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By Howard Whitman 

Maiah Wynne had no idea that she’d end up joining a band featuring one of the all-time legendary rock guitarists.

The Portland, Ore.-based vocalist had connected with Coney Hatch bassist Andy Curran, who asked her to sing on some new recordings. Then he mentioned that a guitarist friend of his would also be contributing to the tracks: former Rush trailblazer Alex Lifeson.

Lifeson had been laying low following the final Rush tour that ended in 2015 and the subsequent tragic passing of the trio’s irreplaceable drummer Neil Peart in 2020. He guested on a few projects but had yet to commit to full participation in a new band or album. But when Curran invited him to play on the new music he was developing, and Lifeson heard Wynne’s vocals on the tracks, he was all in.

Their collective labors have finally borne fruit, 2022's release of Envy of None, the debut album from the new band of the same name that unites Lifeson, Wynne and Curran with producer Alf Annibalini.

Those expecting the second coming of “Tom Sawyer” and its ilk will be sorely disappointed, but Envy of None has plenty to offer listeners open to new sonic adventures. The combination of Wynne’s emotional vocals, Lifeson’s exotic guitar textures, Curran’s powerful bass playing and Annibalini’s sound treatments has produced a powerful, groundbreaking album unlike anything previously from its creators.

In an interview with Goldmine, Lifeson and Wynne discussed how Envy of None came together, what sets it apart from their previous work and what the future holds for this bold new collective.

  

GOLDMINE: I have been listening to Envy of None and I’m really enjoying the album. It’s like every song is a different journey, and a totally unexpected one. Some albums can be kind of homogeneous — all of the songs are in the same vein. This is not like that. Sometimes it’s psychedelic, sometimes it’s trippy, sometimes it’s techno. It’s all over the place, but really enjoyable. How did Envy of None come together as a band, and how did you both get involved in this project?

ALEX LIFESON: I’ll start, because it goes back a little bit, further than Maiah’s story. After the end of the Rush tour in 2015, Andy Curran got in touch with me. He used to work at our office, and he played in Coney Hatch. We had known each other for years and years. He said that he had some material and he asked if I would just put some guitars on, just very casually, which I did do. I was sitting around. It was nice to be able to be active and do some playing.

I did that and then we met Maiah. When I heard Maiah’s voice, immediately I thought, “OK, there’s something much deeper here that we can do.” I got all my tracks back that I did the “casual” guitars on, and I started redoing all my guitars. Maiah and I worked on another project with Marco Minnemann through that early connection, but once we dove into Envy of None, it started to become an album rather than just a few songs that we were going to release. We just got a lot more serious, and the ideas started to flow. There were different ideas from (Maiah), and different ideas from me and Andy. So that speaks to the variety that’s on the record. That’s one of the things I love. There’s a great quality of rhythm on this record. There’s so much movement on it, and as you pointed out, it goes from industrial to pop to even country flavor.

And yet there’s a cohesiveness about the record that it sounds like the same group of people working on it as a project. What really intrigued me was the way Maiah’s voice works above all these different styles of music, and it brings so much character to these songs.

MAIAH WYNNE: That’s pretty much what happened. I got in touch with Andy after winning a song contest — that was about five years ago now. There’s this online contest called Claim to Fame, and one of my sort-of prizes for winning was a Zoom mentorship call with Andy. I didn’t really know much about Andy at that point. I looked him up and I saw that he worked for this music company in Canada, so I thought he was mostly an industry guy, you know? And I was like, “Oh, he’s been in the business for a really long time.” I was mostly asking him music business questions, and then he brought up a song that he really liked of mine that I did as a collaboration. It was more industrial and he said that he’d been working on some similar kinds of music and I offered to sing on it, you know, “if you ever needed a vocalist.” I wasn’t really thinking much about it, and from my perspective, he’s just this cool guy from Canada who also happened to make music. We started working on some songs together and I really enjoyed the process; it was very collaborative. He usually had a few lyric ideas and then this bed track, and I would take those few words and then build them out and build out vocal melodies and more lyrics.

It was just really fun, and then I think two songs into it, he called me out of the blue and said, “So I showed this to my buddy, Alex, and he wants to play guitars on it.” I had no context, so I was like, “Yeah, Alex, great.” And then he obviously explained, “You know, Alex Lifeson, from the band Rush?” and I was very confused and very excited.

