Break the Internet ®
Aquaria as Amy Lee
Introduction by Erica Russell / Photography by Tanner Abel and Nicholas Needham
10 May 2021
For Amy Lee, the act of performing has always presented an opportunity to transform herself.
Offstage, the lead singer of Evanescence — once a symbol of Y2K-era pop culture, who has transcended the musical zeitgeist as one of the industry's most adaptable, reigning icons — exudes a friendly, effortless warmth and earnestness. In a casual setting (in this case, over Zoom), her energy gives off the vibe of a big sister or childhood friend: playful, comforting, familiar. Onstage or in her music videos, however, the musician undergoes a dramatic metamorphosis. Mic in hand, jet-black hair billowing behind her as that big, angelic voice erupts, she suddenly becomes Amy Lee: unstoppable, inimitable rock trailblazer.
This high-octane display is not so much representative of a persona, though, as it is simply a dramatic, exaggerated extension of Lee's inner self. RuPaul's Drag Race royalty Aquaria can certainly relate. The performer, who took home the crown during season 10 in 2018, is naturally a little introverted when not dressed in full glam and dazzling fans in venues across the globe.
"Aquaria is very much similar to me, but [she] allows me to express myself in a whole lot of different ways because I'm not the most expressive person out of drag," Aquaria admits, chatting with PAPER and Lee over a video call. "When I'm in drag, especially because I like to put on lots of different outfits and makeup, it really allows me to become something bigger than myself."
"It's really amazing to watch the transformation," Lee chimes in. "It's like another thing takes over, like you're inside a character, and it reminds me of the way that I feel when I'm on stage and the music just becomes personified in me. It's me when I'm on stage, for sure, but it's also kind of like I'm outside myself, like there's something else flowing through me."
Unfortunately, it's been a minute since Evanescence has hit the stage. (Blame the pandemic for the band's postponed tour, which was originally scheduled to kick off April 2020.) Following a near-decade since releasing their last full album of original music, and nearly two decades since the band made their full-length debut with 2003's Fallen, a record which spawned four hit singles including "Bring Me to Life" and "My Immortal," Evanescence made their grand return with their highly-anticipated fifth studio album in March 2021.
Recorded primarily over the course of the COVID-19 lockdown last year, an experience which had a profound effect on Lee and her bandmates, The Bitter Truth marks a return to Evanescence's signature electro-charged hard rock sound, with lyric themes that toggle between dark and light.
The album has also struck a chord with fans who had been eagerly awaiting new music during a particularly distressing time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Bitter Truth contains some of the group's most politically and socially charged music to date, touching upon restrictive societal expectations and issues surrounding mental health ("The Game Is Over"), as well as political discord and the importance of speaking up against injustice ("Use My Voice").
It's just one of the reasons Lee's music has long resonated with Evanescence's fans in the LGBTQIA+ community. As a disruptor of the early 2000s mainstream music scene, as well as a resilient and successful woman in a largely male-dominated genre, Lee can relate to queer listeners who might also feel like outsiders occasionally in their own lives. Even Aquaria counts the frontwoman as one of her personal artistic influences, having soundtracked many formative moments for the drag star during her youth.
Below, PAPER asked Aquaria to interview Amy Lee about Evanescence's politically charged new album, the band's diverse fanbase, and the art of onstage transformation through fashion and music.
Aquaria: [Your album] The Bitter Truth was a big part of the realization of everything that happened last year. What is the bitter truth to you? And how do you relate to that in your music?
Amy Lee: Naming the album is something I tend to overthink, because there are so many elements to making our music. It takes me forever to find the perfect line, you know, to live up to what I want for the song or the artwork. But for some reason, the thesis of this album presented itself somewhere along the way really naturally, where I didn't have to think too hard. I'm grateful for that. I don't even know how to sum up in a word how the last year and a half has been, but it's been unlike any time in our lives.
