Interview: Emerson Hart; on personal songwriting, the origins of “If You Could Only See”, and the next chapter for Tonic
“I always have to write from a place that’s a real thing — it’s something I’ve lived through or have seen somebody else live through. It’s more personal to me that way.”
I always conclude my interview conversations with something I call a close your eyes moment — “what does this mean to you?” When I practice the same exercise myself regarding Emerson Hart and his band Tonic, the word that pops into my head is “sincerity”. This was put on display right out of the gate with 1996’s Lemon Parade and the record’s chart-topping hit “If You Could Only See”.
The concept of sincerity is the foundation that Tonic has driven off of, pardon me, more like written off of with every song, record or collaboration that they’ve released. Whether it’s “Open Up Your Eyes” or “Mean to Me” or “Waiting for the Light to Change” or “Come Rest Your Head” or “Nothing is Everything” or Hart’s solo “Friend to a Stranger”, the song titles alone draw you into an engageable, yet thought-provoking narrative that allows you to both sing for pleasure and expression. Add in wind-blowing melodies and from-the heart-deliveries, and there you have Tonic still today in 2018.
As I watched the band perform on July 18th at the South Shore Music Circus, I was very moved by how they ended their set. There are few things in art more beautifully chilling than a crowd singing back lyrics loud and proud in unison with the artist. But when said artist stops singing and allows the crowd to take over the words, it’s an entirely new dimension. That was exactly what happened. Closing with “If You Could Only See” Hart encouraged the crowd to join him during the outro. Then he dropped out and each member in audience had their own microphone where somehow, they felt like the were singing only to themselves, with Tonic and with the entire venue all wrapped into one. And there you have a perfect snapshot of the resonance to an Emerson Hart / Tonic song.
I had the opportunity to speak with Hart a few hours before he graced the stage. It was a beautiful coastline afternoon. As we sat a picknick table towards the back of the venue, there was a natural vibe of appreciation for what the day had given — another opportunity to sing and for music to shine it’s never-fading light. Appropriately, the South Shore Music Circus contains one of the last remaining circular rotating stages placed right in the middle of the venue.
Tonic has been in full tour mode this summer. How are you doing?
I’m great. It’s been a really exciting run so far. We’ve covered a lot of ground. The first three shows, after you were only doing weekend shows over the winter, it takes some time to get your setlist together with set times and where you want to play certain songs. It’s been interesting watching the fanbase. People who were in college or high school when they got in to Tonic and now they bring their kids to shows. It’s totally crazy, but it’s a true testament to be able to play music 22 years later.
It’s been 22 years since the release of Lemon Parade, but you guys collectively have been a band for almost 25 years, correct?
Yes. I started the band in 1993. It’s crazy to think about where we were and where we still are. A lot of the bands we came up with don’t make music anymore. I feel so blessed and lucky to be able to do this.
Living in Nashville for 18 years now, it’s fascinating to watch the younger artists that come in to write with me. Sometimes they’ll play a chorus or a part of a song and say, “Look, it’s like a Tonic riff.” It’s humbling and very inspiring to know how big or how little, you made some kind of mark.
One thing I have always noticed about Tonic songs is — obviously they are very meaningful and relatable, but I feel people associate your songs to very meaningful and memorable moments in their lives. It’s part of their soundtrack. I imagine as a songwriter that is pretty special.
It’s surreal. I never thought about a song leaving the four walls of the room where I wrote it or leaving the bar we were playing it in. You do it, it’s created and it’s created from real moments. I always have to write from a place that’s a real thing — it’s something I’ve lived through or have seen somebody else live through. It’s more personal to me that way. I can’t make stuff up about things that are not real. That’s not who we are as a band and that’s not who I am. I don’t like that platform. I will say one of the things that has become the most powerful the older I have gotten — using “If You Could Only See” as an example; is performing the song and watching somebody sing it back to me. A thought that I had in my head I put into music, it went into their ears, it went into their brain and then they are singing back to me the same thought that I had. That’s why music is so powerful. It literally returns my thought and reminds me. Everybody has a story. To be part of that is so beautiful.
From a writer’s perspective, I always found it fascinating that your two biggest songs, “If You Could Only See” and “You Wanted More” have a completely different message. The emotions and melodies are so moving, but is there any connection between the songs where you are talking about the love not working out?