GM: That was a pleasant surprise.

MW: “This is really happening.” Yeah, it was a great surprise.

GM: That’s great! With the writing process, did you all bring in ideas, or was it based around, as you mentioned, Andy setting up a bed track that you all added to?

MW: I was just going to say each song was very different and had a different process. Andy and Alf did a lot of the work together early on, setting up the bed tracks and coming up with these song ideas. And then for some of the tracks, Alex had already created these beautiful instrumental arrangements that we built on and added lyrics and changed them up a little bit. I had a couple of songs in there as well. I had demos recorded that were often pretty different from how they ended up on the record. We would sort of take out all of the instrumentation and Andy would rework the song with Alf, and then Alex would add some really intricate layers. But yeah, each song was different.

AL: I would agree. We worked remotely. We were never in a room together until recently, when we had a little playback session here in Toronto. But we would share the files, as this is a common way of working these days. And the advantage there is, I think you can work without having the distractions of other people throwing ideas at you. Sometimes when you’re in the studio and it’s a collaborative arrangement, it just can be scattered. And personally, I love to be able to be focused. I would work on stuff for a couple of days and then trash it — just delete it because I didn’t think it was good enough — and start over again. Or in the case of one of the songs, “Old Strings,” Maiah and I worked on her original version for a number of days, and we were building it with all sorts of instrumentation. And then Andy submitted his version of the arrangements, which was half-time and completely different. So basically we just set aside all of this work that we had done and then delved into this whole different version of it. It was a very dynamic building of all these songs that we just kept going back and forth with. I found great inspiration in Maiah’s vocals for melody, and then I would do stuff and send it back to her and she would find something in the guitar melodies that I was getting from her that she then worked on it and changed and built it up. It was really, really a great, symbiotic relationship that we had working on this stuff together.

GM: So there was no plan — you just let the creativity flow?

AL: Absolutely! Absolutely. There were no rules at all.

GM: That’s wonderful. Alex, I’m a big fan of a solo album you did in the ’90s called Victor, and I’m hearing some commonality between this music and the material you had on that CD. Would you say that there’s some continuity between that album and this new project?

AL: I don’t know. I was not aware of that. I certainly didn’t work on that path. If there is, it’s only because it’s part of my personality, I suppose. But because we were all working together on this and it wasn’t a solo record, there was much more inspiration from all the other members in the project. My only goal was to make as many guitar parts not sound like guitar as I could, and I love the challenge of that. I just don’t want to do the same old thing, and I wanted to create something else that was in the service of the song. That was my underlying rule for this project. Alf and even Andy did some great guitar parts. I really like a lot of the stuff that Alf put on and I didn’t feel that I needed to replace it as “the guitarist.” I just wanted to feel that I could fill space and fill the rhythm, build up the rhythmic quality of songs. I just had a different sense of what my job was on this record, while Victor was definitely more focused on performance and being scared to death of doing something on my own. (laughs)

GM: Well, it’s a good disc! I got the sense from the credits that you all played different things. The roles weren’t narrowly defined, that one person is the bassist and another is just a guitarist and so on. Maiah, you play instruments as well; did you contribute some instrumental parts to the album?

MW: I did a couple of keyboard parts. I actually threw a keyboard through a guitar amp and put some distortion on it. I did some weird things with it, too, for “Shadow.” I didn’t do nearly as much instrumental work as the guys on this, but occasionally a weird piano here and there.

GM: Cool! Alex, you played some banjo on this, is that right?

AL: I played some banjo, some mandolin, mandola, 12-string guitars, acoustic guitars. I did a lot of stuff that I flipped backwards and that was an interesting process, to go through that. To my ear, we find that a bit more through this project, and I love the whole idea of soundscaping, so I’ll play anything — violin, use a violin bow on guitar — all kinds of things. It’s fun to be creative that way.

GM: Alex, is that the banjo I see there on the right (of the Zoom video)?

AL: That’s the most hated instrument in this house by my wife. I’m lucky to have it in here. I don’t think she’s seen it yet.

GM: There are so many instruments and tracks and things going on in this album that I feel like every time you hear it, you’re going to hear different things.

