Maiah Wynne Shines on Envy of None's Debut
Despite ex-Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson having the biggest name in the band, it's Wynne's vocals that stand out on the group's self-titled release.
Welcome to another issue of Michael’s Record Collection and please accept my heartfelt thanks for spending some time with MRC today. The only thing better than writing about my favorite music is having people actually read those words. I hope you’re getting something out of this newsletter. Don’t be shy about providing some feedback, which you can do by writing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you.
Let’s get right into this week’s story.
It was always a matter of time after Rush ended a career that spanned more than four decades that something else would come along featuring members of the Canadian power trio. Fans held on to hope that another album might come along even if no tour followed, but the chance of that happening ended when drummer Neil Peart sadly succumbed to brain cancer in 2020.
His bandmates, guitarist Alex Lifeson and bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Geddy Lee, have discussed the possibility of another collaboration but it was also always likely that both would also find their way into independent projects that interested them. The first such undertaking to make its way to the public is Envy of None, a project featuring Lifeson, Coney Hatch bassist Andy Curran, guitarist Alfio Annibalini, and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Maiah Wynne.
Envy of None released its self-titled debut album on April 8. The Envy of None album contains 11 tracks that combine elements of industrial, electronica, rock, shoegaze, trance, and more. The music is moody, hypnotic, and layered with intricate textures woven tightly together, with Wynne’s haunting vocal delivery emerging from the sonic layers to grab one’s attention.
The 25-year-old Oregon resident seems the unlikeliest member of Envy of None, as she’s the only one in the group who isn’t a Canadian music scene veteran. Wynne came to the attention of Curran when she won a songwriting contest — something she’s done multiple times. The prize included a mentorship with Curran via Zoom . She shared with him an industrial piece she’d written, and Curran told Wynne he had been working on some material with a similar vibe, encouraging her to do more of that kind of music. Wynne offered to help Curran out if he ever needed any vocals and then she went about her life and more or less forgot about it for a while.
“He ended up taking me up on my offer to add some vocals to a song, and he sent me like a whole folder of like 20 song ideas,” Wynne said. “I listened to them, and the first one that I was like, ‘I have ideas for this,’ was ‘Shadow’ (which ultimately ended up on Envy of None). And I recorded my lyrics and vocal melodies and vocal layers for that and sent it back. He and Alf had already been working together, and worked on these ideas together at that point, and they loved it. And we sort of kept going.”
After Curran and Annibalini had Wynne work on a few more songs with them, Lifeson apparently became more heavily involved.
“Andy called me one day and was just like, ‘Hey, so I showed this to my buddy Alex, and he loved it. He wants to play some guitars on it,’ and I had no context,” Wynne said. “And then he's like, ‘You know Alex Lifeson from the band Rush, right?’ And of course I knew who Rush was. My parents were huge Rush fans and they'd gone to like three of their concerts, and it was just mind blowing to me.”
The songs slowly came together and Wynne got to know these veteran Canadian musicians over time as the band wrote, exchanged files, and built on each other’s ideas. The songwriting for each track varied a little, but the main formula used was for Curran and Annibalini to send bits and pieces in various stages of completion to Wynne and the songs developed from there.
“The sort of main bulk of the songs started with Alf and Andy, and then they would, a lot of times, send them to me,” she said. “I would sort of extend them a little bit more, figure out, ‘This is the verse, this is the chorus,’ write lyrics and vocal melodies, and sort of flesh it out as a song, send it back, and they would add more layers and then Alex would usually add his guitars after I did my vocal parts.
“But there were definitely songs that had a different approach. Alex had a few songs that he had written that I just added vocals on top of what was there, and that was actually really challenging for a couple of those, because they were already complex and melodically pretty full. It was hard to figure out how do I add to this without it clashing with things?”
In addition to the Canadians writing tracks and passing them around, Wynne contributed the song “Old Strings” to the album, as well as a track for the special edition bonus disc. As the material came together, it became obvious that something would have to be done with the completed songs.
“We didn't really have an agenda for it,” she said. “It was just for fun for a long time and then, once we had 10 songs, we're like ‘Maybe we should just release it, you know, and do something with this.’”