On one level it made the world have to focus a little bit and really see and just be faced with our mortality, and that's something I relate to. I'm not a super dramatic person in real life, either. Like, I'm a happy friend and a mom and all those things, but I've been through some heavy shit and times in my life when I've faced horrible loss and great challenges, things to overcome. Those have been the times for me when I've run headfirst to music. For me; it's like if you can turn something hard, something terrible into something beautiful — especially when it's something that you can share with somebody else and help them to process their own struggles — it makes it all feel like it has a purpose.
The Bitter Truth can mean a lot of things, but on an internal level so much of it is about facing the demons; facing the things about ourselves that we maybe don't want to admit. I can't fix anything that's wrong with me and I can't grow until I first admit that something's broken, that something hurts, that something's wrong. The same thing applies to the world around us. In society, we're never gonna be able to change, we're never gonna be able to get past some of these horrible injustices, until we first admit what's going on, admit the truth and admit what's broken, so that we can potentially get to a better place.
Aquaria: Well, I think that's beautiful. I'm definitely still coming into my own personally, and this past year has been a lot about facing whatever's going on in my brain head-on. So I think the way you've chosen to view the hardships of life and see the light at the end of the tunnel is a mindset that I hope to latch onto, as well.
Amy Lee: We're all dealt different hands. We're not entitled to anything. But how we react is the one thing that we can control and the one thing that makes us who we are, so the best we can do in those moments is overcome!
Aquaria: Absolutely. In the same way that I think a lot of queer people turn to drag to bloom and blossom, I think it's so special that you have such an immense talent for music and composition, and that you get to channel it in a way that makes so many people happy. And I think it's awesome that you've continued to not just give the fans what they want, but be yourself, which is what the fans really deserve from you.
Amy Lee: You nailed it! That's what I want to do. Like, I can only give them what they want if I believe that what they want is me just being myself. Copying the same thing over and over again wouldn't be true to myself.
Aquaria: For sure. I feel like so many artists deal with this question of, "Do I always have to be that old me that everyone liked?"' This new album, it's giving very Fallen, but it's also the bridge between The Open Door and the rest of your catalogue. It's hard rock, but has a techno aspect to it. It's fanservice-y, but it's also a breath of fresh air at the same time. Being able to create that sort of magic is super special.
Amy Lee: Thank you. You know what? It's all just coming from the heart. We just made the music that we wanted to make, so it feels really good to us, too. Sound-wise, it's like industrial metal-meets-electronica. There's certain inspirations that I went back in time for, like Orgy, Depeche Mode, The Prodigy — stuff from the '90s that was heavy, but electronic-based.
Aquaria: And also, the majority of this album was created last year, which obviously was a lot for everyone. I was over here doing drag in my kitchen! Don't ask how it happened, it didn't happen too much.
Amy Lee: Gotta have something to do!
Aquaria: But how was that, creating an album more remotely than you'd probably want to with a band?
Amy Lee: It really was just this constant question of, "How do we do this?" It was a challenge, but it felt really good every time we found a way to push through and make something happen. We recorded four songs right before the shutdown and then we were all pushed apart. One of our guitarists is actually in Germany and we haven't been able to be with her in person since. The tour was called off and it was like a bunch of dominoes [falling], like, "Okay, we're stuck in this new world we've never seen before, and we don't know what's going to happen or when it's going to be over, so what do we do?"
It was new territory, but we said we were going to release a new album, so then we started releasing it song by song, which created motivation and also pressure to find a way to finish the rest of the album. We made this commitment to just go for it, because I didn't want to disappoint our fans right now. I wanted to give them something good. I wanted to have something to work toward and be alive for. Nothing makes me feel good like when we finish a song.
Aquaria: That effort to push through whatever hardship is very apparent lyrically on the album. I also think that the creation process of trying to put something together in such a ridiculous time also comes through in the music, as well. At least in my head, it makes it a lot more personal and touching.
Amy Lee: Meaningful, right. It made it worth more, somehow. It really did. It was like, wow, we can't take anything for granted. I can't believe that we made this happen somehow. And I'm so grateful to be in a band for my job and I can't wait to go on tour again.
