That Time Geddy Lee Went Solo With ‘My Favorite Headache’
Rush fans had to wait six years between 1996's Test for Echo and 2002's Vapor Trails — but that six-year gap gave frontman Geddy Lee enough time to take a detour with his first solo LP, My Favorite Headache, in November 2000.
"I think I backed into this project," Lee shrugged in the electronic press kit for the record. "I've never had a great desire to make an individual statement, and I certainly didn't want any more attention. I satisfy so much of my musical self in the context of Rush, so I don't have any great frustrations from that point of view. But once in awhile, you'd wonder, 'What's like out there? What's it like to work with other people?'"
Those questions didn't occur in a vacuum. Although Rush were nowhere near breaking up in the late '90s, the band was on an extended hiatus following the death of drummer Neil Peart's daughter in a single-car accident in 1997 — and, just one year later, the death of Peart's wife, who succumbed to cancer. With Peart on a long sabbatical to cope with his grief, Lee was free to indulge in whatever flights of musical fancy he might be able to conceive of bringing to other musicians.
Fittingly for a guy who'd spent his entire career with one band, Lee didn't wander too far afield when selecting a creative foil for his solo debut. In fact, he selected an artist who was already a member of the Rush extended family: violinist/guitarist Ben Mink, whose band FM had toured with Rush in 1980, and who went on to contribute violin to the song "Losing It" during the sessions for 1982's Signals LP. Casually at first, with no particular endpoint in mind, the duo worked together on arrangements, with Lee making a calculated decision to veer away from the type of muso-focused bass calisthenics people might expect from him.
In fact, as Lee explained in the press kit, while he wrote the bulk of the album on the bass, he wasn't just writing melody lines, he was playing chords — and in some cases, multi-tracking basses into different layers of the arrangements. While the result wasn't quite the bass frenzy some might have assumed Lee might record outside of Rush, it definitely found him challenging himself musically — and lyrically.
Peart had been Rush's primary lyricist since joining the band in 1974, and before Lee and Mink could really get down to business with My Favorite Headache, Lee had to get back in touch with that part of his songwriting muse. "It was a very exposing process. I think that's what I liked about it," Lee told Global Bass. "I liked the fact that I was forced to get inside of my emotions and to really try to figure out a lot of what I was going through."
As Lee went on to explain, for him, coming up with lyrics just meant living a more observant life. "Most people are like this: They think of stuff during the day. The mind goes to certain places, they remember things, and they try to figure things out. To remind yourself to write that stuff down is a great benefit," he continued. "Then you come back to it and you analyze it days later, and lyrically shape what you felt when you wrote it down. For me, how I feel about what I wrote down turns into a song."
Perhaps more than any other aspect of My Favorite Headache, it was working on the lyrics that gave Lee an opportunity to really spread his wings. Telling Bass Player that he'd given it up because Peart was "so good at it," he noted, "I was self-conscious at first — but once I got over the initial shock of hearing my words coming back at me, it was great. It turned out to be a very important process personally; it allowed me to work through a lot of things that have been on my mind. I want to keep doing it, because it's a more complete way to express myself."
Still, it was only after an executive at Atlantic urged Lee to complete the album that he and Mink really started taking My Favorite Headache seriously — and even then, it was only with Mink's blessing that he decided to release it as a solo project. In the meantime, the album's slow gestation gave the partners plenty of time to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the various songs while recruiting a small crew of outside musicians (led by Soundgarden and Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron) to round out the recordings.
Telling WMMR that the long tracking process gave him "time to live with the songs," Lee talked about the lengthy downtime between sessions. "Three, four, five months later you can go back and look at that material and see if you still feel that way," he pointed out. "That time was very beneficial for me, and I got very comfortable with the idea after awhile. And it became much more valid and much less embarrassing to go out and bare my soul, so to speak. And it actually became quite challenging intellectually to have to go through the process of examining my thoughts and I found it to be a kind of a clarifying experience."
Though Lee was the last member of Rush to release an album outside the band — Peart produced an all-star drum tribute to Buddy Rich in 1994, and guitarist Alex Lifeson followed with his solo outing Victor in 1996 — as the singer, he received the most attention. While My Favorite Headache didn't reach Rush-level sales, it performed respectably, peaking at No. 52 while sending the title track and "Grace to Grace" into rotation at mainstream rock radio.
Ultimately, My Favorite Headache was a detour between Rush projects for Lee, who found himself pressed back into active duty the following year when the band started work on Vapor Trails. Yet while he remained loyal to the band, the experience gave him a taste of what his career might be like if they ever decided to call it quits.
"I would like to think that Ben and myself have begun a partnership that will take us into different areas of music that we can continue to write, enjoy and keep me involved with music other than what I do with Rush. Of course, I love what I do with Rush and I will continue to do it as long as we all believe it is all worthwhile to do," he mused. "These things are all finite, and there will come a day when that will end. Some writing and production projects will be a great way to spend my elderly rock years."