The Envy of None features singer-songwriter Maiah Wynne, guitarist Alex Lifeson of Rush fame, bassist Andy Curran formerly of Coney Hatch, and multi-instrumetalist Alfio Annibalini. Photos by Jaden D, Richard Sibbald, and Troy William Dunn
By Keith Sharp
As an A&R rep for established Canadian Record Label Anthem Entertainment, Andy Curran was asked to be an online judge for an Alabama songwriting contest four years ago. Little did he know that when he chatted with one of the finalists, Maiah Wynne, that connection eventually led to the involvement of famed Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson, who, along with long-time engineer/instrumentalist Alfio Annibalini, joined forces to create a self-titled album Envy Of None which will be released this Friday, April 8th.
“So I am chatting with this young lady from Portland Oregon and I thought I’d just be giving her some career advice when she asked me if I was interested in writing with her,” explained the former Coney Hatch bassist over the phone prior to the album release. “As it turned out, I had written some songs that were very different from what I had written with Coney Hatch, they were kind of electronic, very industrial. She seemed very interested in that. So I sent her two versions of a song called “Shadow”, one instrumental version and one with some key lyrics and when she sent back her contribution, I played it for Alex (Lifeson) and he said I think you’ve uncovered an amazing talent.”
Lifeson and Curran have enjoyed a long-standing relationship. Both Rush and Coney Hatch were label mates at Anthem. Curran worked on compiling several Rush compilation albums, and Lifeson recorded two instrumental tracks in June 2021; “Kabul Blues” and “Spy House,” asking Curran to add bass parts to them.
“We are friends from way back, and I was honoured that he would ask me to contribute to his tracks, and he said, ‘If I can ever return the favour,'” Curran explained. “So when I played him back, Maiah’s contribution, that’s what opened the door. He added a guitar part, I brought in Alfie (Annibalini), and that’s how it all started.”
Wynne added vocals to Lifeson’s two previously-instrumental tracks, and before they knew it, they had recorded six songs with Wynne, Curran and Lifeson sharing files long distance.
“Andy approached me about four years ago, shortly after the last Rush tour about just adding some guitar on some of the tunes he was doing and I did that,” recounted Lifeson. “A few months later, he sent me another one and then we started getting serious.”
“It was just a one-off at that point (Lifeson’s contribution on “Shadow”). There was no grand plan to record a full record,” Curran noted. “But then, we just started to get the wind in the sails and before long we had four songs recorded and when it got to six songs, Alex called me up and said ‘What are we going to do with these songs’
These songs are very cinematic, I think they would lend themselves to the cinema or television, what do you think?’ So I checked around and a contact I knew was working on a Netflix series called ‘Tiny Pretty Things’ and when she accepted Liar” for one of the episodes, that proved to be the shot in the arm for the whole project, it proved to us we weren’t just drinking Kool-Aid.”
“So when we got that placement,” Alex said, “that’s it, we’ve got to keep going.”
Any new collaboration featuring Lifeson is going to be compared to classic Rush albums and obviously, Curran is the first to admit “We are quite proud that we cannot put a finger on who we sound like. Envy Of None is more like maybe if “Garbage” had a car crash with “Massive Attack.” “We were thinking about stickering the album with a warning ‘this is not a Rush record,'” Curran laughs. “Some Rush fans might be disappointed that there’s no ‘Limelight’ or ‘Tom Sawyer’ but about 80% of the Rush fans we have canvassed seem to like what we are doing and are happy to see Alex being creative again.”
The big departure in Envy Of None is Wynne’s uniquely atmospheric, ethereal vocal style. Still only 25 years old, Wynne is a multi-instrumentalist with a style that totally captivated the rest of the band. “Maiah became my muse,” Lifeson noted. “She was able to bring this whole new ethereal thing through her sense of melody on music like ‘Liar’ and ‘Look Inside’ … I’ve never had that kind of inspiration working with another musician. When we say she’s special, it’s because she’s really fucking special.”
There are a couple of up-tempo collaborations on the 11-song set, most noticeably, “Never Said I Love You,” “Spy House,” and “Kabul Blues,” which, of course, were initially released as instrumental efforts. Still, Wynne’s unique vocal style and the understated arrangements supplied by Lifeson, Curran, and musician-engineer Annibalini make this album unique. Songs like “Look Inside,” “Old Strings,” and the album’s lead-off single. “Liar” set Envy Of None in a new light.
The story behind “Liar” is that Curran had a basic idea that he initially offered to Skinny Puppy’s Dave Ogilvie, but he had to turn it down when his new band “Jakalope” fell apart, so Curran sent the file to Wynne, just a raw instrumental idea with a key lyric line. Wynn was on court jury duty at the time and was facing a woman who constantly stared at her throughout the trial and, according to Wynne, “was lying through her teeth.” This resulted in the song lyrics taking a whole new direction.
The album’s closing track, “Western Sunset,” is Lifeson’s moving instrumental tribute to legendary Rush drummer Neil Peart who passed away in January 2021.
“I visited Neil when he was ill,” explained Lifeson. “I was on his balcony in Santa Monica watching the sunset and found inspiration. There’s a finality about a sunset that kinda stayed with me throughout the whole process. It had meaning, it was the perfect mood to decompress after all these different textures, a nice way to close the book.”
So where did the Envy Of None name originate? “Halfway through the project, I said to Maiah, maybe we should come up with a name and it’s going to be tough with you in the middle of nowhere near Portland, Oregon and she said I like that name ‘Middle Of Nowhere,’” Curran explained. “But just as we were getting ready to produce the record, Alex’s attorney, David Quinton-Steinberg (who also appears on the record) suggested we do a name search and sure enough there are four or five other bands called Middle Of Nowhere.
“But then he said he had a name kicking around that he’d never used; ‘Envy Of None’ I loved It because it didn’t conjure up any images of what we sounded like. He had gotten the name from a Greek philosopher, “Ovid” who came up with the line ‘And you shall be the envy of none’ which suited us because there were four people writing in a bubble and Alex liked that Greek reference.”
As much as a lot of the focus on Envy Of None has been directed at superstar guitarist Alex Lifeson and his 25-year old vocal muse, Maiah Wynne, it should not be lost that Curran was the spark plug behind this project.
An established artist In his own right, Curran enjoyed success with Coney Hatch in the mid 1980’s, recording three albums with bandmates lead vocalist Carl Dixon, guitarist Steve Shelski and drummer Dave Ketchum between 1982 and 1985 before recording a comeback “Four” album in 2013. He has also recorded one solo album, briefly formed two other groups; Soho 69 and Caramel and also won a Most Promising Artist Juno Award in 1991. And although he moved on to work with Anthem Records and later ran the record division of El Mocambo Records, it seemed he was in constant search for a new project. With Envy Of None, he seems to have found it.
“Alfie and I always thought wouldn’t it be great if we could discover a hot young talent to work with,” mused Curran. “With Maiah, we seem to have found such a talent.”
With the album set to drop on Friday, issued by London, England-based label Kscope, the obvious question is, will Envy Of None tour live?
“After 40 some years on the road with Rush, Alex isn’t keen on touring but Maiah is set to go right now so we’ll have to see what happens,” Curran laughed, “Maybe a one-off concert or a festival date, who knows.”
But what seems to be clear Is that Envy Of None is not a one-off project. Bonus tracks have already been added to a deluxe, two-CD release, and the creativity generated by all four musicians holds a promise of future collaborations together.