Ahead of Canadian Hall of Fame Induction, Corey Hart Preps for 2019 Return

John Wagner
Corey Hart

This weekend, three years after Corey Hart's Canada's Walk of Fame induction, the one-time heartthrob and international songwriter and recording artist will be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame at the Juno Awards. Many watching the Sunday (March 17) broadcast on CBC might wonder, "Wow, Corey Hart. Where has he been?" or make the groan-worthy quip, "Will he be wearing his sunglasses?" in reference to his ubiquitous global hit, "Sunglasses At Night," from his 1983 debut album First Offense.

Between that release, the follow-up, 1985's Boy In The Box, up to his ninth and last studio effort, 1998's Jade, Hart sold some 16 million albums worldwide and landed 10 songs in Billboard's Hot 100, including "Never Surrender," (No. 3); "Sunglasses At Night" (No. 7) and "It Ain't Enough" (No. 17).

Just before Corey Hart (1996), Hart moved to the Bahamas with francophone pop singer Julie Masse, who had stepped away from her music career in 1995 after the release of her English-language album (for which she met and worked with Hart). Their first child, India, was born in 1995, and when daughter River was born in 1999, Hart also walked away from the spotlight. The couple married in 2000 and raised their family of four: daughters India, Dante and River, and son Rain.

Fourteen years later, daughters now in their teens and son 10, Hart decided to return to the stage for one last farewell concert in his hometown of Montreal. It was a massive success, sold-out, at the Bell Centre, and that's when he must've caught the bug — for here he is, with a new EP, Dreaming Time Again, ready to drop on May 3 — worldwide on DSPs, and through Warner in Canada (a physical 8-song mini album) and Japan — and a Canadian arena tour starting May 31 (his birthday) until June 24, then over to Japan for two dates (July 3 & 4) with Paul Young dubbed Young at Hart.

Hart tells Billboard, "He's an old pal and we are also recording a song together for the tour there and we will sing several other songs together during the concert."

Dreaming Time Again was produced by fellow Canadian and Hall of Famer Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, KISS). The title track features an opening line about his old pal, drummer Kenny Aronoff, who plays on the EP; Hart's mini-me son co-stars in the video, directed by Peter Guzda. The next instant grat track/single is "Tonight (I Wrote This Song For You)" — a ballad for his wife who also sings on every song — out March 17.

Ezrin tells Billboard he and his wife, Jan, became friendly with the Harts last winter, and on a professional level, the producer says Corey "seemed to need a bit of encouragement and a gentle shove back to center stage.

"We formed a bond of real affection and mutual respect from the outset," Ezrin says. "When he finally decided to go for it, he asked me to produce him, which for Corey was a major statement of trust. He doesn't give up control lightly. Throughout the process I challenged him, and to his credit he rose to it every time. He also stood his ground when he felt strongly about something. It was a dynamic and truly collaborative working relationship and I really enjoyed it.

"In the process, our families have become very close. All I want for him is to have the success and joy that he deserves as an artist and a man. And nothing brings a born performer more joy than to get on that stage and bring the audience to its feet."

Billboard sat down with Hart to find out just what he's been doing the past two decades, why he didn't stick to the farewell plan, his new music and tour, and the induction.

I haven't interviewed you since your "farewell interview" in 2014. I won't make you cry though.

Don't make me cry. So how about that? I said never, right? Never again.

You did. A lot of artists that decide to return after a long hiatus don't know if their fanbase is still there. In your case, it's the opposite; your fans [called the Caravan] brought you back.

That's an interesting way of putting it in. It's actually very accurate. Through social media, which I'm not a darling of — Facebook, I started late, in 2012, and I reluctantly [just] started on Instagram to appease the record company [laughs] — but, yes, through my Facebook page, I felt the love from my fans. I felt that my fans had missed me and they hadn't forgotten me. That's a very important, significant realization that I went through.

Let's talk about "Sunglasses At Night," the song for which you're most known. It's iconic.

And I've never been asked about it before [laughs].

It was going to be called "My Cigarette Is Wet."

What do you think of that?

It might not have been as much of a classic.

[Laughs]. You don't think it's as catchy? The irony is I don't smoke and never have smoked. But, yeah, that was the original lyric I had for it over the melody line and when I got back from [recording the album in] England, I developed the idea of "Sunglasses At Night."

