music to help people, I was making it really from a place where I was working on myself.
“I’ve come to really appreciate the incredible gift that we’re able to all connect in our pain and not look at it in a way like everything’s so bad—to go through it together and be open enough to have a free place to express how hard life can be sometimes. We’re kind of all in this beautiful communion together. It’s just something that I’ve come to appreciate beyond ‘oh that lyric was silly, I wrote it when I was 18 years old.’ It’s just so much bigger than that to me now.”
Scanning the track list of Synthesis recalls just how many modern-day classics the band churned out despite or perhaps as a result of those struggles, including “My Heart Is Broken,” “Lost In Paradise,” “Lithium,” “My Immortal,” and “Bring Me to Life,” whose original versions appeared between 2011’s Evanescence, 2006’s The Open Door, and 2003’s Fallen. That debut disc from 15 years ago remains something remarkable, with its worldwide sales having since eclipsed 17 million copies—for perspective, that’s more than any Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, or Lady Gaga album.
“It’s been an incredible gift because it’s afforded me the ability to take artistic chances, like this Synthesis thing, and just go for it, have faith, have the ability and the resources to put that quality forward,” Lee confirms. “The money that we made from Fallen—when things were different and it was about CD sales—to be able to take that and put it back into our music in a way that it doesn’t feel like I’m going into debt or begging for money [Laughs] has been such a gift. Ever since that happened, I’ve always really thought, ‘That’s what this is. I need to pour that into always keeping the integrity of what I always dreamed this would be.’ We did get a whole lot of exposure in that time, and our fan base has stuck with us incredibly through all these years and accepted all the different twists and turns that we’ve taken. I think I’m the kind of artist who just wants to make the music that I want to make, period, so the fact that there are millions of people that hear it when I do take a chance and make some music, whether it’s unpredictable or not, it’s a wonderful thing. I’m so glad for that, and that’s just the way it had to be for me.” ▪
Andy Argyrakis is a Chicago-based writer/photographer whose credits include the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Herald, Daily Journal, Illinois Entertainer, Hear/Say Now, Concert Livewire, Chicago Now, Redeye, Metromix, Paste, DownBeat, Spin.com, MTV.com, Fuse TV, UP TV, Pollstar, and Celebrity Access. He also is the founder and content curator for ChicagoConcertReviews.com.