Emerson Hart of Tonic recently stopped by the Epiphone showroom in Nashville to check out the new EJ-200 Coupe and talk about his new solo album, 90, based on the life of his 92-year old stepfather, Arthur. “He’s a big reason for my career in music,” wrote Hart on his website. “When I was a teenager, he gave me a lot of freedom. At times when he should’ve been having a talk with me, he’d just give me twenty bucks and say, ‘Go buy some music’—and I would. He knew when to let me find myself. That persistence carried me through my career and so this album is inspired by his 90 years of living and what that might look like if I try to look through his lens.”
As a co-founder of Tonic, Hart was central to the band’s early success which included half a dozen Top 10 singles, Platinum selling albums, two GRAMMY nominations, and the smash hit “If You Could Only See,” which was the most-played song of 1998. Emerson is a long time resident of Nashville (“Long before it was hip!”) and like his previous solo albums Cigarettes and Gasoline (2007) and Beauty In Disrepair (2014), 90 embraces the city’s musical tradition for putting the song and the singer first.
Thank you, Emerson for visiting the Epiphone showroom and checking out the EJ-200SCE Coupe.
My pleasure. It’s a terrific guitar.
It’s been about two years since your last solo album Beauty In Disrepair. What brought you back to the studio?
Well, I’m kind of old school. I like to first get a concept—what I call “the pillar”—before recording. Once I write one song that feels like the pillar for a record, I know the rest of the story will weave out from there. In this case, the subject was my stepfather who just turned 92. He’s a World War II vet. He joined the Merchant Marines when he was 16. So, I started writing songs about our journey together because my Dad died when I was young. John Randall—a songwriting buddy of mine—and I were sitting and writing for something else one day and I asked him: “Man, how many days is 90?” I looked it up and it’s about 32,000 days. And right away I realized that’s the song! I wrote it and that became the pillar of the record.
Since you were writing about a living person—and someone you’re close to—did knowing that your subject might critique your work influence your writing?
Yes. I had to be really conscious of what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. Because it wasn’t a record that was about what I was going through at the time or the Tonic world. When it comes to something very personal, I had to be very cautious with the words I chose. The Tonic world is a little more predictable. I think everything has to be based in a little bit of reality to make it genuine.
Your stepfather grew up during “Big Band” era. You grew up during the modern rock era. Did you feel that you had to find a way to bridge that gap in some way—either in your instrumentation or in your lyrics?
I think that when I finally give him the lyrics and he hears them and reads through them, he will understand. He grew up in Brooklyn and was a hard fighting kid. But he was pretty hip. He liked The Beatles. He aged very slowly. When I wrote “If You Could Only See”—the first Tonic #1—he’s the one who said, “that song’s a hit.”
Do you see now that he was a model for you?
Oh, yes. I love his crazy. He speaks his mind and he’s earned that right at his age. If something is not right, he’ll speak out about it.
You produced the new album. It’s not easy for an artist to take that responsibility. How hard a producer are you?
I’m pretty hard on myself. For this record, I came at it with an acoustic guitar. That’s my medium. I kept all the sessions very acoustic. It’s not a sad, dreamy songwriter record but most of the instrumentation is all string based. That’s how I came at it. Simple.
What were you listening to do while you were writing?
I was listening to the second Jason Isbell record. That was in my brain. I had just seen him and he’s so impressive in how he tells a story. It was a reminder that you can just tell the story. The instrumentation is part of it. I’m still a rock and pop gut, I’ll never move away from that.
How do you think being Nashville has influenced you as an artist?
I think being in Nashville has helped me open my brain a bit. I grew up in central New Jersey. I’ve been here for 18 years. Nashville has been good for my discipline and focus. I only write with people that I want to write with. I spent a couple years just running the market and having fun and seeing who wrote what. That was very taxing. Eventually, I realized I just needed to hunker down and write with people that I love to write with. And being in Nashville definitely gave me that focus which I couldn’t find in Los Angeles or New York. I feel like here in our community, a lot of people just want to see other people win. I know that might sound naïve, but I honestly do. When I see a great artist, I want to see them win because I know they are going to help change the landscape.
As opposed to a more competitive scene where you sink or swim…
That’s true! But that’s the pop world It’s a more validating here. You share it. Whereas maybe in other place, someone’s success is seen as taking something away from you.
Could you have made the new album in another city?
I don’t think so. It helped to be here. The older we get, we have to really be sure we’re making the right choices and be as honest as possible. I try to tell every young artist that I write with Man—there’s plenty to talk about in this world right now. Be brave.
Will Tonic make the next album in Nashville?
We started during Christmas break. Jeff (Russo) and Dan (Lavery) flew in. When we do shows, the guys all arrive from different lives. But when we’re on stage, it feels exactly the same. We call it the rock and roll outfit. When I’m wearing the rock and roll outfit, everything is all right.