Though millions already appreciate former Tonic frontman Emerson Hart’s poignant lyrics, smart songcraft and evocative voice, Hart’s debut solo album, Cigarettes and Gasoline, begins a new chapter for the renowned performer. His 12-song debut disc is a cathartic journey and intimate lyrical portrait that includes the irresistible, melodic “Run To,” the thoughtful and unforgettable “I Wish the Best For You,” and the memorable first single, “If You’re Gonna Leave.” As lead singer for alt-rock radio and concert favorites Tonic, Hart enjoyed platinum sales, chart topping singles and albums--including the # 1 hit “If You Could Only See”--and two Grammy nominations in 2003. Striking out own his own with Cigarettes and Gasoline proved “freeing and educational in the way that I had to learn to again trust my instincts about what is best,” Hart relates. “That was the greatest experience for me in making this record; I learned to trust myself as a writer.”
Thematically, Cigarettes and Gasoline has an underlying current of forgiveness, and also touches on the difficult topic of his father’s still-unresolved murder when Hart was a boy growing up in New Jersey. “This record, I had to address those issues before I moved on, so I had to forgive the people who killed my father and let that go,” Hart says. “Also, learning how to come full circle with that, thinking about being a father myself someday.” The CD title also casts a backward glance: “It refers to an olfactory sense from my childhood--my dad smoking Marlboro Reds and getting gas in Jersey; I remember sitting in the back of his ’Caddy, and the smell of that, and his arm up on the armrest and him smoking, early memories for me,” Hart reminisces. “Also, working on boats as a kid in Jersey, going out on the water, in the mornings, that boat smell…and cigarettes.”
Cigarettes and Gasoline marks the culmination of a journey that began when Hart, who moved to Los Angeles and co-founded Tonic in the mid-‘90s, relocated to Nashville in 2002. In the Music City, with a refreshed perspective and introspection, Hart wrote for himself and outside projects, including the song “Generations,” the theme for TV’s American Dreams, the tune earning Hart the 2003 ASCAP Award for film and TV. In 2005 Hart penned “If You’re Gonna Leave,” the keystone track that set the tone for the songs that would eventually comprise Cigarettes and Gasoline. “I obsessively write every day, so I started building up songs that weren’t necessarily songs that I would give away to other people,” he explains. “Writing is my therapy, that’s how I exist. ‘If You’re Gonna Leave’ became the song that summed up where I was at that point in my life, and from there I started writing other songs about where I was. For the first time I was at a place where I was peaceful and without distractions. I was able to dig into myself as an artist and say ‘what do I want to write about? I have 12 times to say something, how do I want to say it, how do I say it the best and most direct way possible?’”
Hart is a dynamic performer who loves interacting with his audience and touring--“I believe in going out and seeing people, face to face, saying ‘this is where I am, right now, this is what it sounds like.’” But he’s equally adept at penning enduring, intimate songs, his original voice and modern songwriting shining on Cigarettes and Gasoline. Sonically, the CD achieved Hart’s lofty goals: “I started listening to records like Peter Gabriel’s So, and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, classic albums with production that really brought life to those great songs. That was my starting place, searching for a sound that really captured the spirit of the songs and where I was in that moment in time regardless of the records I’ve made in the past.” To reach that objective, he enlisted producers Bob Rock (Metallica, Bon Jovi), who produced the final, Grammy-nominated Tonic record; Grammy-winner Jason Lehning (Guster, Steve Forbert), and Mike Napolitano (Squirrel Nut Zippers, Joseph Arthur), who engineered on the second Tonic CD at Daniel Lanois’ Kingsway studio in New Orleans.
Recording and writing in Nashville and New Orleans, Cigarettes and Gasoline absorbed some of the characteristics of those locales, as Hart notes: “‘Run To’ was inspired in New Orleans, and ‘Devastation Hands,’ without a doubt, though the song is so pop-y, lyrically it touches where I was. And ‘Cigarettes and Gasoline,’ even though it’s written about my hometown in Jersey, it’s very much the darkness of New Orleans.” “If You’re Gonna Leave,” the first single (“we’re coming out crying” laughs Hart), was the hardest song to capture, but then again, so was ‘If I Could Only See,’ which turned into a huge hit for Tonic. Hart played “If You’re Gonna Leave” for Rock, who advised Hart to give the song its due and came to Nashville to help perfect it and two others--“Flyin’” and “When She Loves You.” The album was actually completed when inspiration struck again, and the 11th-hour addition of the reflective “I Wish the Best For You” was recorded and turned into a fast favorite. “That song is roughly based on watching a friend of mine’s marriage fall apart, and looking at myself and going, ‘learn from this,’” Hart explains. “I saw inside of it; that you can love something only so much to be able to save it before it becomes obsession.” Hart is quick to give kudos to the co-writers and musicians who contributed to Cigarettes and Gasoline, and was thrilled with the input and collaboration afforded by his choice to go solo. “I can play with anybody I want; I love that freedom and those options. I love knowing each musician and what they’re great at, and choosing those people on where their talents lie makes my music better. And it makes me a better artist because I learn.”
Hart is continually learning, and his belief that “Hard work brings good luck,” is certainly borne out on the dozen carefully crafted songs on Cigarettes and Gasoline, which he terms “the logical step for me as a writer. The interesting thing about Tonic is that we had the broadest fan base, from 16-year-old girls up. My Tonic fans are older now, they may have children, and I’m writing from the perspective of what I lived through and where I am now. I’ve grown to a different place; you have to write about what you can identify with.” And for the inevitable question about his former band, Hart answers simply: “I’m proud of the work and I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to create those songs, but I’m not making records with Tonic anymore.”
He is making records for Manhattan, a label Hart is thrilled to call family. “I was happy to release this record on my own until I met Ian Ralfini (General Manager of EMI/Manhattan Records), who signed my heroes, The Kinks. I was so taken with the label’s combination of smallness and their world view. As an artist, you want to be on a small label that is globally minded, but can move with speed because of the size of their machine. I have always made records where I make every song stand on its own; an eclectic vision of great songs, and that’s how I look at this label—it’s a parallel of an eclectic great record, full of diverse people who are very talented at what they do.”
Despite its combustive title, Cigarettes and Gasoline is a very cathartic album for Hart, marking a solid step into solo waters, and providing some closure for his tragic childhood loss. “I was able to talk about stuff in front of other people that I was never comfortable talking about when I was in Tonic,” he admits. For Hart, Cigarettes and Gasoline is an album that had to be made, going solo a leap of faith that was crucial in order for Hart to be true to his art. “This is my ride,” he concludes. “I’m at a point in my life where I’m trying to learn how to give and be honest, and I think that is reflected in the every song on my record.”