The finished album is cohesive collection of songs with depth and rich textures and —despite a plethora of layered instrumentation and vocals — the tracks never seem crowded or overly busy. The lone song that doesn’t fit with the others is the acoustic guitar-based instrumental, “Western Sunset,” which sits at the end of the album like a bonus track. Lifeson wrote it as a tribute to his late Rush bandmate, Peart, and even without knowing the meaning behind it, it’s a powerful and emotional song.
The album opens with the most up-tempo song on the record, “Never Said I Love You.” It’s a title that could be construed in either a positive or negative way and that duality surfaced in the writing process. Wynne thought Curran meant it in a positive way, as in the narrator was perhaps indicating they never said it because they never had the opportunity, or perhaps put it off, while it could also mean the narrator is asserting that they never made any such claim, as if that had been the recipient’s incorrect perception of the situation.
“When I listened to that, I was like, ‘Oh, that's really sweet.’ Like it's somebody that lost somebody and they're like, ‘Oh, I never got the chance to say I love you. I didn't say how I felt before it was too late,’ and that's how I interpreted it,” she said. “And then the way that he meant it was more like, ‘Well I never said I love you.’ So, you know, I immediately took complete opposite interpretation.”
“Never Said I Love You” is one of the album’s highlights with it’s driving tempo and Wynne’s haunting lead vocal, layered with her own backing harmonies. The song has a rich texture of well-placed guitar and keyboard sounds intertwined and the chorus sticks in one’s brain in a good way.
The hypnotic mid-tempo “Shadow” showcases Wynne’s evocative vocal style to a greater extent. It’s a song that goes heavier on the electronic elements, with a repetitive synth line that pulls the song along, fantastic bass work by Curran, and what sounds to be faint claps or snaps (or both) adding a subtle percussive element.
“Andy and Alf worked on that one together, and that was the first song that I recorded vocal parts for,” Wynne said. “And that repeated synth line is really cool. Andy says that when I listened to it, I told him that it sounded like a video game. I don't remember that. But I probably did.”
Wynne said she added some keyboard parts that were run through a guitar amp with some distortion added to create what she calls “slidey parts” that are “creepy and cool” (and they are).
There’s a lot going on in “Shadow,” so repeated listens reveal things one doesn’t notice upon hearing it for the first, second, third, or even 10th time. Lyrically, it’s about how experiences with a negative person can leave their mark on you.
“That idea really spoke to me of somebody in your life that is like a shadow — that their negative energy and their energy towards you looms over your life like a shadow and follows you wherever you go,” Wynne said. “And the sort of remnants of how they treated you sort of leave shadows around you, and I really liked the idea of that.”
“Look Inside” is a slow burn of a song with Curran’s bass doubled and drenched in distortion so that it positively growls and provides a menacing foundation for Wynne to sing a bit higher, with more ethereal vocals. Lifeson’s guitar adds texture. The effect of the song is somewhere between a warm, comforting blanket and a deep, dark, menacing well, threatening to drown the listener, depending on one’s mood when hearing it. Despite not being an obvious choice, it was released as the second single from the album.
“That song came together really well,” Wynne said. “I wasn't sold on it right away because it was super slow in the beginning. Then, as we started working on it and adding more and more layers, it really came together. It sort of surrounds you in this feeling and it sort of pulls at you.”
The first single from the record was “Liar,” a captivating, hypnotic song with one of Wynne’s finer and more haunting vocal performances. There are industrial, percussive sounds, some fuzz and distortion, atmospheric keyboards, a little acoustic guitar texture, and an entrancing, slow beat that almost demands listeners bob their heads along with the tempo.
Although it seems on the surface to be about a lack of trust between romantic partners, the origin of the song’s lyrics are quite different. Wynne was rewriting the existing lyrics from Curran and was a bit stuck when she found inspiration from an unusual source.