AL: I think so, too. It’s very rich and it’s very dense. And what strikes me most is the rhythmic quality. There are so many subtle rhythms and counter-rhythms going on. It just has this movement that I think your body responds to, all those instinct vibrations. I find it really very pleasurable to listen to, and especially on headphones. “Kabul Blues” is very trippy and it goes all over the place, and that’s so much fun.

GM: I felt as if “Look Inside” has a kind of Hendrix vibe to it. I don’t know if that was intentional, but it was taking me on a trip. I noticed that the credits on the press release only mention programming, but it sounds as if there are real drums on the album. Were there some actual acoustic drums, or is it all programmed?

AL: Oh no, it was a mix. We had three live drummers, and then there was the programmed stuff. David Steinberg, who’s been playing in The Mods, a punk band here in Toronto, I think he played on three or four tracks. Tim Oxford played on “Never Said I Love You,” and in a lot of them we combined sampled digital drum tracks with the real drums here and there. So it’s nice to have that, a live drummer. David’s approach to these songs was that he kept it very close to what the original pattern was, so it wasn’t flashy drum fills and stuff like that. Generally, it was more about keeping in time and leaving space for the vocals to be clear and unchallenged. I think that was a really good move on our part. It leaves the songs more accessible and there’s not so much going on in that range where drummers can be very busy. The drum track on “Dog’s Life,” for example, that’s a more traditional rock track. It has lots of fills and stuff like that and it works for that one, but I couldn’t imagine having that kind of style of drumming on a lot of these songs.

GM: Maiah, you have a beautiful voice and great vocal style. I was wondering who are some of your vocal influences?

MW: I grew up listening to Norah Jones and Feist and No Doubt. Gwen Stefani is awesome. And Avril Lavigne, of course. Radiohead. I have had a lot of diverse influences growing up. And I feel like Red Hot Chili Peppers also was an influence on me. There are a lot of different influences in there, and but I definitely think Norah Jones was probably the most vocally influential to me.

GM: I can hear that. Something that occurred to me listening to it, and I don’t know if this was an intentional influence, but it reminded me a bit of Garbage, and also in the format, as Garbage is a group of producers who are multi-instrumentalists. And then there’s Shirley Manson with her vocals on top of all of that.

MW: I take that as a huge compliment.

AL: Yeah, absolutely.

MW: I love it, thank you.

GM: Not that you’re knocking them off in any way, but just kind of the way that came together and the way that this band came together. It’s reminiscent, and certainly, the sonic exploration that goes on in Envy of None reminds me of Garbage — the band, not the substance.

MW: Yeah, and I guess our names, in a way, are both self-deprecating.

GM: Alex, did you find you were exploring some different styles of guitar and treatments of your sounds for this project?

AL: Yeah, absolutely. That was the most fun for me. I really didn’t want to do traditional things. Been there, done it. I really wanted to focus my arrangements in the service of the song, not standing out there. Virtually no solos. I think there’s just really the one solo in “Spy House,” so I intentionally stayed away from that and tried to create more background, ambient sounds, things so that, as you pointed out, every time you listen, you hear something else. “Kabul Blues” is a great example of that. There’s so many things flying around in there. And you hear new stuff every time you listen to it. That was my goal and I feel that I pretty much accomplished what I was setting out to be as the guitarist that I am, or I’m known for. I would say 70 percent of my guitar parts don’t sound anything like a guitar, and there’s lots of acoustic guitar. Again, it’s an opportunity to get rhythmic, to get inside the track and support what’s going on in there, lifting the dynamics in a song like “Never Said I Love You” when the chorus comes in, it’s just so huge, and you can’t help but sing along with it. That’s what struck me about that song, the first time I heard it, was the chorus needed to lift up, because it’s such a great, really classic traditional chorus. And the big acoustics and the rhythm of the acoustics against the rest of the track is the key to making that song as good as it can be.

GM: A question for you both: You mentioned that a lot of this was done remotely, that you never got together until the very end of the project. How was it when you all got together and heard the unified work, all of your contributions with the different treatments and ways that this came together?

