Emerson Hart likes to refer to his songs as snapshots, and those pictures aren't always pretty.
The first single off Beauty in Disrepair, the Tonic frontman's second solo album, is an intimate glimpse into a crumbling relationship. Luckily for Hart, the rest of his story includes an epilogue, one in which he mends and ultimately redeems himself.
Today, I premiere the music video for "The Best That I Can Give." And Hart, just off the Rockboat with his steadfast alternative rock band, called last week on a day off at Miami's South Beach. Discussing the story behind the video and the song, the cruising performer who jumps ships between Rockboat (fifth time) and Cayamo, sounded pleased that he and his wife of 18 months are on solid ground.
"I think it's interesting throughout the video just the way things slowly vanish out of a relationship," said Hart, who co-founded Tonic in 1993 with Jeff Russo. "I think that Will Morgan Holland, the director of the video (and fellow Nashville resident), has a real knack for shooting things very simply to tell you the story, and not over-telling it.
"That is kind of the premise behind the video. It's close to the song ... songs can be interpreted in any way. The way people listen to songs and music and what it means to them. But it's pretty close and that's something that's really cool to me."
The video, shot in February in Nashville, intercuts scenes of a lovely young couple watching their good times go up in flames with Hart accompanied only by an acoustic guitar. But the separate segments are within the same framework, either inside a residence once filled with homey touches (alarm clock, artwork, a cool Franke & Heidecke Rolleiflex camera) or outside in front of a raging fire that's devouring some of those once-valuable personal possessions.
Hart, who co-produced the catchy, hook-laden collection with former Evanescence guitarist David Hodges, believes all 12 songs he wrote are "little snapshots of the journey from the past before getting married and then falling in love again. ... It's finding beauty in the broken things."
While making 2007's Cigarettes & Gasoline, his first solo album, during a Tonic hiatus, Hart said he was going through a painful divorce. The reflective singer-songwriter, whose band achieved multi-platinum and Grammy-winning success, seemingly bounced back in his personal life after meeting Heather McMurray, then nearly ruined everything during a lengthy courtship.
The opening lyrics of "The Best That I Can Give," which Hart said he wrote in about three hours, take you inside a damaged psyche that needed fixing:
If you're reading this then I'm long gone
Wish I'd had the strength to prove you wrong
But instead I broke your heart of glass
Some things I guess you can't get back
"When I was going down that path, I started dragging old luggage to my new relationship," Hart said. "And that song is pretty much kind of a little snapshot of me almost blowing it. I kind of moved along in that direction and wrote that song from that perspective. It was like, 'I am such a disaster and I'm in love with you but if this is gonna destroy us, I need to walk away.' ...
"I was bringing all my fear from my last relationship and all the scars until, finally, I came to my senses."
Emerson and Heather were married on September 1, 2012, and in the liner notes for Beauty in Disrepair, he thanks her for providing "love and inspiration," and his daughter Lucienne "for being my little light."
Now 44, the only child of Sandra and Jennings Lee Hart had been paralyzed by the past and an unpredictable father who was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1975, disappeared in 1980 and was considered by authorities to be a homicide victim in a case still unsolved.
The police, according to an article in People magazine, learned that Jennings had been dating several women, and suspected his death was the result of a revenge crime.
The emotional baggage the Harts' talented son dragged around since growing up in Atlantic Highlands, N.J., undoubtedly exceeded the normal weight limit, leading to the development of a one-man wrecking crew.
After finally dealing with his feelings, Hart came to a conclusion as simple as the video he's introducing today.
"I realized I'm allowed to be happy," he said, poised to co-exist as a Tonic member and solo artist while touring behind this album. "I know that sounds ridiculously easy, but it's really what it is. I realized that just because you have a really bad ride on one thing doesn't mean that you can't start again and enjoy it for the second time, being all the wiser. And realizing you can have love and you deserve it."
Fans of Tonic might hear some new music as early as late summer ("I think we go on a song-by-song basis," Hart said). Yet they only have to wait until the April 15 release of Beauty in Disrepair (BMG) to assemble parts of Hart's snapshots into one precious soundscape.
Expect it to be far more revealing than a do-it-your-selfie.
Here's "The Best That I Can Give," an example of Hart's heartfelt words and Holland's moving picture show that just might jump-start your search for Beauty in Disrepair:
ABOUT THE VIDEO
How much involvement did Emerson Hart have in making it?
"Not a ton on this one," said Hart, who had more of a hand in writing a video concept for "Hurricane," which almost became the first single. "For this one, Will was like, 'This is such a simple song and let's just do it very simply.' And he just kind of ran me through the concept of it. And I was behind it. ... So he took the reins on it and did a fantastic job."
Who does the photogenic young couple represent?
"I think they're just figures in the story," Hart said. "They don't necessarily represent anybody individually." The doomed duo are played by Chuck and Pap Shirock, an actual married couple and Belmont University graduates who also are Nashville musicians. Pap is a part-time model/actress, but together they tour and make records as the pop-rock duo Shirock, and, according to their website, were planning on releasing a new album in early 2014.
What was the most difficult thing about making the video?
"Just standing that darn close to the fire," Hart said, adding, "It was real. The closer you'd get, the more you realized it."
What kind of budget did Hart have to make the video?
"I didn't even ask," Hart said, remembering the bygone days when concepts "my poor band endured" included roller skating and tuxedo T-shirts (see Open Up Your Eyes). "But the label seemed like they wanted to do it, so they coughed up the cash. At first when they did it, they were like, 'We want to shoot a video for this and we want to shoot a video for this as well.' And I was like, 'Really? Videos? Is that still happening?' ... I mean, it's not like the old days, buddy, I know that. We didn't spend a half million dollars." (laughs)
Before they were married, did Hart get feedback from Heather while writing a song as personal as "The Best That I Can Give"?
"Well, she's in the house, so she can hear it," Hart said. "But I think for this one, in particular, uh, yeah, sometimes it's hard to hear about stuff, you know? ... And to be reminded. In our house, art comes first, and that's just how it is. If it's honest and it feels right and it's the truth, whether or not we like it, or it's a reflection of a period that happened, then we're past it. But it's a recording in time. That's what records are."
Publicity photos by Andrea Behrends.
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