“I had jury duty for the first time, and they were looking to put me on this case that was really horrible,” Wynne said with a laugh. “We went into the courtroom, and they started listing off all of the things that this woman was on trial for — just this long, horrible list. And she looked me dead in the eye. And just that feeling of ice and horrible energy, and I just got chills throughout my whole body and it's like, ‘This person is evil!’ She pleads not guilty and everything inside me was like, ‘This woman is guilty. She's a liar!’
“And of course I didn't get put on the case, probably because I was thinking those things. But I went home and I wrote the verses about that moment and about that sinking feeling of just bad, bad feelings around that woman. Now she has a song about her.”
The song “Spy House” gets an explicit rating for including one of the words George Carlin said in a previous era that you can’t say on television. A driving beat from David Steinberg — one of three drummers used on the album — and a repetitive guitar riff push along this short song about a woman who thinks she’s being spied on but, as a result of her paranoia, turns out to be the one who is doing the spying. Wynne wrote her lyrics based on the working title Lifeson had applied to the instrumental track.
“I ended up creating this whole story about a woman that I wanted to match the feeling of the music, and to me, the music felt almost paranoid at times,” she said. “It has this sort of frantic paranoia feeling to it. And then this sort of sweetness to it at times. I made the story about a woman that was kind of obsessed and stalking this man.”
The song is one of the few moments where you can believe the guy who played guitar for Rush is actually on this Envy of None record. Lifeson’s guitar sounds on Envy of None, as good as they are, bear little resemblance to his work in Rush, but the main riff to “Spy House” is one of the few moments in which Rush fans could pick out something that’s recognizable as Lifeson’s. Most of his work on this record is much more subtle or so well blended into the overall song as to not stand out and draw attention the way his playing did with Rush.
Another midtempo trance-like number follows with “Dog’s Life,” which is a criticism of American work culture. Wynne drops to the absolute bottom of her range and almost whispers the titular lyrics but also shouts an aggressive chant — nearly buried in the mix of bass, drums, keyboards, and guitar textures — of “Blood! Sweat! Tears!”
“I think there's so much hustle culture in the U.S. of like, if you want your dreams to come true, then you have to work for it, and you have to be willing to get less sleep than everybody else,” she said. “If you didn't succeed, then you just didn't work hard enough, and we dedicate so much of our lives to work and this idea of working towards something.
“I just wanted to yell and I wanted to scream and just really make a commentary about how toxic this culture is. Yes, follow your dreams and work hard. But is it really more important than your health? Is it really more important than your well being? If you're working your whole life and you're not spending any time on being an actual human being, and being an actual person, and connecting with people, then what is your life at all?”
That frustration and rage comes out viscerally as the song rises to a climactic din before stopping nearly dead and finishing with a quiet guitar riff outro.
An eerie keyboard sequence introduces the middle-eastern flavored “Kabul Blues,” with some almost David Gilmour-esque guitar. It’s a short, atmospheric piece with Wynne’s whispery vocals leaving plenty of room to hear the disparate layers and textures.
That gives way to the Wynne-penned “Old Strings” — my personal favorite on the album. It’s got one of the lyrical highlights on the album:
I feel like old strings
My mind just won’t stretch the way it used to
But that’s nothing new
And I feel like those used things
The ones left in boxes on the shelf
Just like everything else
Lifeson plays delicate and beautiful guitar parts in the background that are reminiscent of the “Soon” section of “The Gates of Delirium” by Yes. Wynne said she loved the way the vocal and guitar dance around each other and it’s a perfect description.
“That’s one of my favorite guitar moments,” Wynne said. “It really emphasizes the story of the lyrics. There is sort of this relationship in the lyrics and so it’s really cool that the guitar and the vocals feel like two different people dancing with each other throughout the song. It’s really beautiful and it’s one of my favorite moments on the album.”
Curran wrote more of the vocals for “Dumb” than on other songs on the album, including a lengthy and catchy chorus. Wynne said Curran told her the inspiration for the song came from a cartoon drawing of a kid wearing a dunce cap. Subtle guitar and another midtempo drum/bass trance beat drive the song, and the band inserts layers of everything — vocals, keys, industrial sounds, etc. — to give it tremendous depth and texture.