MW: It was great! (laughs) We had a listening party and I was able to come back to Toronto for a week. It was really amazing and very satisfying to hear all of that work because it is a long process. We started working on these songs about five years ago, originally without a lot of intention of necessarily creating a full album, but by the end of it, there was a lot of work and a lot of creative process and a lot of these pieces coming together. So getting to be in the same room together at the very end of that and listen to everything and, you know, blast it super-loud in the studio and hear every single piece, it was magical. I really enjoyed it.

AL: After two years of COVID, it was just nice to be together in a room with live people without masks, just having a good time. But that night was so charged with energy, and it was a very private affair. We just had spouses and partners and friends, not a big group, and we catered it and we had lots of wine. It was just such an uplifting experience to share the music. I kept looking at everybody — Andy, Maiah and Alf — I just would glance over and look for their reactions. It just felt so good to be in that room after all this work that we’ve done. It was hard work, but every minute of it was a joy. I think we’re all professional enough to have jumped into it and been aware of each other’s contribution and space and being open to changing things, always in the service of the song, making it better and better and better. It made it a really satisfying, gratifying experience.

GM: Were there any surprises — new things you never heard before that were emerging when you finally heard the finished product?

MW: I don’t think there necessarily were surprises, but it definitely made me appreciate all of those layers that much more, getting to hear it all put together and like you said, each time you listen, even for me, every time I listen, I’m keying on something else and hearing something else. Even though I know all those layers are there, it’s still a magical experience to listen to all of it and find different things that I hadn’t really focused on before. There’s just a lot there. It’s a very thick sandwich! (laughs)

AL: Right. When you first asked the question, I didn’t really think there were (surprises) because we were quite focused on it. We’d heard the whole record enough times, right? But I will say that, and this is always the case when the mastering is done, it just brought out so much other detail that you knew was there that you didn’t always hear. The mastering just gave everything that clarity that it always does. That’s why it’s an important process of recording. And that was also really satisfying to know that, yes, it all worked and it’s all there and we’re hearing everything that we intended.

GM: Absolutely! I was wondering about your future plans for Envy of None? Will you tour?

AL: For me, I did a lot of touring, obviously. So I’m not keen on going back on the road. I think Maiah has the youth in front of her. I think she would probably love to go on the road, and the cinematic quality of this material would really suit a live presentation, particularly in a smaller theater with a nice, tight proscenium stage with lots of great lighting. If that was the case, then we would certainly put something together for that, and I would be up for doing the occasional show here and there, special shows in cities and things like that. But I don’t think touring is in my future. We think we’d like to continue working and see where it goes. Lots depends on the release.

MW: I definitely think doing a few shows together would be really fun. It would be really interesting to see how these songs translate in a live setting, and I think it would be really exciting to put together some really talented musicians to fill out all of those layers in a live setting. I don’t expect Alex to tour again, but I will make him do a few shows with me if we decide to do it. Obviously, COVID complicates everything as well, and there’s not a whole lot of people touring anyway at the moment. But I think, yeah, if there’s a demand for it and we have some opportunities to do some stuff together, it would be a lot of fun.

GM: Great! Do you envision an Envy of None Volume 2? Do you think you’ll do further recordings?

MW: I hope so, yes.

AL: I hope so, too. Yeah, yeah — there you go!

GM: I guess a lot depends on how the release goes, how it’s received, and where you want to take it from there?

AL: Exactly. We loved working together, and that’s the start anyways. I think the ideas flowed even more towards the end. We added two songs for the bonus release that were done very, very quickly. And there’s a lot of merit in those two particular songs. So I know the juices are flowing among the four of us, and it’s a good working relationship. I think we’d have a ball continuing.

GM: Do either of you have any other projects currently in the works outside of Envy of None that you can talk about?

AL: I have three or four songs that I’m working on for other people. I get this stuff all the time, mostly friends, and I’ve been kind of lazy with them, to be honest with you. But I will get around to them eventually, and Maiah has got a bunch of stuff.

MW: Yeah, I’m working on my debut record right now and we just tracked a bunch of cellos and fun layers actually, and I’m hoping to get that out this year. I’m excited for that as well, and I’ll probably send some stuff to these guys for my record. I’ll make Andy play some bass on some things and see if Alex will add some fun textures. I’m excited for it, but I’m always, always excited to work on more music, and I already have more ideas for Envy of None Volume 2.

GM: More banjo, right?

AL: Yes! We’d call it Envy of Everyone.