Aquaria: I'm sure that there are, just like with any job, highs and lows. I know when I'm touring with the other drag queens, a lot of the time they're rolling their eyes, like, "Oh, we have to do this one-hour meet-and-greet before the show." Because sometimes it does take a lot out of you to prepare energetically for that, but a couple months into last year I was like, "Alright, let's get back to it! I'll never complain again!"
Amy Lee: You're so funny! My best friend and I just had this conversation. She's my hair and makeup artist, we've been touring together since the very first year I started touring. I was like, "Oh my God, we were just taking stuff for granted. Why did we complain so much when we were on tour? Let's never complain again!" She was like, "Yeah, we'll never complain again." Then there was a bit of silence and she was like, 'Until like, 15 minutes in.'
Aquaria: Speaking of hair and makeup, obviously those are two really big things in my life. There have been so many times in my styling where I've subconsciously thought about you, like anytime I wear my long, straight black hair. Anytime I do my smokey eye with the piercing blue contacts, you're the reference in the back of my head: "I'm giving Miss Evanescence!" Where do you begin to visually emote in your glam and fashion? What does your stage presentation mean to you and how do you go about designing that?
Amy Lee: My first vision for what I wanted to look like had to do with bringing very different things together and making them work. It was this combination of classical influence — sort of like a film score, something elevated with strings and emotion — with the impact and aggression and heaviness of a hard rock band. The "look" was about trying to bring a visual element to the music, so the "goth" thing for me was the classical influence — bringing in some Victorian-era stuff and then distressing it and mixing it with chains and dark makeup and ripped parts and all of that was my way of describing the music, visually.
Alexander McQueen was a hero of mine. And just generally, I love asymmetry. I love it when things are super long on one side, and then short over here. Part of that I feel like is coming from something in me that feels fractured. Like, I'm owning my imperfections and showing how beautiful something not perfectly straight can be, if that makes sense.
Aquaria: Oh, I know. Not being perfectly straight is perfectly fine.
Amy Lee: I heard myself say that and I was like, "You're gonna make a joke."
Aquaria: Typical drag queen. What has it been like being such a prominent woman in rock? How do you see the scope of and just the overall impact you've had on other artists?
Amy Lee: It feels really good to hear that because there have definitely been times in my life, even in the past 10 years, when I didn't feel cool to the mainstream world. Being a woman in music, though — it's funny because I wasn't just a girl. I was always the youngest of everyone around me, the only girl for miles, and short. I was 5'4", surrounded by big older dudes with tattoos. I just really loved heavy music and I knew that what I was bringing to the table wasn't like anything else, but I believed that that was a strength. I could come in and be feminine in that world instead of trying to pretend to be something that I wasn't. Some women do in the rock world come off really strong and aggressive, and that's great! It's just not who I actually am.
Coming in and doing something different and owning it was wonderful, but it was also scary and intimidating.There were a lot of times that I felt I was kind of faking it by acting like I always felt confident when I definitely didn't on the inside, but sometimes you just have to believe in yourself and go for it. Give it all you got and don't hold anything back and don't apologize for being who you are! In the end, if what you've been all along was yourself, then you don't have anything to regret. You don't have to look back and go, "Man, I wish I hadn't faked it. If they only knew who I really was or what my full potential was, then maybe things would have been different."
Aquaria: I'm always inspired by anyone who can impart any sort of wisdom on others. The clarity of your authenticity is something that I strive to achieve someday.
Amy Lee: You've already achieved quite a lot. You're so creative. Watching you on Drag Race, you're an incredible makeup artist, you're an incredible hairstylist, you have an incredible gift. It reminds me a little bit of what I do because, from the fashion to the character to the music, all these different elements combine to create something. You're putting together a piece of art, the same way as putting on a show or writing a song. It's all made up of little elements and you have to be a really creative person to make the whole thing come together with your vision. I just think that's super inspiring. And I can relate to it.
