Kevin Hearn on growing up in North York and his new solo album
Image: David Leyes
I have to be honest, the prospect of speaking with Kevin Hearn, solo artist and Barenaked Ladies keyboardist and vocalist, caused me to nerd out a little bit. What Canuck doesn’t have a soft spot for the band’s catchy melodies and quirky lyrics?
It’s probably fair to say that the members of the popular T.O.- based band no longer need to fantasize about having large sums of money. The Ladies have been consistently recording hit songs and selling out shows since the ’90s.
Yet, the successful 45-year old keys player is incredibly down-to-earth.
Hearn begins the conversation by announcing that his car is waiting in the driveway, packed full of goods and provisions. The soft-spoken songsmith is about to head north to his secluded Muskoka cabin in the woods to, hopefully, “get a bit of writing done.”
His eagerness to get a move on, however, does not hinder his willingness to chat. “You know, I used to live in North York when I was a kid,” he offers cheerily. He reflects fondly on his old stomping ground.
“My mom used to take us to Havenbrook Park. We would just sit on the big hill and take in the view,” Hearn says.
Old photographs of the park made it into his first solo album. As kids, he and his cousin used to explore the Betty Sutherland Trail. Fairview Mall acted as the obligatory teen-meeting zone.
The Hearns lived on George Henry Boulevard. “There was a lot of music in my house,” recalls the second youngest of six siblings.
The brood had a piano-playing mom and a songbird for an aunt, so when Hearn opted to tickle the ivories at the age of seven, it didn’t garner much surprise.
Particular Hogtown landmarks helped contribute to the classically trained pianist’s musical coming of age. As a youth, he would take the subway every day to St. Michael’s Choir School. Hearn’s alma mater would hold their annual Christmas concerts at Massey Hall. Over the years, he has witnessed countless seminal shows — like his first, Gordon Lightfoot — at the venue. Some of his all-time favourites include Tom Waits, Brian Wilson and Neil Young; Hearn goes on to say that, most recently, a performance by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds blew his mind.
The Barenaked Ladies has been very involved with David Suzuki’s Blue Dot Tour, a cross-Canada concert series where Suzuki speaks of our basic rights as Canadians, while top acts play for the cause. The Blue Dot movement is designed to “get environmental rights written into the constitution, [and protect] things we take for granted, like air and water,” Hearn explains. BNL happily headlined the Massey Hall show in October.
Come early December, Roy Thompson Hall will host the beloved Ladies who, this time, will be accompanied by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
“It’s amazing to have so many great musicians playing on the same stage,” says Hearn, of performing with an entire orchestra. Lucas Waldin, conductor of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra will join the band for the shows.
According to Hearn, Waldin is “an amazing conductor,” who not only “gets” the band’s M.O., but also is known to rock a pretty wild flute solo from time to time.
When asked about the secret to the band’s longevity, the salt-and-pepper-bearded bard jokingly retorts, “We’re trained professionals.” In all seriousness though, he breaks BNL’s enduring presence down into a simple explanation.
“We have a great audience that keeps us going. If people weren’t coming to the shows, we wouldn’t be able to do them in the first place,” he says. Plus, a rather key ingredient: “And we still have fun.”
Nov. 25 will see the launch of Hearn’s fifth solo album, Days in Frames. When heading into writing mode, Hearn always carries a book in which he jots down passing thoughts as he wanders through the city. He also makes use of voice-memos to capture rogue melodies and sounds adrift in his mind. The cottage acts as the place to sift through his many musical mementos and see “what sticks to the wall.”
Harnessing his constant barrage of creative energy is what the musical Renaissance man describes as, both “a blessing and a curse.” Inspiration is not something you can manufacture, but Hearn finds that eliminating distractions and fostering peaceful relaxation is key. Interestingly, David Lynch’s book, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity, has helped Hearn connect with his inner artist through transcendental meditation. Since learning to meditate — which he strives to do twice daily — Hearn has found he’s been able to write music with greater ease.
Although he writes based on his own personal experience, as he says it is what he knows best, he has noticed that his writing has changed from pure introspection into an attempt at projecting universal truths.
“Going through certain experiences in life, you start to understand things more deeply. It takes a bit more effort to articulate those things but results in perhaps stronger material, stronger art and stronger statements,” Hearn says.
Lou Reed has always been a creative touchstone for Hearn, who first met the legend over the phone back in 1997. The initial in-person meeting occurred a couple of years later during one of Reed’s gigs at the Knitting Factory, and Hearn recalls heading out for pizza after the show.
Later, while auditioning for Reed, Hearn impressed his idol with his knowledge of the most obscure songs in Reed’s catalogue. Their fledgling friendship continued from there and was solidified when Hearn received a get well card from Reed while in treatment for leukemia. Following Hearn’s recovery, he stepped in as Reed’s bandleader — after Reed requested his audition. The elder musician reciprocated by contributing to Hearn’s solo ventures.
The recently departed icon’s artistic ideals are ones that Hearn will forever aspire to. “He taught me a lot even before I knew him. I really had the honour of working with him and, even more so, being his friend,” says Hearn.
“[Reed] was an honest writer. He wasn’t afraid of writing about darker parts of human nature and darker experiences,” Hearn says. “Working with him, I learned that it really takes a commitment to be that kind of an artist. You have to really believe in yourself and not get pushed around. He was a true poet and a real artist, and a real lovely guy, too.”
Hearn has maintained an unyielding presence in the music industry, both as a Barenaked Ladies member and a solo artist. It is hard to imagine how he finds the time to have a hand in so many proverbial pots. And yet, you still might find him hanging out post gig or recording session at his favourite west end haunt, Bar Isabel.
Ever humble and eloquent, Kevin Hearn is a true artist and a self-made man. His gentle good nature, coupled with his incredible musical talent and industry pragmatism, make Canada proud year after year.