Last October, Evanescence lead guitarist Ben Moody unexpectedly left the group he cofounded just as it was becoming one of the biggest bands in the world. In her first interview since his departure, singer Amy Lee tells Blender: Im ready to face anything now.

Because Amy Lee wont heed municipal warning signage, it seems we are going to be pecked to death.

Blender and the petite, raven-haired Evanescence lead singer are sitting in the lovely City Botanic Gardens in Brisbane, Australia. Its summer in the Queensland capital, and its also the day of Evanescences debut Australian show. We have strolled to the Gardens Café to talk. Blender had spotted it earlier in the day and felt that its collection of macabre banyan trees, plus the eerie squawking and cackling in the undergrowth, would provide an appropriately gothic setting for our meeting.

Signs, however, clearly forbid the feeding of birds.

But holding out a hand with a piece of food in it isnt strictly feeding, is it? Lee reasons, waving her muffin.

Within seconds, our interview is an avian battle zone as parrots, pigeons and specimens of the mighty ibis swarm for a bite of her blueberry-flavored lunchtime snack. Its clear these animals have read the script to Hitchcocks The Birds and waste no time re-creating the arrck! arrck! and associated flapping and pecking of the classic film.

Blender is not ashamed to say that we find the situation quite scary. But not Lee. She is watery-eyed with pleasure.

See that? They fed off my hands! she exclaims as Blender wards the last of the marauding little bastards off the table.

Having animals feeding off me moves me to tears, Lee says, if thats not being a littledark.

* * * * *

Being a little dark, it turns out, is kind of her job. Just a year ago, the 22-year-old Lee and her co-songwriter and lead guitarist, Ben Moody, had finished recording Evanescences debut album, Fallen, in Los Angeles. The Little Rock, Arkansas, natives were playing gigs to crowds of 200. Since then, Lees skyscraping voice and macabre lyrical world crystallized in the single Bring Me to Life and Moodys goth-metal stylings have pushed Fallen to 3 million plus sales and made Lee one of the biggest female rock stars in the world.

But there has also been considerable intrigue and controversy. Evanescence are former stalwarts of the Christian-music circuit, but Fallen was removed from Christian record stores when the band told Entertainment Weekly last April that the album wasnt aimed at the faithful. Lee says she has never been formally religious. Moody, though, had publicly declared his strong beliefs.

I have to blame that on Ben, Lee says now. Even back when we were 15, he was saying, Jesus saved my soul, and I knew it would bring trouble.

Then there was Lee and Moodys relationship. Fallens sleeve dedications (She: Thanks for bringing me to life; He: You will always have all of me) suggested they had been lovers, but with success came rumors that Moody was unhappy with Lees growing profile and domineering approach.

Then, in October, while on tour in Europe, Moody left the group before a scheduled show. He has not spoken to his former bandmates since. Evanescence have continued without a pause, but with little explanation. There have even been rumors that Moody will return.

Savaged by birds or not, its clear Lee is here to set the record straight.

You know what I did this morning? she begins. I was writing a check as part of Bens settlement for quitting the band. Hes gone for good. We can all breathe again.

She smiles.

Ben leaving was a very good moment. We got to the point where the band was really unhealthy. I cant explain, because I dont yet totally understand it myself, but Ben and I pretended that we were friends when really we were business partners. We didnt talk. We never stayed on the same bus. We werent friends. We were friends when we met and I was 13 years old, butyou dont expect that to survive until youre 22. (Moody declined to comment.)

On the night of Moodys departure, Evanescence were in Stockholm, and Lee was suffering from viral bronchitis. Moody called the bands management in the U.S. and said he was quitting. Again, via management, Lee asked him to stay until the end of the tour. Otherwise, everything they had worked for the tour, the band would collapse.

But by the next morning, Moody was on a plane home.

At 8 A.M. the day after that, Lee called a band meeting. With steely resolve, she said she planned to improvise guitarist John LeCompt would now play lead. She wouldnt cancel a single show.

