The title Havana Winter is not a reference to Canadians' preferred seasonal vacation; it's the name of Hearn's five-year-old daughter. But the songs on Hearn's fifth solo album are linked thematically by references to weather and natural forces -- and not cliches about cryin' in the rain. The opening track, "Coma," was written after Hearn read an apocalyptic book about dying oceans called The End of the Line; it features the lines: "Tell all the urban sprawlers/ tell all the deep sea trawlers/ and the technological creep/ it's time to come out of your coma."
Other tracks are more light-hearted and brought to life by his wry eye for detail. "Huntsville.ca" is about the cottage country town in Ontario where Hearn spends his summers; the narrator is a town resident who laments the transitory nature of his literally fair-weather friends. "Luna" is the strange-but-true story of the orca that, after an activist campaign, was freed from the Vancouver Aquarium into the Vancouver harbour; instead of returning to nature, however, the whale craved human contact so much that it started crashing into boats. It was eventually killed by a propeller in one such encounter.
Unlike the melancholy mood of his 2006 album The Miracle Mile, Hearn's Havana Winter is considerably more upbeat. It continues in the style of planetarium pop heard on The Miracle Mile, with lush synthesizers decorating increasingly spacious arrangements, though set to snappier tempos. "I wanted to do more of a summer record," he says. "I've been listening to a band called the Fleetwoods and a lot of oldies music on the radio and really enjoying it. That era has an innocence in the music, so a song like 'In the Shade' is directly influenced by that." Other songs fall somewhere in between Randy Newman and Stereolab, recorded with a big-screen vision worthy of the Flaming Lips. Havana Winter is an old-fashioned headphone album, the kind where it's best to sit back, close your eyes, and immerse yourself in a world of sound.
Hearn had plenty of help this time out from his extensive network of friends, some of whom practically demanded that they be on the album, such is their respect for Hearn's talents as a keyboardist, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter.
It was guitarist Mike Rathke who practically pushed Hearn into the studio; both Rathke and his boss of 20 years, Lou Reed, were fans of Hearn's 2001 album H-Wing, an emotional work written while Hearn was battling leukemia and struggling for his life. Rathke suggested that they work together; the ever-humble Hearn was flattered, but didn't think anything of it.
The next time they met, Rathke was more demanding. "Listen, the last time I asked you if I could play on your record," he told Hearn. "But I'm serious! Let's do something!"
Sessions were soon booked in Hearn's hometown of Toronto; they were already underway when Hearn got a call from singer/songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk, who has been successful as a solo artist and as a writer for Avril Lavigne and Kelly Clarkson. "She didn't even say hello," Hearn laughs. "She just said, 'Why am I not singing on your record?' "
In addition to his 14 years as keyboardist in the multi-platinum pop band Barenaked Ladies, Hearn plays on recent albums by CanRock royalty such as The Tragically Hip, Broken Social Scene, Ron Sexsmith and Raine Maida. And in one of the highest compliments any keyboardist could ever hope to receive, Hearn was invited to sing and play on the new album by Garth Hudson of The Band. His recent work touring with both Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson resulted in both of them contributing to Havana Winter.
Havana Winter features some of Hearn's oldest friends -- including enigmatic vocalist Mary Margaret O'Hara and jazz saxophonist Richard Underhill (Shuffle Demons) -- as well as some new ones, such as the Irish-Canadian tenor John McDermott, whose target audience skews about 30 years older than the Barenaked Ladies'.
The album also marks a continued evolution in Hearn's songwriting, which has shifted away from the prog abstractions of his early work into increasingly melodic and accessible territory. For an idea sponge like Hearn, it can be hard to focus at times. After all, this is the classically trained choir boy whose teenage mind was blown by Devo and The Residents, and who spent his musical youth in one of the most bizarre art-prog-performance art bands Canada has ever seen: The Look People, which also featured Thin Buckle members Chris Gartner (bass) and Great Bob Scott (drums).
"I've become better at managing space and not filling everything up," says Hearn. "I always have ideas of what textures can go into a song, and part of the skill is choosing the best ones and letting the other ones go."
No doubt the songwriting standards of his Barenaked Ladies bandmates have had their effect as well. It was Hearn who was the main motivator for their acclaimed 2008 children's album and book, Snack Time -- which was illustrated with his drawings -- and Hearn's own songwriting contributions to the band have increased gradually since 2000's Maroon. He's recording some of his new songs for the next Barenaked Ladies album, due out this fall, and his role in that band is sure to increase with the recent departure of frontman Steven Page -- a story that took on a tabloid element in the Canadian press and took its toll on all the band members.
During the past year of turmoil with his main gig, Hearn says that working on Havana Winter was a welcome respite with friends both old and new -- as any ideal seasonal vacation should be.