Master guitarist Alex Lifeson says playing in Envy of None, his new project, is quite a rush.
But it is not Rush. The iconic progressive rock power trio Lifeson shared with singer and bass player Geddy Lee and drummer Neil Peart sold over 50 million albums and called it quits following their R40 tour in 2015. And if you were expecting Lifeson to perform intricate, finger-numbing lead solos along the lines of a “La Villa Strangiato” or a “YYZ,” think again.
In fact, it’s only on “Spy House,” a song on the new band’s self-titled album out Friday that the guitarist exhibits any type of flash.
And he likes it that way.
“Diving into this project, I’m just different but the same person, and I’m much more rewarded by things that I do in the background than things that I do in the forefront,” said Lifeson, 68, sharing a Zoom call with Envy of None singer Maiah Wynne, and speaking on behalf of bandmates Andy Curran and Alfio Annibalini.
“Rush being a three-piece with three very strong players, it was all about that. Envy of None is all about the service of the song, and creating beautiful things and really cool things to listen to, and hearing something every time you come back and listen to it.
“I think that’s what we managed to accomplish with this record.”
If you want a description of the Envy of None sound, think a series of brooding, potential James Bond themes with a Garbage veneer; there’s a dramatic, dark mystique generated by the shimmering electronics in songs like “Kabul Blues” and “Shadow” that is layered rather than overt — a rock impressionism that favours ambience over clarity.
Lifeson also had a specific mindset when it came to his six-string contributions.
“I wanted to make the guitar as invisible or camouflaged as I could,” he said.
Although the album arrives Friday, Envy of None has been in the works since 2016, largely as the brainchild of Coney Hatch and Caramel bassist Curran, who worked with SRO Management — Rush’s management company — for 15 years.
“He asked me to get involved with this project after the last Rush tour just to fill in some stuff that he was working on,” Lifeson said. “In the early stages, he would just send a snippet and I would fill in the gaps with what he requested. I did it and I didn’t think about it really after that. Two or three months down the road, I’d very casually add some stuff so that he had a reference point for the guitars, which is exactly what he asked for.
“Then Maiah came into the picture.”
Wynne, a Portland, Oregon-based singer and actor who is more closely associated with the indie folk pop scene, said she lucked out after winning a song contest five years ago and getting connected to Curran as part of the prize.
“I won a Zoom mentorship phone call with him and the conversation went really well,” said Wynne, who is studying online at Berklee Music and working on her debut album.
“We ended up talking about some music that he had been working on and I offered to sing any songs if he needed a vocalist. And he took me up on that.”
A couple of songs in, Curran brought Lifeson into the mix.
“I think that was the defining moment for all of us to start working together, which was really exciting for me,” recalled Wynne. “That was three or four years ago and now we’re here.”
When Envy of None decided to become a formal reality, the bulk of the work was done without any of them being in a room together.
“We did this all remotely,” Lifeson said. “We only shared files and never really worked together in the same room other than some vocal things years ago …
“We feel the unity of a band, but we’re very independent at the same time.”
Lifeson said it was invigorating working from the seeds of Curran’s songs and with Annibalini’s input.
“Alf wrote some great guitar parts that I had no intention of replacing. You know, I didn’t think of myself as the guitarist in this project: he really did a great job on the things that he did. I really got off on the stuff that he was doing and I felt that it provided this liberating feeling that I could just do whatever I wanted in terms of guitar.”
Sometimes it was just a matter of sonics, whether it’s “Kabul Blues” or “Western Sunset,” the acoustic two-minute instrumental tribute to Lifeson’s late bandmate Neil Peart, who died in 2020 of glioblastoma.
That tranquil number transports Lifeson to another place and time whenever he hears or plays it.
“When that song was evolving as an idea, I hoped that it would evoke feelings of serenity and contemplation,” Lifeson said. “That’s what I often felt when Geddy and I were sitting on Neil’s balcony, trading memories with him and sharing the humour that was such a big part of our relationship. When I hear it now, that’s where I go. I can see the light filtering through the trees as the sun sits low on the horizon and I can feel the slightest caress of a gentle breeze as it rattles the leaves. It makes me feel at peace and triggers great memories of the times we shared together.”
While Wynne contributed most of the lyrics she’s singing, many of the initial ideas came from Curran.
“There’s a variety of topics: in ‘Dumb,’ the subject is dealing with subtle misogyny, and people looking down on you and assuming you don’t know what you’re talking about. ‘Look Inside’ is really trying to face the worst parts of yourself and be the best version of yourself that you can be.
“‘Enemy’ is very topical right now as well with the state of our world, and I’m really connecting with that song currently with the situation in the Ukraine.”
As for the possibility of live shows, Envy of None is going to wait until there’s some public reaction before concerts are considered.
But if they do hit the road there’s a good chance that Lifeson won’t be with them..
“I don’t have any intention of going on the road, but I think this album in a small theatre setting would be awesome and I’d love to sit in the audience and watch it,” he said. “I would do a few shows here and there, but to take it on the road and do a tour, I think that’s something that Maiah — with the right battery of musicians — could handle really well. It would be spectacular.”
On a philanthropic note, Lifeson is continuing his association with Rush singer Geddy Lee for the charities Grapes for Humanity and Grapes Under Pressure: wine-associated causes that help fund the removal of mines in Cambodia and building schoolhouses in Africa, as well as other projects.
He’s also teamed up with Julien’s Auctions to sell 100 pieces of memorabilia from his Rush years, including the majority of his guitars, on May 22 at New York’s Hard Rock Cafe and online.
“I’m offering 63 of my guitars, my most favourite babies,” Lifeson said. “I still have 30! I don’t know how this happened.”
The majority of the proceeds will be split between numerous charities, including Lifeson’s favourite local hospice.
“Casey House is probably the one closest to my heart here in Toronto. You know, we were touched by it personally, so we’ve devoted a lot of time and effort to it. As I get closer to the guitar auction, all the funding is going to go to a variety of charities but, for me, Casey House is at the top.”
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