Geddy Lee can afford to affect a little humility.
It is, after all, a big year for Rush, the Toronto prog-rock trio to which the 57-year-old bassist and singer has devoted most of his life.
Canadian filmmakers Scot McFadyen's and Sam Dunn's documentary, RUSH: Beyond The Lighted Stage, is a premiere feature in this years Hot Docs Festival (April 29 through May 9 at several downtown theatres, see www.hotdocs.ca/festival), billed as a "seamless survey" of the 40-year career of the world's biggest cult band, whose gold and platinum sales record is bettered only by those of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
With lifelong partners Neil Peart on drums - he's also Rush's principal lyricist - and guitarist Alex Lifeson, Lee is in lockdown mode at the moment, writing and recording material for a new album (Rush's 20th studio opus) and rehearsing for a mini-tour that involves a special diet, daily workouts with a personal trainer, and the kind of intense spiritual and mental exercises only Olympic athletes understand.
But Sunday is especially big for Rush. Along with Quebec legend Robert Charlebois, the band will be inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame at the institution's sixth annual gala at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. While Lee, Peart and Lifeson declined an invitation to perform - "it's a tradition to have other artists interpret inductees' work," Lee said during a recent phone interview - some of the best of Rush's songs will be featured live at the gala, which will be taped for future TV broadcast.
St. Catharines rockers Alexisonfire will perform "Tom Sawyer"; California bass virtuoso and Geddy Lee protégé Les Claypool will reinvent "The Spirit of Radio"; and Hamilton folk/roots troubadour Jacob Moon - at Rush's invitation - will perform his solo acoustic version of "Subdivisions," which has become a YouTube sensation in the past year.
"Anytime your country honours you is important, it's huge," said Lee, adding that he feels he and his bandmates have often been overlooked as songwriters.
"Not that winning awards is something we think about or discuss. We just try to keep moving forward ... it's not very often we get a chance to look back at what we've created.
"It's humbling, frankly, to be joining a group that includes Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot and so many other great songwriters."
Among the vast Rush repertoire, enduring fan favourites "Subdivisions" and "The Spirit of Radio" are closer to his heart, Lee said.
"I'm not sure it was intended, but they seem to have a particularly Canadian perspective. 'Subdivisions' tells a story that could happen in the suburbs of any big North American city, but it has stood the test of time with home audiences because there's some truth in the song they recognize. The content and the context ring true.
"The same goes for 'The Spirit of Radio.' That's a story Torontonians know ... about the freedom radio used to provide, before it all became pre-formatted, and the freedom was taken away."
Of the two established songwriting procedures Rush employs, "words first" is easier, Lee explained.
"When you have a great lyric the music becomes a natural extension of the mood and content. The 'music first' method is more difficult, but often more rewarding. It relies a lot on craftsmanship, and on the magic of musical inspiration and improvisation ... but the words have to match that special quality, and it's sometimes painstaking work to get that to happen."
Millions of record sales notwithstanding, Rush's songwriters have rarely earned income from other artists' covers of their famous songs. The complexity of the arrangements built into Rush's work - sudden time, tempo and key changes - are beyond the grasp of less ambitious or practised musicians, and the soaring melodies and vivid narratives are forsaken. British band Catherine Wheel had a respectable U.K. hit with "The Spirit of Radio" some time back, and word is out that Nelly Furtado is considering taking a crack at a popped-up version of Rush's "Time Stands Still."
"I understand why no one covers our songs," Lee said. "They sound daunting. But, as Moon proved in his 'Subdivisions' video, most of the songs can be stripped back to their simplest form, and find a new life.
"When we tried to write songs that are simple and uncomplicated, it didn't work.
"One of our producers used to tell us, 'You'd have a lot of hits if only someone else recorded them.'"