Emerson Hart was the long-time vocalist for alt-rock band Tonic. A few years after Tonic split up for good, and after a life-altering move to Nashville, Hart is back with his debut solo album, Cigarettes and Gasoline. We got to speak to Hart about life after Tonic, his favorite 80s albums, and his obsession with online guy mags like ours.
Emerson Hart: Hey, Mike. It's Emerson.
Bullz-Eye: Hey. What's going on, man?
EH: Oh nothing. Just…
BE: A lot of interviews?
EH: Yeah. More of the same.
BE: That's cool. Well excellent. Are you familiar with Bullz-Eye at all?
EH: Not really, no.
BE: OK, we're one of the largest online men's magazines. We have a ridiculous amount of traffic. Kind of like an online Maxim.
BE: Yeah. So this is your first solo album post-Tonic, right?
BE: Did you take a different approach to writing the music than you did with the band?
EH: Well I think I write the way I write. In this case I took a little more time to write it. I took about a year off after I stopped doing Tonic to kind of just rest and reflect about what had just happened in my life for the past nine years. I was able to write it from the perspective of what I want to say and how do I want to say it without having to bounce it off of other people.
BE: OK, so in Tonic, you guys kind of co-wrote together? Or you wrote and just brought it to them?
EH: Yeah, I would write and I would bring it to them.
EH: And you know, on some songs, if they felt like they had some parts that they could add to it, they would add them. But if not, then it would just stay the way it was written.
BE: OK. And what prompted your move to Nashville?
EH: Have you ever lived in Los Angeles? (laughs)
BE: (laughs) No, but I grew up in New York, so….
EH: All right. Well I grew up on the Jersey shore and then I lived in L.A. for 11 years. So I needed to….I mean, L.A. is a great city. It's just not great for me. I could not sit in my car for 45 minutes to go to the grocery store anymore. It was not worth it to me. I wanted to be in a neighborhood where I could focus on writing and not focus on how to survive without going crazy.
BE: Sure. That makes perfect sense. Does living in Nashville make you approach writing any differently because of all the songwriters?
EH: I don't think so. I think that when I took that year off, I kind of got into the community and was trying to figure out where I fit, who I would like to write with in the future, and if I wanted to do that at all. And I found that a lot of even the country writers, that grew up rock writers. It was a really interesting experience for me, a rock guy, to kind of come into that world and see where everybody lived. And it's been a good experience for me because I get to just kind of write every day whether it be for me or for somebody else. It's helped me improve my craft. I know that was kind of a long-winded answer. Does that answer it?
BE: Yes. That was great. Do you write with people regularly in Nashville? Anybody that is well known or anything like that?
EH: I write with Chris Lindsey and Troy Verges, and Hillary Lindsey and I have written a couple of times -- some of the usual suspects of great writers in this town. But you know it's -- I really just love writing. Sometimes it's fun to just write to write. Not to think, “Oh, I have to create a masterpiece today for me.” It's not about that. I usually end up writing most of the stuff that I write on my own just because it's solo and that's what I think is best. But Chris and I wrote a couple of songs for this record and they turned out great and I thought that they should be on the record. This is my home. This is where I live. And this is part of my community.
BE: So everyone knows you as “Emerson Hart of Tonic.” Is that OK with you or are you trying to make a transition into your own name? And also, do you still include Tonic songs in your shows?
EH: Yeah, I mean, I'm proud of the work I did in Tonic. I worked hard for it. I don't ever take that work for granted or the success we had for granted. It helped build my career and helped build the band's career. I'm real proud of where I come from and I love talking about it when people ask me. Inevitably when I have shows, there's Tonic fans there. They come up and want to ask what's going on. I'm happy to tell them. When I play the shows, I always include a couple of Tonic hits because, I mean, they're songs that I wrote. A song, for example, “If You Could Only See,” that's still on the radio. It's still relevant to the band so I'll still play it.
BE: Absolutely. Well cool. And who are your biggest influences as an artist and as a songwriter?
EH: Well I grew up listening to a lot a Zeppelin. I know every artist probably says that, but it's true. A lot of Elton John, a lot of Jackson Browne. Some Irish stuff. A lot of Paul Brady. I was a big Faces fan too when I was a kid, and Free which was before Bad Company. I have sisters that are much older then me. I was the accident in the family, so I was exposed to a lot of older music at a very young age.
BE: I can relate to that. I have three older siblings myself the same way. And I grew up on Led Zeppelin.
EH: Where did you grow up in Jersey?
BE: Long Island actually.
EH: Oh, Long Island, OK. Like right across the water?
BE: Rockville Center, which is kind of like the middle of the Island. Nassau County.
EH: Yeah. I know where that is.
BE: OK. I went to Southside High School. Same place Howard Stern went.
EH: All right. Yeah, I was going to say I thought he was from that area. So you grew up on WLIR then.
BE: I did. WLIR and WBAB.
EH: Uh huh. Babylon.
EH: That's funny. Is WLIR even around anymore?
BE: It is. I think it has different call letters or a different frequency or something but it has the same format or sort of the same format. It might be more AAA now, where it used to be THE new music station.
EH: I loved that station, man.
BE: I know, I did too.