“Enemy” is a menacing-sounding song and again the band empties out a bag of tricks. It begins with some industrial sounds and a bit of an oppressive riff that Wynne offsets with a creepy whisper of the chorus lyric, “I’m not your enemy” and some higher pitched “oohs.” The song comes off as a bit of a horror movie soundtrack, but in a good way. There are dark lyrics and Wynne channeled some of the feelings she’s had from seeing violence during protests in her city and having had friends hurt in that violence.
“I think that originally the lyrics started out more as like a dramatic relationship issue,” she said. “Which, it does work that way as well, sure, but I think it turned into something that was more vast — for me, at least — really contemplating on the violence in the world. And that's where I sort of channeled some of those verse lyrics, like:
I've been lost in this twisted world
drowned in silence and I'm feeling ill.
Just that feeling of like, I feel silenced because I feel like I can't do anything to help.”
As usual, Wynne pushes every ounce of that emotion into her vocal delivery, making “Enemy” another one of the album’s standout tracks.
The album closes with a song that, if I’m being honest, doesn’t fit. “Western Sunset” is a straightforward acoustic guitar instrumental and feels out of place on the record. However, I’m glad it’s included, because it’s brilliant. Putting it last is the absolutely correct sequencing decision, because it feels like a bonus track.
Lifeson found his inspiration for the song while visiting Peart during his illness. He was on a balcony, watching a sunset and thinking about the finality of it. While the song doesn’t share the same vibe with the other songs, the track does serve a couple of important purposes with its inclusion. For Rush fans, it provides a feeling of closure. This is a member of Rush saying (and playing) goodbye to Peart, who meant so much to those of us who were fans of that band. It also allows the listener of Envy of None to decompress after the intensity of the rest of the record and to exit the listening experience on a positive and hopeful note.
Attempts were made to add vocals to the “Western Sunset,” but in the end, it not only worked better without them, but it also allowed Lifeson to be the “voice” in the song that pays tribute to his friend of more than four decades.
“I had lyrics, and they worked, and it was pretty and stuff, but the voice of the song was Alex,” Wynne said. “I felt like the lyrics detracted from it, and it's not my story to tell, and it's not my song to write, and it's so much better that I wasn't on it. And I'm so glad that I wasn't, because it's perfect exactly the way that it is.”
Even without knowing the backstory of the song, it’s an emotional listen, but when factoring in the idea of Lifeson looking west, watching the sunset, and equating the finality of the end of that one day with the end of Peart’s physical existence in the world, everything is magnified tenfold.
“You can feel the lifetime in that song. It's really, really beautiful,” Wynne said.
With the 11 songs taking up just under 42 minutes, Envy of None doesn’t overstay its welcome and it has that quality that many great records have — it makes the listener want to immediately play it again.
Due to Lifeson’s reluctance to endure lengthy tours at this point in his storied career, the album may not lead to many — or possibly any — live performances, which would be a shame. But the band hasn’t ruled out doing a few isolated shows if done, for example, in tandem with a future Wynne solo tour. She is currently preparing to release of her first, full-length solo album after previously releasing a number of EPs so far in her career. She said that the other members of Envy of None will appear on the new solo record.
And Envy of None has already had talks about a follow-up album, with Curran already starting to put some ideas, bits, and pieces in a new folder. That will be welcome news to the many music fans who end up falling in love the band’s excellent debut effort. Regardless of what comes next from Envy of None, Wynne said she had a rewarding experience putting the first one together with this group of musicians.
“I just felt really lucky to get to work with them. I’m just some random girl from Portland and it's awesome,” she said with a laugh.
Listening to Envy of None, it’s easy to come away with the thought that perhaps it is the other three principles of the band who are lucky to get to work with Wynne.
Never Said I Love You
To see the entire interview with Maiah Wynne, check out the video below or download Episode 67 of the Michael’s Record Collection podcast on any major podcast platform (Apple, Google, Amazon, Spotify, Pandora, Goodpods, Podchaser, etc.). In addition to talking about Envy of None and the songs on the album, Maiah discussed her early musical influences, her excellent work as a solo artist, her impending full-length, debut solo album, her acting career, and more.
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