Known best as the lead singer/guitarist for the alternative-rock band Tonic — a bombastic trio with a big guitar sound and dramatic flair — Emerson Hart seems determined to step sideways from the commotion of the commercial music industry.
Hart headlines a free show during the ongoing “Downtown Sundown” series this Thursday evening at the Charleston Maritime Center.
Tonic first gained notoriety in 1996 and ’97 with their major label debut, Lemon Parade, which featured the hit songs “Open Up Your Eyes” and “If You Could Only See.” The band’s 1999 follow-up, Sugar, included the rock radio singles “Knock Down Walls” and “You Wanted More.”
Originally from New Jersey, Emerson lived in Los Angeles for a majority of the ’90s. While maintaining his professional work with Tonic, Hart relocated to Nashville in 2000, wrote and recorded numerous songs and audio sketches for television and film, and gradually assembled songs for his first proper solo release.
Last year, Hart recorded 13 keepers in Nashville and New Orleans with producers Mike Napolitano (Squirrel Nut Zippers, World Leader Pretend) and Jason Lehning (Guster, David Mead) at the helm. The resulting collection is slated for release in late summer 2006.
Hart is no stranger to Charleston. Through the last year, he’s shared the stage at local clubs with Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ singer Kevn Kinney, Carolina songsmith Edwin McCain, and most recently, Florida’s strummy Sister Hazel at the Windjammer.
“We’re all songwriters, so it was great to have travel experiences, talk about our music, and play on stage together,” he says of the recent “songwriter roundtable” gigs with McCain and Kinney.
“On this little run through S.C., I’ll be playing solo on acoustic guitar, which makes it easy to travel and perform,” he adds. “I do have a full band behind me on the new album and the forthcoming tour, including guitarist Devin Malone, bassist Park Chisolm, and drummers Jeremy Lutito — who’s on the road right now with Jars of Clay — and Tonic’s own Kevin Murphy.”
Now in his late 30s, Hart’s songwriting work with Tonic and his own solo material reflect a higher level of maturity as a songwriter and performer. Missing are the slick clichés reminiscent of late ’90s “rock radio.”
“Songs always let you know which way they want to go,” he says. “When I was writing heavily for Tonic, the band configuration lent itself to the sound of those songs and it made complete sense. When I wrote for this record, I wanted something that sounded different but still felt like me as a writer. I never intentionally said, ‘Now I want to do a different record!’ The songs lent themselves to that because that was the head space I was in at the time.”
Tonic fans may be surprised to hear this side of Hart on the new stuff. On tracks “Devastation Hands” and “Vanity” (available at www.myspace.com/emersonhart), the songwriter experiments with different guitar tones, oscillation and echo effects, electric piano and organ, and a less aggressive vocal style.
“The vision when I started making this solo record was to make a collection that was kind of somewhere inbetween Peter Gabriel’s So and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours — two different sides of the spectrum, but all very song-based.”