TORONTO — It’s been nearly half a decade since Alex Lifeson’s rock band Rush officially hung up their instruments and the Toronto guitarist says it took most of that time before he felt like he was finally moving forward.
Talking about his newly created alternative-rock group Envy of None begins with Lifeson recognizing that he needed a new creative outlet.
“I’ve been stuck a little bit in the last five years or so, since the end of Rush,” he said in a recent video chat.
“I don’t want to be stuck so much in the past.”
And so the 68-year-old is facing the insurmountable weight of his former band’s success by shedding some of his belongings in an attempt, he said, to “look forward to things on the horizon.” Recently, Lifeson downsized by selling a country home and next month he’ll auction off 63 guitars collected during the Rush years.
“They’re just my tools,” he explained. “To know they’re going to do a lot more when they’re owned by somebody else, that’s OK. I’m fine with that.”
Lifeson is looking to the future, he said, and that means seeking a new direction with Envy of None, which took shape in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. The four-piece, fronted by female singer Maiah Wynne from Portland, Ore., releases their self-titled debut album on Friday.
The guitarist wasn’t looking to join another band, he said, and as far as he’s concerned this new project isn’t one. Envy of None is largely a studio creation and he says its members don’t aspire to pile into a van and criss-cross North America on tour. Lifeson insists he’s done with that road warrior lifestyle.
“I don’t even miss playing live,” he added. “I did for a while after Rush ended, but not so much now.”
But he noted: “Having said that, this material would be amazing in a small theatre with a great light show. It’s so cinematic. It could be stunning.”
Perhaps you can take Lifeson out of the stadium, but you can’t take the stadium spirit out of Lifeson. As modest as Envy of None presents itself, the band’s industrial edge cries to be seen at a live show, and so he admits a few concert dates are bound to happen.
Envy of None started just as Rush was winding down. The summer after the band’s 40th anniversary tour, Lifeson began chatting with his old friend Andy Curran, formerly of 1980s Canadian rockers Coney Hatch, who hoped he might bring his acclaimed guitar skills to a new project he was already working on.
At the time, many pieces of the group weren’t in place — including a lead singer — but as the years passed they slowly came together. Curran discovered Wynne while judging a talent contest, Lifeson said.
“There was so much potential to do some really cool music with her voice sitting on top of whatever it was that we created — and that’s kind of the way it got going,” he added.
What started as a casual project became more serious as the pandemic dragged on and left all the musicians stuck at home. Rounded out by engineer Alfio Annibalini, who plays keyboards and guitars, they recorded their parts in isolation and hadn’t met as a group until this past January in Toronto when they gathered to celebrate the album’s completion.
From the outset, the full-length debut wastes no time in signalling Envy of None is light-years away from anything Lifeson did in the past.
The opener “Never Said I Love You” blends a new wave synthesizer with Wynne’s misty vocals, while tracks “Liar” and “Dumb” walk the edge of Nine Inch Nails by way of Evanescence.
On “Old Strings,” the 25-year-old singer’s symbiotic relationship with Lifeson’s guitar is at its clearest. As he describes it, the two “were speaking to each other” through the music, even though they had never met.
“We were thousands of miles away and yet we worked like we were soulmates,” he said.
The album closes with a very different sound as Lifeson’s guitar takes the spotlight on “Western Sunsets,” an instrumental tribute to Neil Peart that he wrote at the former Rush drummer’s home in Santa Monica shortly before he died of brain cancer in January 2020.
It’s a reminder that no matter how much Lifeson sheds of his past, Rush will always be a part of him, as will questions over a reunion with Geddy Lee.
He insists fans shouldn’t expect anything in the near future, since it’s been seven years since the two sat down in a room to write together.
“We see each other all the time; we’re best friends,” he said.
“We have so much fun when we’re together, every single time. And we talk about this occasionally: ‘Maybe I’ll come over for a coffee, we’ll pick up a couple of guitars and see what happens.’ Well, I end up going over for coffee we just sit around and talk.”
He added: “If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. But it’s not going to be anything Rush-like…. If we do anything it’ll be for the fun of it.”
Right now, Lifeson said he’s happy discovering more about himself.
Envy of None threw him into a collaborative relationship with others that challenges him to be “in service of the song.” Sometimes that meant reining in any urge to go for the gusto on his guitar.
“I’ve learned a lot from this experience about who I am as a musician and what my strengths are,” he said.
“This Envy of None thing has been so liberating for me because it is a move forward into another area, taking other chances. I’m working on music people don’t expect from me and that’s fine.
“I don’t want to be (what) somebody expects.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2022.
David Friend, The Canadian Press