They are extremely different. No connection though. There is with the emotion perhaps, but when I write, certain things have different meanings for me. With our first record, we were gone touring for two-and-a-half years. I was home for just 20 days during that time. As soon as we were done the label was like, “OK, where’s the next record?” I said, “I haven’t slept in six months. Give me a minute.” So, a lot of “You Wanted More” was about that — everybody coming down on me. There is also a relationship pang in there as well. I felt like I needed everyone to leave me along for a couple of months so I could write.
That’s a great example of you have your whole life to write your first record and two weeks to write your second.
That’s exactly what it was. I got so mad that I took the band and we went down to a studio in New Orleans. “You Wanted More” was the first song written for that record. I had sketches of “Sugar” and a few other songs, but the American Pie people approached us to write a song for the film. I had “You Wanted More” already in the works. I went after it, but then I had to slowly put all the other pieces together. So, we went down to Kingsway, which is no longer there, although the mansion is, but I just locked everybody up. We literally locked out everyone that was not there to help us create. I always believed each song on the record must have a dance partner. I knew “You Wanted More” was going to be a foundation and I needed to find a match for it. R.E.M.’s Automatic For the People and Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy where made at that studio, just great records, so we felt we were in a magical place and knew what we had to do.
It’s amazing how much you can be a product of your environment. Do you remember where exactly you were when you wrote “If You Could Only See” and “You Wanted More”?
For “If You Could Only See” I was in my apartment. I was living in Park La Brea at the time. I had fallen in love with my first wife. We were not married yet. My mother thought I was too young and it would be a terrible mistake to get married at 22-years-old. I was on the phone having a screaming match with my mother and I said, “If you could only see the way she loves me then maybe you would understand” and I hung up the phone. Then, literaly within 20 minutes I wrote that song. I was so mad.
With “You Wanted More” I was in my house at Laurel Canyon, I was still living in L.A. at the time. I was sitting in my living room completely worn out. I started putting the pieces of the lyric together sitting on my couch.
You can’t plan for that type of feeling.
For you personally, whether it’s with Tonic, being a solo artist or collaborating with other artists, you seem to never stop writing music. With that in mind, what is songwriting to you?
It’s my discipline. That’s how I function. If I don’t have it, it would be a series of bad decisions repeatedly. Some people have running or painting or watching sports, everybody has a discipline. For me, it’s writing songs. I try to make it a part of my daily diet. It’s my fiber. Collaborating is different. It becomes a little more mathematic. If you are writing with a younger artist, you have to find what makes them tick. Find what they are trying to say and help them say it. That’s a different approach to songwriting compared to how I write on my own. I try to always try to create on my own. In Nashville everybody writes together, and I tell people all the time that they have to develop the muscle, so they have a voice, and the best way to do that is to also write alone. I find writing on my own to be the most inspirational. You have to honor both sides of the muse.
The first point you made in your 20 Things I Learned in 20 Years of Tonic article was don’t cheat on your gift. I thought that was such a clever way to arrive at and phrase the point you were making. You can take it for granted if you don’t nurture it.
Absolutely. You have to water the field. I have seen so many people destroy themselves. Usually it’s with alcohol and drugs. I drink wine and party, and that’s OK, but getting neck deep in something like hard drugs, it’s just a dead end. It can destroy every gift you’ve been given. It’s easier said then done sometimes. You want to make the voices in your head get quiet and you make the time to not think about stuff. I’d much rather try and battle the voice inside my head as opposed to turn it off because then you learn from it and maybe it is trying to tell me something great.
So, what’s next for you after this summer?
I will have my nose to the grindstone to get a few new Tonic songs out by next spring. It’s about halfway there. I have a new solo record that is going to come out in the fall. I will probably do a few small listening rooms with that. Then shooting for Tonic next summer. It’s going to be much more of a rock record.
Coming full circle, thinking about your journey with Tonic, where you are now and what lies ahead, what does it mean to you?
It means songs can survive. It means songwriting can survive. People still want to hear songs. I feel honored to be able to still do it. I believe in songwriting. I believe it still has a strong place in this world. I honestly wake up every day and think — wow, I am so happy about this. I get to play for people tonight and I get to share what I learned with them.
*photos courtesy of Suretone Entertainment