EH: Such a great thing. We used to get it across the water because I was right on Sandy Hook on the other side. And so it would come right across the water so I used to love to listen to it.
EH: They were the first to play The Cure. They were the first to play everything.
BE: Absolutely. Well cool. You had three different producers on the new album. Was there a reason for that?
"L.A. is a great city. It's just not great for me. I could not sit in my car for 45 minutes to go to the grocery store anymore. It was not worth it to me. I wanted to be in a neighborhood where I could focus on writing and not focus on how to survive without going crazy." EH: Well I guess, I kind of started out making an eclectic record, so I figured three different tastes would make it a credible eclectic record, if that makes sense. I really wanted to work with Mike Napolitano because we were old friends in New Orleans. And he did all the Joseph Arthur records and Squirrel Nut Zippers stuff. And he was just a very focused, eccentric kind of producer, so I really wanted to work with him. I knew part of the record would be done, so I started it in New Orleans and we did some tracks there with him. Then when I came back to Nashville, I did some with Jason Lehning, who does The Bees and other stuff as well. I can't think of it off the top of my head. I wanted to work with him a little bit, so we did a couple of tracks. And then Bob (Rock) heard what we were doing. And Bob had worked with me on Head On Straight, the last Tonic record. And he's like, “Look, I want to be involved in this. Could we work together on it?” And I was like, “Yeah, let's do it.” He flew from Maui to Nashville and we finished up the record.
BE: Oh cool. And you've got some of the new songs on TV shows already?
EH: Yeah, “Grey's Anatomy” and “One Tree Hill.” They used “Friend to a Stranger” which is my kind of Peter Gabriel homage. He was another writer I should probably mention as being one of my big influences.
BE: OK. That's actually my favorite track on the record.
EH: Oh, well thanks. That was a big turning point for me when that record came out in my life. It just really touched me. Songs like “Grieve” that were on Us. He was just a big writer for me. The TV shows were drawn to that style, I guess it sounds like TV to them. (laughs). I really don't ever know why, but whatever works, I'll take it.
BE: It's a good thing for you, yeah. Do you feel that it's important to generate that type of exposure now with traditional radio outlets shying away from new music?
EH: Um, yeah. I think it's important. I think it's great for younger artists. It's great for all artists. I don't think I would ever write a song, unless I'm writing a theme for a show, I'll never curve a song and say, “Well wow, but if I put that in there, it's definitely going to sound like TV.” I don't do that. I let the song kind of lead me where the song is going to lead me.
BE: And what kind of plans do you have for touring?
EH: Probably going to hit the road mid-August. We're starting to route right now. I'll probably do a couple of months out, take a couple of weeks off, and then re-route.
BE: Are you touring with a band?
EH: Yeah, I'll tour with a full band.
EH: But I do radio shows like lounges and things like that, I'll probably just bring David Mead, who's my keyboard player.
BE: Oh, he plays with you?
EH: Yeah. He's in my band.
BE: Cool. He's awesome.
EH: Yes. Super talented guy. So he's been taking a little break and doing his thing in Europe, so he's like, “Hey man. I'm in.”
BE: That's awesome.
EH: We're old friends, so it's great to have him in my crew.
BE: Sure. Absolutely. Another thing I want to ask you. We're doing a feature on Bullz-Eye, “The Top 80 Albums of the 80s.” So I wanted to know if you could give me your top three favorite albums from the 80s.
EH: Well, So. That would be without a doubt my number one. Um, let's see…probably The Joshua Tree. That would be my second. And probably The Unforgettable Fire. Those two records were big for me. I'm going to go with two U2s and one Peter Gabriel. (laughs).
BE: And what are you listening to now?
EH: I haven't really been listening to anything. Quiet honestly my brain has been so frozen with press and doing stuff like that, I haven't been able to get a lot done that I would like to get done as far as digging in musically.
BE: And what kind of hobbies and interests do you have outside of music?
EH: Architecture and restoration. I live in an Old Victorian, kind of turning it into some Old Victorian/Colonial revival house in a historic neighborhood. I'm really about preserving. That's a big thing for me, preserving communities and bringing back livable communities as far as where people can walk and go to stores and stuff like that. So I'm a real big supporter of that and also just helping the Humane Society Rescue. We rescue dogs and cats.
BE: Oh that's awesome.
EH: So those are kind of my hobbies. Just things that bring a little bit more beauty and happiness into this world where I live.
BE: Do you ever aspire to be on one of those home shows where they remodel a house or something?
EH: Being a guy that's gone through two remodels, I don't wish that on anybody. (laughs)
BE: (laughs). OK.
"I'm proud of the work I did in Tonic. I worked hard for it. I don't ever take that work for granted or the success we had for granted. It helped build my career and helped build the band's career. I'm real proud of where I come from and I love talking about it when people ask me." EH: I like to take it one day at a time and do little pieces and bits and pieces. If you buy a house, you want to stay in it as long as you can. I'm not really down with that unless it's something that's going to really be an enjoyable project.
BE: Gotcha. Well cool, that's about all I've got. Check out Bullz-Eye.com when you get a chance.
EH: I will. I'm fascinated by all things that are extremely male.
BE: Oh you'll love it. You'll love our site.
BE: Well good talking to you, Emerson.
EH: Yeah, good talking to you too man. Thanks for the time.