Ben knew I was ill, she says. He knew what he was doing. That made me angry. I wanted to prove we could come through the challenge.

And they did. Then, afterward, they threw a party.

Were all incredibly grateful that Ben isnt with us anymore, Ben included, Lee says. As far as I know, hes back in Little Rock now, doing what he wants. Working out of his home.

In fact, reports suggest that he has joined forces with Avril Lavigne for her next record. Lee says rumors that he was unhappy with her stardom and willfulness are untrue.

Its a lot more than that, she says. Ben had issues that had nothing to do with the band. I dont understand Ben. I never really have. I thought I did when we were kids, but that changed. Hes very difficult to figure out. One day hes one person, the next hes someone else.

You formed this band with Ben when you were 13. And yet you didnt want to call him the night he left? To be very honest, it would have been weird for me to call him. I dont want him to read this and hate me forever, so Im not going to say why I never went to see him.

* * * * *

You dont need to watch the lead singer giggle as shes being eaten by birds to realize that Evanescence are a little bit weird.

It began with the intense teenage bond of Lee and Moody, two introverts who met in 1995 at summer camp in Arkansas. She was 13, he 14. Lee had studied piano since fourth grade and represented Arkansas in its state choir. Moody was a budding guitarist. They began writing songs together.

They played occasional gigs in Little Rock with guesting musicians, but they kept their music mostly to themselves. By the time Lee was 19, they had made a demo that was overheard by an engineer while being mixed in a Memphis studio. The tape went to New York, and the band was signed by Wind-Up Records, the home of Creed.

Wind-Up unveiled an unorthodox plan for its charges: old-school artist development. Lee was 19 when she, Moody and keyboard player David Hodges were sent to live in Los Angeles, in an apartment in the Studio City neighborhood. They received $25 a day for expenses. Lee did the washing and cooking. I felt like an angry housewife sometimes, she says, laughing.

But she got a room to herself; Moody and Hodges had to share one. To combat her chronic shyness, she was sent to acting classes. Lees increasingly dark writings belied that shyness, though, and she had to attempt to find a way to communicate with an audience.

Fallen is no easy listen the gothic lyrics wrestle with themes of death and suffocation, crushed spirits and the search for redemption. Teenagers have identified and responded to Lees purple melodrama the way they do to Anne Rices haunted novels. When her mother heard the songs, she asked Amy if she wanted to see a therapist.

Lee has been mostly evasive about where her angst springs from. In the 80s, her parents, John and Sara, moved around among several states. While still in their twenties, they started a family. First came Amy, and then, three years later, a little sister. Amy adored her. In 1987, when Amy was 6, her sister contracted an unidentified illness and died at age 3. Even now, Lee says, doctors have been unable to explain exactly what occurred.

When that happened, my whole perception of life changed, Lee says. It sounds stupid, but that was when I became an artist. The music is my attempt to heal myself. Things like that can destroy you, or you can get through it.

Lees gray-blue eyes fill with tears. Her voice wobbles. The kids at the next table stop slurping their drinks. She says she wont reveal her sisters name, because it would be too weird to see it in print. It would upset her mother, she says, and you never know fans might try to find her grave. But listen to the song Hello on Fallen, and you feel the grief.

My sisters death taught me how short life can be, and it has driven me to achieve things, Lee says. I have a list of 50 things I want to achieve. Not necessarily in entertainment, just personal goals. Lifes fragility drives me on.

It is this drive that forms the paradox at the heart of Evanescence. Where Lees lyrics are forlorn and stricken, she is remarkably dynamic, energetic and precociously self-possessed for a woman who is only 22 years old.

I wanted to be an artist, but it turns out I have to be director and owner of Evanescence LLC too, she says. I can handle it.

Thus far, shes handled it well, by most accounts. But there have been some bumps along the way.

