J-Rod’s Music World

Justin Rodstrom

Tonic’s Emerson Hart Goes Solo

I’m here with Emerson Hart, former lead singer of the ’90s band Tonic. He recently played at the World Café in Philadelphia in support of his new solo release, “Cigarettes & Gasoline.”

Emerson, thanks for taking some time out to speak with me, and congratulations on recently becoming a father.

Oh, thank you. It has really been a life-changing experience; it was hard to leave home to go on tour.

So, I couldn’t help but notice Bob Rock produced quite a few tracks on “Cigarettes & Gasoline.” He’s gained fame for working with bands like Metallica and Motley Crüe. Did he bring anything special to the new album?

Oh, well, I’ve known Bob since my days with Tonic back in the ’90s. We’ve been friends a long time, so it was a great bonding experience for two friends. I know he’s been known to work with groups like Metallica, but he’s really underrated as a great overall song producer. He’s got a gift for voice coaching; he really got me to take risks with my vocals. He’s also phenomenal at getting just the right sounds out of the drums.

One real standout track to me was “Green Hills Race for California.” What was the inspiration behind that track?

You know, it’s funny. My wife and I lived in L.A. for a while, and then we moved down to Nashville. Recently, we were thinking about moving back to L.A. where music things are really happening. But we said to ourselves, “How do we leave these rolling hills and all these friends we’ve made to go back to that s—hole?” We’ve found so much joy down here, the people are just amazing and we couldn’t convince ourselves to leave.

You’ve had success with Tonic. Has this time around been any different for you?

Well, I’m enjoying it more this time around. The first time around with Tonic, I was young and just trying to get my bearings. I was experiencing everything for the first time, and I didn’t know what to expect. This time around, I have learned to just enjoy the ride and relax. Also, our fans have been really supportive – some of them from the Tonic days and a lot of new faces that really enjoy what we’re doing.

Do you have any questions for yourself going into this tour or about the new album?

Well, actually, not really. Like I said, this time around it’s all been about enjoying it day by day. We originally had a five-piece live group to tour with, and the fans liked that, but they’ve really been responding well to the more intimate three-piece group I’m touring with now. That was a bit of a question mark for us, but it’s turned out well. I just have to make sure that every night I ask myself to dig deep and relate to the audience, and so far that has translated well to the fans.

What are a couple of albums that have been in heavy rotation on the tour bus?

I’ve really been getting into local and underground artists lately, like Colin Bluntfilm and the Silver C’s, formerly known as the Bees. Also, been listening to a lot of T.Rex lately; you know, Jeepster and stuff like that …

You recently published something on your MySpace page saying that, although you enjoyed your time with Tonic, it was time to move on. Is there anything you wanted to add to that message?

Not really. We’re all kind of doing our own thing right now. I was the songwriter for Tonic, and when I began writing this album, I knew these songs weren’t Tonic songs. The idea to put it out as a solo album also gave me a lot more opportunity to do things I always wanted to do but couldn’t with Tonic. I choose everything, where before it was more of a democracy. And though that may sound a little egotistical, it’s really not. The band I worked with in studio and at the shows has really been great; it’s been a lot of fun with these guys.

I couldn’t help but draw some connections from the Tonic days to track nine on the new album, “When She Loves You.” Am I just reading too much into things?

You mean the chorus “When She Loves You” from “If You Could Only See”? (Laughs) You know, I didn’t even think about that till you just said it. No, there’s no intentional connection there.

As Hart said, “Cigarettes & Gasoline” is the sound of an artist taking his time and getting things right.

The album has the relaxed, reflective feel of someone who has been through it all before. The album evokes a sense of clarity and direction, something that has been afforded to Hart stemming from the decision to go his own way and make his own decisions.

The backing band of old friends is more than capable of supplying the perfect backing for Hart, his guitar and his pointed vocals, nowhere more evident than in the title track.

A choral concert in the heart of Philly

On a cold Friday night in the heart of Philadelphia, I was treated to a warming choral concert at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on 16th and Locust.

The night featured Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem, as well as an arrangement of Palestrina’s Stabat Mater by Wagner paired with movements from Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien.

The Gothic church structure provided the perfect setting for somber, moving choral works accompanied by moody piano.

The night began somewhat off-kilter, with the choral group warming up with the first piece of the night.

After almost no time, the members found their stride and hit the ground running with dark, rich polyphonic melodies and light, airy tunes, trading places between the vocalist sections and the instrumental parts. One especially pleasing piece was the second solo-based piece of the night, featuring both a male and female soloist.

First up was an alto female with bittersweet, sorrowful vocals etched out in German. Next up was the low, full-bodied male vocalist, powering his way through the second half of the piece.

What was most amazing in all this was that although I couldn’t understand a word all night, the serene, impassioned melodies and textured vocal interplay did all the talking.

Another impressive feature of the night was in the choices made with regard to dynamics.

A fluid use of terracing, voice control and even elements of distance played roles in providing interesting alternatives for dynamic control.

A concept that was completely foreign to me was that of placing vocalists at different distances from the audience. This provides the piece with sounds impossible to create in a less multi-dimensional situation.

These background vocals made it seem as if those vocalists were almost speaking out of the past, and because the main vocalists were blocking the audience’s view of the backing vocalists, this created an added element of mystery, even drama, in the piece.

Altogether, I was quite impressed with the choral choices presented fittingly side by side with several of the most potent figures in the classical music world.

And although I generally have an aversion to choral music, the night was a blend of surprises and certainly a worthwhile experience.