What is the idea? It's not a song about Ray-Bans.

No. The lyric itself is about a rebellious relationship where a guy's been cheated on. He's basically saying, "Don't fuck with me. Don't switch the blade on the guy in shades." A lot of my early songs were written about what I saw my mom go through with my dad, in terms of my dad having cheated on my mom a lot and hurt my mom with deception and deceit. That's why there's a lyric in the song "while she's deceiving me, cuts my security." It was influenced by that narrative of me growing up seeing mom being hurt.

I thought it was rebellious. Obviously, you don't wear your sunglasses at night; you wear them in the daytime. Normal people do that. So I wanted to be the anti-hero. I can't remember the exact moment when the epiphany hit me that the phrase worked, but I felt that that lyric over this melody line had a magic to it. That's why I convinced the record company to let me go back and record it. And, yeah, the rest is history.

Why do you think it's so iconic all over the world?

If I knew the answer, it would take away its iconicism [laughs]. I don't think we should know the answer to the question. It's just part of the cultural lexicon and it spans every genre of music. There have been so many covers and interpretations of that song, which is the greatest honor, to me, a songwriter can get — other people deciding to do your song. There's just something about that lyric that people relate to.

Explain what that time was like for you. Belieber-esque. Girls trying to rip your clothes off, waiting outside the hotels at the airport?

Yeah, there was no entrance through the front of the hotel. It was always going through the back of the kitchen or the service entrance. There were people camping out, sleeping outside the arenas to buy tickets in the morning. And if I was at a restaurant, or if I was anywhere where fans saw me — imagine today with social media how quick — in those days too, I was surprised how fans were so inventive and creative and sleuth-minded to figure out where I was going to be at the right time. And then just go mental [laughs]. This is part of my history. What it was at that time in my life. I'm not comparing myself to The Beatles, but The Beatles had the same thing going on, with the screaming and the screaming and then screaming, and then you start listening to the music too. They work together sometimes.

"Sunglasses" wasn't an enormous hit in Canada.

Well, it was a big hit in the United States. That's what really created the career that I had. If I had not had that success in America, the top 10 success on Billboard with that single — I was touring a lot. I toured with Hall & Oates as an opening act and I toured with Rick Springfield and did a massive amount of shows, but it was really the success of that single that cemented my career path. What would have happened otherwise?

It was long believed Canadians had to go outside the country to find success.

I don't think it exists anymore in Canada. I don't think that the Canadian industry has those same legitimacy issues that they did back in the early '80s or late '70s. There was just a handful of Canadian artists that had international or American success. I used to listen to Casey Kasem all the time as a teenager and I could name on one hand the artists that were from Canada. Now you could go through the top 40 and Canadians dominate.

You kept making albums until 1998, when Jade, your last album on Sony, was released, then you retreated to take care of your family. But a couple of years later you did recut the vocals for the dance remix of "Sunglasses" [2002] and did bits and pieces since. Ten Thousand Horses in 2014 featured Jane Siberry, your wife Julie, and some rough demos.

Yeah, but if you look at it as a collection of work and what had preceded it, if I do one thing in two years, it's not really doing anything [laughs], truthfully. If you look at it from 1998 to 2019, there was no collection of new music released. There was only me, maybe featuring on a track. I did a track with [hip-hop artist] k-os as well five years ago, but these were like little Entebbe-style in and out. That's a weird analogy. It was important to me because of my history [his dad wasn't around] that I wanted to be with my kids every day. I wanted to raise them. I've always been very focused and determined, an all-in type of guy and creatively that's the way you have to be.

You started a record label around 2003, Siena Records, which also kept you occupied, on the hunt to sign your first artist. That didn't happen until Marie-Christine in 2011.

From 2003 to 2011 is eight years of Warner Music Canada sticking by me. I'm on Warner Music Canada now. My first recording contract since I left Sony Music. There's a long wonderful history.

When that didn't work out with Marie-Christine, you found Jonathan Roy [son of hockey great, Patrick Roy]. What have you learned from having your own label? Piece of cake launching an artist?

