In August 2015, Rush played the last show of their R40 Live Tour (which turned out to be their final tour) at The Forum in LA. After the dust had settled, back home in Toronto Alex Lifeson played some golf, but soon found himself kicking his heels and wondering what was next for him.
“Geddy [Lee] and I played together for forty-five years before the end of that last tour,” Lifeson tells Classic Rock, sitting in his guitar-lined home studio.
“The transition from doing something for that long to just playing golf was not that easy. After a while I thought: ‘Is that it? After all these years learning all this stuff, and having this ability and building these skills, I’m just gonna try to get my handicap down to a 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-piece of Envy Of None. This dark pop project was founded by his long-time friend and 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 bringing their separate skill sets together in fine style, with Lifeson drawing on and expanding the guitar smarts he’s developed over his stellar career so far.
He and Curran go way back. Curran was the bassist with Canadian hard rockers Coney Hatch, who were signed to Rush’s label Anthem in the early 80s and looked after by the trio’s manager Ray Danniels. By the 2000s Curran had, as he puts it, “jumped over to the dark side”.
“I was the A&R guy for the label and part of the management company,” he recalls. “I was on the road with Rush, helping them out logistically, and that’s where Alex and I really solidified and kindled our friendship.”
The idea of the two of them collaborating on something creative had never come up, but that changed in the mid-2010s. Curran and Annibalini had begun writing tunes 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 female singer who wasn’t quite cutting it. Then in 2017 Curran’s music-business expertise was offered as part of the prize for a US-wide talent contest called Claim2Fame. The winner that year was 20-year-old, Portland-based Americana artist Maiah Wynne, who won the one-on-one mentorship session with Curran.
The pair clicked over their mutual affinity for the darker edges of pop music. Curran sent Wynne the song Shadow, they began collaborating on music and lyrics, and she became the new singer with Envy Of None. The project had been casual up to that point, but according to Lifeson: “When Maiah came along it became a little more serious. Her voice is just so captivating and evocative. We were very excited about her abilities as a vocalist. This last year’s been pretty much full-on recording and development of the songs, but the project’s been about six years in the making.”
Over those six years, what was originally intended to be a four-track EP grew into an 11-track debut album. Envy Of None is a highly produced, song-centric headphones record, imbued with the crackle of true inspiration. It’s the sound of three mature musicians pushing themselves, exploring new parts of their musical identities as relative newcomer Wynne comes into her own; she brings a contemporary, at times almost gothic feel to the accomplished songcraft here. It’s a strong mix.
While a song such as first single Liar can be heard as a Muse/Garbage mash-up, Wynne brings a hint of Billie Eilish’s edgy, millennial feel to punchy pop-rockers such as Dog’s Life, and the grand, dreamy, quasi-proggy Look Inside is packed with fat guitar/bass and nods to the soundscapes of Massive Attack. When the quartet peel back the production layers and let Wynne do her thing, as on the ballad Old Strings, her potential really becomes clear.
Maiah’s lyrics are great,” Curran says, “and the combination of what she’s saying and the way she says it, like on Old Strings, just blows me away every time. Her voice is delicate, but there’s so much power in what she’s saying. 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 part of a chorus, and we just gave her the title of the song Look Inside. She said: ‘Got it’, and wrote it. She really stepped up. She became the face of the project, and we were happy to be in the background, just providing the canvas.”
Early on, Curran and Annibalini did much of the musical heavy lifting, including the more traditional guitar parts. When Lifeson received the songs – and notably Wynne’s bountiful supply of vocal melody ideas – he found himself inspired to try new approaches on the guitar. He’d weave around the other players, creating mysterious atmospheres by recording his parts backwards, manipulating them with unusual effects, making them sound quite un-guitar-like at times.
“I love that idea,” he says, “because when you listen to the record you go: ‘What is that?!’ And it brings you back for more. The greatest thing about this project was having that freedom. It was liberating to just service the song – it wasn’t about a big flashy guitar solo. I’m kind of over that. I’m excited to be moving forward and looking at things in a different way as a songwriter.”
Among Envy Of None’s tracks are two Lifeson instrumentals – the trippy Kabul Blues, and Spy House – which the band worked up into full songs. The sole non-vocal piece on the album is its beautiful, melancholy closer Western Sunsets, inspired by bittersweet visits Lifeson made to see Neil Peart at the drummer’s Santa Monica home.
“We found out Neil was ill not long after the end of the last tour,” Lifeson recalls. “He had a little balcony off his property, with these big, beautiful trees and the hills in the background. We’d sit up there in the late afternoon, with the sun setting, and there was such a peace and serenity in the moment, which was a real contrast to what was actually going on. It struck me as profound. I thought that 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 stage of his life.”
Peart succumbed to a brain tumour in 2020, making Western Sunsets all the more poignant. It’s a lovely, acoustic-based coda, a digestif to a densely produced, modern-sounding record.
Lifeson and Curran are pretty noncommittal about Envy Of None’s future. You get the sense that part of the appeal of this band to them is that it’s done for the love, for the music, and largely from home, with no real expectations, and no obligation to tour. Both men have been there, done that in their time.
“But,” says Curran, “if the opportunities came up and there were some special shows, we’d be open to it. This was just a project, really – there was no real: ‘Let’s go out and tour after this!’ We’ll see where it goes.”
Lifeson, too, is keen to clarify that this is more a project than a ‘traditional’ band: “Four musicians and songwriters got together and created something really beautiful. I love this record. It’s juicy, it’s trippy and it’s beautiful on headphones. But Andy and I have ideas for other things, Maiah’s doing a solo record and working on a film. We’ve all spoken about continuing to work on Envy Of None, because we enjoy working together. It’s the work that’s the driving force.”
Lifeson recently sold a cottage he owned just outside Toronto where he had a small studio, and last month he auctioned the bulk of his envy-of-all guitar collection for charity. But while he’s winnowing his gear, there’s no sign of Lifeson quitting music just yet. In fact Envy Of None seems to have begun a new artistic phase for him, bringing a certainty and focus he was lacking beyond the lighted stage of Rush’s very last show.
“My horizon has suddenly opened up and it’s all sparkly,” he enthuses. “I’m going in such a great direction at what I think of as this late stage in my life. I feel so creative, I can still play and translate what’s up here [tapping his head] to here [holding up his left hand]. It’s just so exciting for me at this point to be with other musicians and having a ball writing music."
Envy Of None is out now via K Scope.