Hearn & Harland: Two talented cousins make their collaboration official

Musician Kevin Hearn, of Barenaked Ladies fame, and his cousin comedian Harland Williams on combining forces for a madcap musical adventure and just how deep their North York roots run


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Image: Chris Phelps

One of the first times Kevin Hearn ever performed on a stage he was backed up by his cousin comedian Harland Williams. This was before Hearn became a Barenaked Lady and Williams would make Dumb & Dumber and Something About Mary and the two artistic teenagers were just some North York nerds eating their corned beef at Yitz’s and encouraging each other to live out their dreams.

“We were a little of the black sheeps of both our families,” says Hearn. “We actually said stuff to each other back then like: ‘No matter what anyone says, we can do this!’ ” 

A few years younger than Williams, Hearn remembers fondly going to his older cousin’s house on Elfindale Crescent and looking at Williams’ bizarre collection of squirrel skulls, Don River fish and extensive collection of Mad magazines. 

“I guess it just made sense that the first time I ever played a high school variety night with my high school band that Harland came and played two songs with us,” Hearn says. “He was really supportive back then, and he always was.”

In a sense, the duo’s new group, appropriately and affectionately dubbed the Cousins, has been a work in progress for the entire lives of both local entertainers. With their first full-length record, Rattlesnake Love, set to be released, it’s a project neither cousin could have imagined coming into fruition way back when. 

“We really just did music for ourselves — for fun — it made us laugh and gave us an artistic outlet, and one day, we actually put together a song.”
— Harland Williams

Hearn grew up on George Henry Boulevard, and Williams lived a quick bike ride away, and since their mothers are sisters, they spent a lot of time at each other’s houses. Williams says that Hearn was always supremely talented, always armed with a melody and a hook.

“Kevin was always playing instruments, and when he was a little kid, I used to hang out at his house, and he’d play and I’d start singing, and we’ve basically been doing it ever since,” says Williams, adding that he’s been after his cousin to make this record for the past 20 years. “We really just did music for ourselves — for fun — it made us laugh and gave us an artistic outlet, and one day, we actually put together a song.”

One of their earliest songs is “Lover’s Heart,” which sounds like a twangy Roy Orbison ballad and gets revisited on the new disc. But the record is sonically universal, touching every genre, from surf tunes to electro to out and out hard rock. It’s not a comedy record, per se, although the group’s whimsy is infectious, and there’s a good feeling behind every song. And sonically, it’s as if the cousins — or the Cousins — created an aural experience of visiting the Mandarin.

“We get our energy and the most satisfaction out of a food buffet, where you walk down the line and try foods from all different cultures,” Williams says. “That’s what we want: a musical food buffet.” 

“I think me and Kevin both are restless and have an appetite for different sounds, styles and flavours and didn’t want to present a traditional album,” says Williams, who sounds a little bit like the Killers’ Brandon Flowers, or else Morrissey. 

The buffet was stocked with experiences the cousins would have growing up in Bayview and North York, enjoying their adolescence together and developing into artists. Williams tells a funny story about fishing for goldfish in the Don River, and Hearn has fond memories of Fairview Mall and Havenbrook Park. In fact, after high school, when the best friends were still in their late teens, they had an apartment together in Thorncliffe Park, just far away enough from their mothers to be somewhat rebellious and imagine their lives in the arts. 

“Harland had this list of goals that he made in that little apartment and number one on the list was to appear on David Letterman, and I was there with him when he got that call and when he checked it off,” says Hearn. “The next thing that happened was that he moved to Los Angeles and I joined the Barenaked Ladies.”

That the two men would go on and find spectacular individual success while maintaining their personal relationship and playing music for fun makes this reunion feel all the more special. In these cynical, divisive times, it’s almost as if you can hear the joy in the room.   

“Working with Kev, I don’t even see it as if I’m working with someone good in their profession. It’s someone I’ve been with my whole life,” Williams says. “Me and Kevin have like a spiritual-mental connection. We’re best friends.”

A cheat sheet to some of the Cousins’ biggest sonic and comic achievements

  • Dumb & Dumber: Williams got a big Hollywood nod thanks to this ’94 flick starring Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels. Williams plays a urine-drinking cop in an hilarious pullover scene. 
  • Barenaked Ladies: This Canuck rock band first brought Hearn into the limelight back in ’95 when a temp keyboardist gig 
    turned full-time.
  • There’s Something About Mary: In this classic comedy, Williams plays a killer hitchhiker who tries to sell driver Ben Stiller on his seven-minute abs concept. 
  • Lou Reed: Hearn acted as keyboardist and musical director for his friend Lou Reed’s touring band.
  • Days in Frames: Influenced by Reed’s passing, Hearn, recovering from tongue cancer at the time, released this wistful 2015 album.

The best friends are both working on separate, exciting, individual projects as they take time out to promote their Rattlesnake Love record, of which they’re both very proud. Williams has a fully produced cartoon show at Disney Junior, called Puppy Dog Pals, that is set to air in 150 countries this spring. When we reached Hearn, he was in the studio making a new album with a refreshed Barenaked Ladies. 

It seems like not too long ago they were 16, sitting at Yitz’s while Williams provided words of encouragement to Hearn on his songwriting. They swore to each other to reach for the stars, to remain in the art world and that they would always stay close. 

In a sense, the Cousins is the two guys staying true to their word. 

“I remember so clearly going to his house, and they had these basement stairs, and Harland would go to the bottom and pretend a monster was dragging him out of the frame, and I’d be so excited and scream, ‘Do your show for me!’ ” says Hearn. “Harland was a big influence on me back then — he still is today.”

The Cousins’ first full-length record, Rattlesnake Love, will be released March 17.

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