For example, there was the now-infamous dress she wore at a September 2003 show in New York, which she designed and embroidered with self-hating words like BITCH, NOTHING and USELESS. At the time, she said that the dress was a riposte to an ugly, abusive comment from a New York DJ who introduced the band to the crowd at the citys Webster Hall that past April. He said he had been jerking off to the picture of Lees face on the cover of Fallen. She was so disgusted, she says, she designed the dress and wore it at the bands next show at the venue.

I said it was a comment on tainted innocence, she recalls.

But it wasnt at all, it turns out. It was her statement against a boyfriend who physically and verbally abused her during a three-year relationship that ended relatively recently.

Most of Fallen is inspired by that relationship, she says, declining to identify the ex. I never want to say his name or see him again. It was verbal and physical abuse. But like a lot of women in that situation, I spent my time protecting him and persuading people that everything was OK.

So why did you say that the dress was a response to what the DJ had said?

The next time we played Webster Hall, it was Fashion Week in New York, so I knew I could use it and get some press for it, she says with a shrug.

She has changed, she says. Shes become tougher. If a boyfriend hit her now, shed leave. If the DJ repeated his stupidity, shed scream, ** you!

Lee now clearly aligns herself with riskier performers, such as her idol Björk, more than with pops current sensationalists. I dont see that you can even put an artist like Björk and someone like Christina Aguilera in the same category, she says. I mean, is it possible to strip and not be compromised as an artist? As a woman? Everything you say is upstaged by the fact that everyone is checking out your ass.

Lee has heard that Howard Stern recently said she needs to lose 50 pounds.

His show is just negative shit, she replies.

* * * * *

But things are changing for Amy Lee. Fallen is becoming a hard album to tour behind, she says, because the lyrics relate to the abused, depressed person she used to be.

Two nights ago, she finished a new song during sound check in Auckland, New Zealand. The track is tentatively called The Last Song Im Wasting on You. She utters a giggly laugh. She wont say who its about.

Fans can expect a brighter outlook in other new songs, though. Since last June, Lee has been dating Shaun Morgan, lead singer for the South African hard-rock band Seether (also signed to Wind-Up). She was unsure at first whether another rock star, especially one from a band called Seether, was the best choice after an abusive relationship. I went through a time hating men and being a feminist, but thats not me, she says.

For Lees birthday, Morgan gave her a silver heart-shaped locket with a photo of the couple at her platinum-record party in New York. For Christmas he gave her a ring. She bought him something more practical: a vintage Hasselblad camera. They took it to South Africa on safari together over Christmas. She thought the baboons were kangaroos. He was kind and funny about setting her straight.

She wants to show Blender her journal. Its full of new lyric fragments, chords, photos and some sketches: of Morgan asleep, of seahorses she drew at an aquarium in New Zealand.

She has recorded some dreams in it as well. Last night, she dreamed she was dying of thirst. Her father gave her water, but her thirst was unquenchable, and it became clear that she would die. Her father told her to calm down, that she still had a few hours to live. She wasnt sure if he cared.

An unusual dream, she says. Typically, shes not a victim in her dreams shes the murderer, the monster.

But Im not like that, she protests. I really love people.

* * * * *

Later that evening, Evanescence open their Australian tour at Brisbanes Convention Center. A poll in todays local newspaper declares Brisbane residents the happiest in Australia. Blender is curious to see how Evanescence fare in front of such an audience. What can the band possibly have to say to these jolly people?

The drapes fall away, and beneath their logo a lethal-looking Frisbee Lee and her band work their dark spell. Without her, Evanescence might be mere nü-metal journeymen. But Lees near-operatic voice and spellbinding, wraith-like presence raise them above the ordinary. The first chords of Bring Me to Life are greeted with a roar, then awed silence. Covering Soundgardens 4th of July, she struts, poses and tosses her hair. Her drama coach would be proud.

Once, I couldnt even raise my eyes to people, she had said earlier. But Im ready to face anything now.