[Laughs, hard] I'm much better off writing and singing my own songs. It was [label exec] Seymour Stein's idea, who's one of my dearest friends in the music business and has always been a strong Corey Hart crusader. His idea around 2002, which is when I first met [Warner Music Canada president] Steve Kane, was to create an opportunity for me so that I could work in a joint label venture, and not be a guy that wears a suit, comes in and counts numbers and shows up at his desk, but that can create and cultivate, discover talent. So the two artists that we signed, Marie-Christine in 2011 and then Jonathan we worked with over the last five years, starting around 2013. His record came out in 2016. What did I learn from it? I learned that it's frustrating, more so because I'm an artist that vicariously is trying to shape or mold that artist to be who they are. Yet it's a fine balance between me wanting to imprint how I would do things, and learning that give and take of pulling back and saying, "It's not my record; it's their record." And even if I was the writer of many of the songs, it's still their interpretation of the songs; it's how they want to project themselves image-wise, how they want to talk in interviews, and that process, after awhile, started to frustrate me. So I learned a lot from the experience. I had some great moments with it, with Jonathan and with Marie-Christine. Creatively, musically, it kept me still writing songs. Would I do it all over again? I'm not so sure, but I don't like looking back on regrets. I think that, yeah, if I had to do it all again, I wouldn't change anything in my career, the mistakes and all.

Meanwhile you played the odd show. Not a ticketed show, but you played at Pride in Toronto; a CHUM radio event; the 2013 It's Always Something Gilda's Club fundraiser, then you decided you're going to do one last huge farewell concert in your hometown.

Where you made me cry.

Afterwards.

That was for my kids and my fans because they'd never seen me.

It was an incredible, sold-out send-off. You played longer than Springsteen.

I played 44 songs, four-and-a-half hours into the wee hours of the morning and I thought it was going to be the one and only.

You shed some tears. Your mom was there.

I brought my mom on stage and sang "That's All Right Mama." And her birthday was a few days after that. And tragically we lost her two months after that.

I had asked you then why be so definitive about this being your last-ever show. Even after the concert, when promoters were calling and wanted you to continue.

Ten years preceding 2014, they were calling.

You still held your ground. But then a couple of months later you took a gig opening for your friend Shania Twain in PEI. Then you played a comedy festival in Quebec. Did you feel awkward coming back for the odd show?

No, I didn't feel awkward because there was maybe three or four since the Bell Centre because they weren't Corey Hart shows, per se. They weren't what you call hard ticket. I had a lot of fun that night and why I was so definitive is that I meant every word I said when I told you, and when I told everyone, that it was going to be the only one and I'm not going do anymore. I likened it to when someone gets married, they say "I do."

Til death.

Now do they mean it, "do us part." "For better or for worse." They are sincere in the moment. I would say 99.9 percent of those folks when they get married…

Unless they're planning to…

Unless they're planning to John Bobbitt. So when I said that, that is exactly what I felt. It was only in the last year, meeting Bob Ezrin, and then having an incredible offer to do a tour coast to coast, but also the new music and the tour together.

Because it's kind of a cliché. Cher is coming back, and The Who…

But they come back and do massive tours, but to put your toes into the water for one show in 2016 is not tantamount to trying to come back. It's just, "Hey, I got this interesting offer. It's fun. The family will come up. Rehearse the day before I go on stage and it's a festival and this is fun." That's the way I approached it. I did one at Oxford Stomp in Calgary [2017]. I did [Atlantic Fest] Newfoundland [2017]. I did a handful of between 2014 and 2018. I probably did one a year. To me, it's not coming back like Cher or Phil Collins or the Eagles or anything like that. What I'm doing now is my first tour in 20 years. My first arena tour since the '80s. I am putting out new music because I did not want to be a jukebox artist. I wanted to have new music now. That's where Bob [Ezrin] played such an important role.

You met Ezrin at a Canada's Walk of Fame charity event at Casa Loma a year after your induction. How did you end up working with this great producer, who did Pink Floyd's The Wall?

Well, I had first met Bob that night. I got off the stage and I passed by his table and he came up, greeted me and said, "Wow, that was really good." I shook his hand and he said, "Where have you been? What have you been doing?" I mean, people don't think about me, and then they see me. He said, "I'm going to ring you up and we should just talk about where you're at, what's going on." I thought it was just polite conversation. He was sincere when he said it, but I didn't think that there was actually going to be a follow-up phone call. And about three months later, he did call me and he said, "Let's go have a coffee and talk." And I go, "Sure."