Aquaria: I feel like that's something we both have in common, and something that so many LGBTQ+ fans definitely see in you and gravitate toward. Not every rock band has a large gay fan base or whatever, so what does that mean to you?
Amy Lee: It means a lot. To those fans: We've always known that you were there. You're one of us because I'm all about not fitting into the mold and about being who you really are despite what anybody thinks about you. I have a lot of beautiful friends in the LGBTQ+ community. I also have friends who have disabilities and who have been through things that set them apart; they live their life in a way that doesn't fit the most obvious path. I relate to all of that.
For me, there were a lot of things in my youth that made me feel different. The first thing was experiencing loss. I lost my sister when I was really young and it put my head in a different space. My priorities were different and what I wanted to do was different. I felt alone. It's hard to explain, but music became my place to be me.
It's been such a beautiful thing, though, seeing so many different people coming together. There's this beautiful unity through the music because we all feel different, and I love that so much. It really does just make it feel a lot less lonely. We have each other and the more that we can express ourselves and share, "I get what you mean, I felt like that before," then the better life we can live not being alone and knowing that we're all more alike than we realized.
Aquaria: Period. One distinct Evanescence memory I have is from probably 10 or so years ago, right when I was getting into drag online, 'cause that was how I learned about the art form. I saw a video of Shannel, a queen from season one of Drag Race, doing this insane performance of "My Immortal," dressed as a bride holding a bloody head. I remember that being one of the first drag performances that just left me speechless.
Amy Lee: That's so cool. I'm trying to remember if I've seen that one or not. It rings a bell, but it would have been a long time ago.
Aquaria: And on tour last year I did a lot of flying with wires and stuff like that. It reminds me of the "Call Me When You're Sober" video, which was another big highlight of my youth. I remember watching it on MTV or VH1 right when the video premiered and being so blown away by the drama and glamour of everything.
Amy Lee: That dress was a total Alexander McQueen ripoff. I was like, "Can we get a real sample?" And they were like, "No." So I was like, "Let's make one!" Sometimes you just have to make it yourself.
Aquaria: I wanted to circle back to the album one last time and touch on how politically and socially driven the music is. Considering this past year and your song "Use My Voice," why was that such an important theme to include in this body of work?
Amy Lee: Last year in particular I felt so misrepresented, and I know I'm not alone in that. So many of us felt like we weren't being represented, and I can't even sum it up in words better than on "Use My Voice." We're not helpless like we're being made to feel. We're not voiceless. In fact, we have a loud voice. We need to stand up for truth and empowerment and make sure people know that [their voice] absolutely does count.
Everybody needs to vote, please. Stand up for yourself. If something's wrong, raise your hand and go, "I don't agree!" Because that's what it takes for change. We can't just sit around complaining about it. It became really important for us to use our platform and that was definitely a little bit of a bridge to cross because we're not a political band, but it just became too important. We can't have peace and love without accountability and equal rights.
I'm very proud that things have taken a positive change. There's still a lot of fighting to be done obviously, especially for voter rights which are actively being suppressed. It's wrong. It's not what this country is supposed to be. We have had to get active and call senators and all that stuff. I wrote a pretty awesome letter, but I need to actually call them on the phone, so I'm working up the nerve!
Aquaria: If I were a senator, I would feel so blessed to receive a call from you.
Amy Lee: Not if you're a Tennessee senator!
Aquaria: It's tricky to weave political messages into a silly drag performance, or a rock album, or a painting, or any kind of art, but I think it's so important and commendable. You've got a massive fanbase, so for so many people to hear that message.
Amy Lee: You do too! You know, whatever we can do to just shine a light and show other sides and other perspectives, I think that in itself is really good for the world. So, keep it up!
Stream The Bitter Truth by Evanescence, below.
Evanescence's Fall 2021 tour with Halestorm kicks off Friday, November 5th in Portland, Oregon. General on-sale begins Friday, May 14th at 10 AM local time through LiveNation.com. For more info, visit Evanescence.com.
Photography: Tanner Abel and Nicholas Needham