In August 2015, Rush played the last show of their R40 Live Tour (which happened to be their final tour) at The Forum in Los Angeles. After the dust settled, back home in Toronto, Alex Lifeson played some golf, but soon found himself kicking and wondering what was next for him.
“Geddy [Lee] and I played together for forty-five years before that last tour ended,” says Lifeson. classic rocksitting in his home studio lined with guitars.
“The transition from doing something for that long to just playing golf wasn’t that easy. After a while I thought, ‘Is this it? After all these years of learning all this, to have this ability and develop these skills, am I just going to try and reduce my handicap to ten?
The answer turned out to be no. The golf course would have to wait. Since 2016, Lifeson has been busy as part of four Envy Of None tracks. This dark pop project was founded by his friend and longtime associate Andy Curran, and is completed by established mixer/engineer Alfio ‘Alf’ Annibalini (Voivod, Danko Jones, Nelly Furtado) and young singer, songwriter and multi- instrumentalist Maiah Wynne.
Envy Of None’s recently released self-titled debut album sees these four artists bring their distinct skills together in style, with Lifeson drawing inspiration from and expanding on the guitar intelligence he has developed so far during his brilliant career. career.
He and Curran go back a long way. Curran was the bassist for Canadian hard rockers Coney Hatch, who were signed to Rush’s label Anthem in the early 80s and taken on by the trio’s manager Ray Danniels. By the 2000s, Curran had, as he puts it, “jumped to the dark side.”
“I was the label’s A&R guy and I was part of the management company,” he recalled. “I was on the road with Rush, helping them with logistics, and that’s where Alex and I really solidified and rekindled our friendship.”
The idea of the two of them collaborating on something creative had never occurred, but that changed in the mid-2010s. Curran and Annibalini had started writing tracks and producing under the Envy Of None banner, and Curran invited Lifeson – artistically restless after Rush’s swansong tour – to put down his golf clubs and pick up his guitar.
At the time, the band had a singer who was not quite up to scratch. Then, in 2017, Curran’s expertise in music was offered as part of the prize for a US-wide talent contest called Claim2Fame. The winner that year was Maiah Wynne, a 20-year-old American artist based in Portland, who won the one-on-one mentoring session with Curran.
The couple clicked on their mutual affinity for the darker edges of pop music. Curran sent the song to Wynne Shadow, they began collaborating on music and lyrics, and she became the new vocalist with Envy Of None. The project had been laid back until then, but according to Lifeson: “When Maiah came along, it got a little more serious. Her voice is so captivating and evocative. We were very excited about her abilities as a singer. Last year was pretty much full for recording and song development, but the project took about six years.
Over those six years, what was originally intended to be a four-track EP became an 11-track debut album. Want anyone is a highly-produced, song-centric headphone recording imbued with the crackle of true inspiration. It’s the sound of three mature musicians pushing each other, exploring new parts of their musical identity as relative newcomer Wynne comes into its own; she brings a contemporary, sometimes almost gothic touch to the song performed here. It’s a strong mix.
While a song like the first single Liar can be heard as a Muse/Garbage mash-up, Wynne brings a hint of Billie Eilish’s edgy, millennial feel to hard-hitting pop-rockers such as dog’s lifeand the tall, dreamy, quasi-proggy look inside is filled with big guitars/basses and nods to the soundscapes of Massive Attack. When the quartet peels off the layers of production and lets Wynne do her thing, like on the ballad old ropesits potential becomes really clear.
Maiah’s lyrics are great,” says Curran, “and the combination of what she says and how she says it, like on old ropes, just blows me away every time. Her voice is delicate, but there is so much power in what she says. For the most part, we just told her to go for it, and she just hit home runs every time. For Liar, we gave her a chorus part, and we just gave her the song title Look Inside. She said, “Understood,” and wrote it down. She really stepped up. She became the face of the project, and we were happy to be in the background, just providing the canvas.
In the beginning, Curran and Annibalini did much of the heavy musical work, including the more traditional guitar parts. When Lifeson received the songs – and especially Wynne’s abundance of vocal melodic ideas – he found himself inspired to try new approaches on the guitar. He would sneak around other players, creating mysterious atmospheres by recording his parts backwards, manipulating them with unusual effects, sometimes making them sound quite guitar-like.
“I love that idea,” he says, “because when you listen to the record, you’re like, ‘What the hell is this?!’ And it brings you back for more. The greatest thing about this project was having that freedom. It was liberating to just serve the song – it wasn’t about a big flashy guitar solo. I’m a bit above that. I’m excited to move on and see things in a different way as a songwriter.
Among the tracks on Envy Of None are two Lifeson instrumentals – the trippy Kabul Bluesand spy house – which the group turned into complete songs. The album’s only non-vocal piece is its beautiful, melancholy closeness Western sunsetsinspired by the bittersweet visits Lifeson made to see Neil Peart at the drummer’s house in Santa Monica.
“We found out Neil was sick shortly after the last tour was over,” Lifeson recalled. “He had a little balcony on his property, with these big, beautiful trees and the hills in the background. We were sitting there in the late afternoon, with the sun setting, and there was such peace and serenity in the moment, which was a real contrast to what was really going on. It felt deep to me. I thought this whole idea of a sunset, and the closure that the sunset brings, was an appropriate way to look at what we were going through at the end of its life.
Peart succumbed to a brain tumor in 2020, making Western sunsets all the more poignant. It’s a beautiful acoustic-based coda, a digestive for a densely produced, modern-sounding record.
Lifeson and Curran are pretty evasive about Envy Of None’s future. You feel like part of the appeal of this band to them is that it’s made for love, for music, and largely from home, with no real expectations and no obligation to tour. Both men have been there, have done it in their time.
“But,” Curran says, “if the opportunities arose and there were special shows, we would be open to that. It was just a project, really — there was no real : ‘Let’s go and shoot after that!’ We’ll see where that leads.
Lifeson, too, is keen to clarify that this is more of a project than a “traditional” band: “Four musicians and songwriters came together and created something really beautiful. I love this disc. It’s juicy, it’s trippy and it’s beautiful on headphones. But Andy and I have ideas for other things, Maiah is doing a solo record and working on a movie. We all talked about continuing to work on Envy Of None, because we love working together. It is the work that is the driving force. »
Lifeson recently sold a cottage he owned just outside of Toronto where he had a small studio, and last month auctioned off most of his coveted guitar collection for charity. But while he’s racking up his gear, there’s no sign that Lifeson is giving up on music just yet. In fact, Envy Of None seems to have started a new artistic phase for him, bringing a certainty and focus that he lacked beyond the lit stage of Rush’s very last show.
“My horizon has suddenly opened up and everything is sparkling,” he enthuses. “I’m going in such a good direction at what I consider to be this late stage of my life. I feel so creative, I can still play and translate what’s happening here [tapping his head] so far [holding up his left hand]. It’s so exciting for me at this point to be with other musicians and have fun writing music.”
Envy Of None is now available via K Scope.