He was down in the Bahamas actually. And so we went for a coffee and then we went out to a place where he was staying and we sat in front of the water and we talked on a pier and we talked for a couple of hours about everything. Not about making a record or anything, just talked about life and music, his life, my life, sharing stories. Then I invited him for dinner, and we became friends.

It was only after five or six months of a friendship and a trust and communication, and he came over at Christmas time and I said, "You know, I wrote a song for my mom. It one of the first songs that I've written in the last 20 years that I wrote for me." And he said, "Let me hear it." And he says, "This is a beautiful song, what are you going to do with it?" "I don't know. Maybe I'll post it on Facebook one day, I don't know." And it was just a slow, natural progression of him at some point saying, "I really think you should make some new music. I think you should go back in there and make a record."

"Another December" you wrote for your mom. There's a lot of very personal songs here. "Dreaming Time Again" is for Kenny Aronoff?

Well, it's about me going back on the road. He is a cool friend of mine. Hey, I'm going out on the road and I want you to come on the road with me. "Dreaming Time Again" on a micro level is about me dreaming about what I used to do, which was make music and sing and tour, and I'm getting to do it again. And on a macro level, it's however you interpret it, the listener, in your own lives.

And "Shawnee Girl"?

It's for India.

Your first daughter. Is it an apology?

No, not so much an apology is. It's one of the songs that I'm most proud of as a songwriter because I always wanted to be very raw and honest with my lyrics, and the music and the lyrics and the vocal. Everything just really magically comes together on that track. Parenting is tough. Parenting has its challenges and sometimes, as a parent, you have to give advice or you have to put your foot down and say things that a child doesn't want to necessarily hear. And sometimes I made her sad by having to do that, but we're in a great place.

"Tonight (I Wrote This Song For You)" is beautiful. Clearly for Julie.

That was Ezrin's idea. We were in the kitchen talking, after going through some of the songs, and he said, "What's the last song that you wrote for you for Julie?" Julie and I been together 25 years. I said, "Third of June." He goes, "When did you write it?" I said "1995." He said, "It's fucking time you wrote her something new" [laughs]. "Oh yeah."

How was it working with Bob? Would you say you're a bit of a control freak?

I don't like the word "freak."

Controlling? Perfectionist? Single-minded?

Yes. All of the above. I loved it. Why I loved it? Because I respect him so much. I trusted him. We didn't always agree. At the end of the day, he would let me pull rank and say, "It's your record," but he's a master. He knows everything about every lyric. He challenged me on many lyrics to say, in his very polite, diplomatic way, in a tone of voice, he'd say, "Have you considered that you could perhaps do better? I know you're capable of better on that verse," something to that effect, and the way he said was like, "Alright, I respect you. Let me go look and look at those lyrics." Sometimes I said, "No, the lyrics should stay the way it is. I disagree." And sometimes I think, "You know what, let me see if I can come up with a different expression."

Was it recorded in Nassau?

He wanted to hear all the songs demoed before we went into the studio. I demoed them at home. I'm very bare bones.

The Juno honor is coming up.

I'm extremely grateful and honored beyond. There's no word to actually describe the feeling that you have. I welled up with tears when [CARAS/Juno president/CEO] Allan Reid called me. I'm going to cherish that night for the rest of my life and knowing that I'm there is just beyond belief.

Will this be the first time we'll see the band that you're going to be taking out on the road in June?

Yes, except Kenny's unavailable because Kenny is one of the most is one of the busiest and most prolific, active drummers in the world. When I got the nod to perform, he was already booked with something called the Jimi Hendrix Experience. So I've got my, you could say, my old drummer, but I hadn't toured a lot.

And what about outside Canada? Japan, right?

Yeah, I'm going to do some dates in Japan after we finish in Vancouver and I'm probably going to do the Philippines and probably Singapore. A couple of other Asian dates as well. The scale of this show is arena sized. So I don't know that this type of show would work in America. It's been a long time since I've done things in America. Right now, I'm setting my sights on what we're doing right now and we'll see what the future holds. But my main gig and job and purpose is still that.

Lastly, I've seen you stay all night till six in the morning, signing autographs, meeting fans. You're going on a national tour in arenas. Are you going to be doing all that or just the VIP?

Quite honestly, I'm not sure I'm even going to do a VIP and you know why? Because I don't think it's fair that a wealthier fan is able to see me in that way. I don't feel it's an even playing field so I don't think I can do it.