music morsels indie music August 2007

CROSSROADS - Former Tonic vocalist/songwriter Emerson Hart
by Mark E. Waterbury

Emerson Hart
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A musician or band can hit many crossroads during their career, with the number of crossroads often increasing in proportion with the act's level of fame and notoriety. Still, some may wonder what would make someone leave a platinum selling, Grammy nominated, venue-packing act to ply somewhat unknown waters. Not that it is at all uncommon for members of well known bands to do solo or side projects, there is still that sense of surprise from many when someone leaves what outsiders perceive as a sweet gig. In terms of number of album releases, Tonic was a young band, only recording three studio albums during their popular run. So when vocalist and chief songwriter Emerson Hart struck out on his own, essential heralding the dissolving of the band, there may have been a few eyebrows raised. One really has to look deeper to see why Emerson did what he did, and how his second major career crossroad was a more liberating experience.

 “I was always drawn to the guitar and drawn to music in general,” Emerson recalls. “I would sit down with my sister's records and try to emulate it, and figure out what they were doing. I started writing a little bit when I was ten or eleven and I just always knew I was going to be in music in some way.” Emerson performed in some casual bands as he was growing up on the New Jersey shore, but avoided getting drawn into the cover band scene that was at the time dominating the area. Feeling he needed a change, Emerson headed west to L.A. at the age of twenty-one to further pursue his music career. “I had also done a little bit of theater so at the time, I thought I could go to California and do my music and also make some money doing commercials. From my perspective, the New York area was not offering me anything musically at the time. I needed a change and I figured if I wanted to starve to death doing music, I would rather do that in warm weather.”

While out in California, Emerson ran into a guitarist named Jeff Russo, who he had known from his days playing in New York City. At the time, Emerson was running a pool hall called the Hollywood Athletic Club, and he found out that Jeff had just left the band he was in. The two got together and started playing acoustic shows in a room called The Kibbitz Room which was attached to Cantor’s Deli. Eventually, Emerson and Jeff were joined by bassist Dan Rothchild and drummer Kevin Shepard, the foursome deciding on the name Tonic for the now complete band. “When we formed, we would just play anywhere,” Emerson recalls. “We would just show up and do coffeehouses, clubs, anywhere we could play. The cool thing was is we still played Cantor’s, and on Tuesday nights, everyone there wanted to play. It was like a community with people like Jacob Dylan from the Wallflowers, Elliot Easton from The Cars, Sheryl Crowe, all these people like that coming through there. There was really that feeling of a community there.”

Tonic kept playing as much as they could, concentrating on alternating gigs between The Viper Room and The Mint. Word was starting to spread about their growing fan base, and one night in 1995, Tom Storms and Nick Hatfield from Polydor Records came out to a show. “ We were literally doing residencies at The Viper Room and The Mint. When those guys checked us out, they just asked us if we wanted to sign a deal. We were like, hell yeah! It was a small company, but a good company, and it took us about a year to get the first record out. We took little breaks while doing it, but I think that worked to our advantage.” When the debut “Lemon Parade” was released in 1996, Tonic hit the road for an extensive tour with new bassist Dan Lavery. The buzz exploded for Tonic, as their energetic live performances grew their fan base at a phenomenal rate, and helped "Lemon Parade” achieve multi-platinum status. The single “If You Could Only See" ended up being the most played rock song on U.S. radio stations in 1997. Despite the massive success it took Tonic until 1999 to come out with their sophomore effort “Sugar” which featured new drummer Peter Maloney. “We toured about three years on the first record,” Emerson remembers. “We felt we really had to lay down a solid fan base worldwide. We were always working, and after the tour, I was just worn out. I didn’t know what to write about so I had to recoup a bit. At that time, I was trying to balance bouncing along the ‘train ride’ that I was on with creating the music and how it all worked together.” “Sugar” was as popular as “Lemon Parade” with another successful tour and charting hits with the singles "Knock Down Walls" and "You Wanted More." Another elongated break happened before the 2003 release of the third album “Head On Straight” which featured songs that were a bit more personal in nature, primarily to Emerson. “It wasn’t until after the second record that I really got a grasp on writing what I knew while allotting myself the time to do it. It was very liberating to write like that, and I got my feet solidly planted on the idea that I had to go deeper with my writing with what I wanted to say. That album ended up being very personal for me.”

“Head On Straight” also went multi-platinum, and garnered Tonic two Grammy nominations; one for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for the hit song “Take Me As I Am.” and one for Best Rock Album. The tour this time was not as elongated, and although the shows were still sold out for the most part, suddenly it was looking as though Tonic’s successful run had hit a brick wall. “After the third record I kind of wanted to go my own way and do my own thing. Everyone else in the band needed a break because we had been touring and recording for ten years straight. Everyone was pretty worn out and going out on Grammy nominations was the right time. We left what we had built in a really good place, and we didn’t want to beat it in the ground and turn it into something we didn’t like.” Needing a change, Emerson moved from California to Nashville in 2002, where he penned the song “Generations” to be the theme song for the TV show “American Dreams.” “Living in Nashville, my rage level went way down because I didn’t have to wait twenty minutes in traffic to go to the grocery store,” Emerson muses. “Mainly. I felt that I was in a community of writers and community is very important to me. It gave me more time to get up in the morning and be creative.”

After Tonic dissolved, Emerson immersed himself in songwriting for the next two years. In July of 2007, the fruits of his labor reached the public as his first solo CD “Cigarettes and Gasoline” hit the shelves. The music was far more personal to Emerson with song subjects including his father’s unsolved murder when Emerson was a child and Hurricane Katrina. “The title track dealing with my father’s murder; that was heavy stuff. That wasn’t anything I was comfortable talking about in a band situation because that wouldn’t be fair to the band. When I finished the CD, I found a different kind of satisfaction than I had with Tonic. I love everything I did with Tonic and their music still holds up today, but it is different to take your two hands and carry the load for months and months and months without looking sideways. You have to focus on your goal and I had my end goal in mind with what I wanted to create. It was very rewarding in that sense.”

Emerson did some radio shows in the past few months, featuring acoustic performances with his keyboardist David Gade. He has also done some club shows with a full band and will be hitting the road hard starting in August. At the moment, Emerson looks at the possibility of a Tonic reunion as a dead issue, although he is also not saying it may never happen. Right now, his rebirth as a solo artist is very satisfying to him and he looks forward to a bright future pursuing it. “If I felt like there was something all of us that were in Tonic had to say and we can say it together, then I am there. At this point, I don’t really have anything to say that would work in that aspect. I do have to say I am probably the happiest I have ever been in my life. I try to run my band very creatively free and allow the people working with me to let the song lead them on the path that the music will take them.  I feel very free to create with the music and I am also very happy with my life in general. I’m happily married. I am happy with what is going on in my career. I am happy with all those things.”


Emerson Hart’s advice for musicians: “Start with the songwriting and write what you know. It’s not about the clothes you wear or being something that’s perceived as cool. As long as you are writing honest and real songs people will respond. It may take you a bit longer because cream does not always rise to the top, but if you are writing good songs that are connecting with people, then you are doing your job. And wherever you live it is OK to create a (music) scene. Find people who like music that you like and like to play music you like and start something. That is very important for young bands to do, I think.”

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