On his 1992 solo release, “Amused to Death,” Roger Waters opens with “The Ballad of Bill Hubbard,” a first-person account of World War I veteran Alfred “Raz” Razzell’s experience on the battlefield. It’s a bold way to kick things off, but Waters has never been one to shy away from holding a mirror up to society. He positions the piece as a conduit for the listener to become entrenched in the album’s overall thematic framework, which deals with war as entertainment and how the ubiquity of TV contributed to the demise of oral tradition.
I’m not saying that Emerson Hart had any of this in mind while crafting his latest album, “32,000 Days,” but I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between what Waters did and what Hart does to honor his stepfather’s WWII legacy. Like Waters, he too recognizes the need to prevent these stories from getting lost in the 24-hour news shuffle.
While the collection promises to be an inspired entry into the catalog, his acoustic set at Artpark on July 9 should satiate fans for whom 32,000 days is an apt manner in which to describe how long they’ve been waiting for the album to drop.
I spoke with Hart recently about the project and the passion in his voice led me to believe that you’ll definitely want to get to the venue early to avoid missing what he has to offer.
MNOD: How did the concept for “32,000 Days” initially come about?
Hart: The album really started with what I like to call the two pillars, which are the foundation of any idea. My stepfather is a fascinating character and just a solid guy. My dad died when I was real young, so I wanted to capture what a strange trip it’s been for both of us. He’s a WWII vet who lied about his age to join the merchant marines when he was 16 and I started thinking about putting the album together when he was 90. He’s now 92. I thought about how many days that is and it ends up being about 32,000. He went through a lot in 32,000 days and I started writing from the perspective of youth all the way to the end of that journey. It’s about love, loss, winning, and losing. I don’t want to make it sound like a total concept record, because its themes are universal.
MNOD: Was there any concern that his story wouldn’t translate well to a musical platform?
Hart: I had no idea if it would translate or not at the beginning, because I don’t think that way. I never use his name or get into any specifics regarding his journey, so it ends up being about us without mentioning anyone by name. I’ve been a songwriter long enough that I’m able to craft an idea in such a way that I can write around something without spelling it out.
MNOD: What kind of influence did your stepfather have on you during your younger days?
Hart: He was always really supportive of art and anything music-related that I wanted to get into. My grandfather made sure that I received some early guitar lessons to build that foundation, but what my stepfather did was give me the freedom to let me find myself.
MNOD: Because you were writing about a living person, was there pressure to capture the story in a way that he would approve of?
Hart: No. I think that any time you try to censor yourself in that way isn’t good, because it ends up hurting everybody. I know how to get around a topic without explicitly laying it out for the listener, because that’s all part of the craft. I never let the potential reaction of the listener influence my approach, because then the finished product isn’t representative of your true vision.
MNOD: What role did the vibe of Nashville play in the album’s development?
Hart: I’ve lived in Nashville for 18 years now and it’s my home. I love being surrounded my musicians and writers, because everyone is just a phone call away. If I need someone to come lay down a pedal steel part, I know that I can get someone in quickly who can play at a high level. I moved my studio from my house to a different location in the city and it was nice to make the record in the new studio. In some ways, it’s easy, because I’m surrounded by other people who can contribute. It’s different from when I used to make records out in Los Angeles and other places, because the people I want to work with are much closer.
MNOD: What are some of the themes that you want people to take away from this album?
Hart: It’s about a lot of different things. It’s about being heartbroken, being in love, and other universal elements of the human experience. It’s also about boredom I experienced as a kid and how all of the life stuff shaped me. There was some stuff that he told me during the development of the record that I was previously unaware of like the specifics of the war. He reached an age where he realized that he had no friends left, so he had to tell somebody these things to prevent them from being lost forever. The older we get, the more important it becomes to document our life experiences and there are things that he told me that I would never share with anyone else out of respect for him. Those pieces of the story are mine and I’ll keep them.
MNOD: Like so many other ’90s kids, Tonic’s 1996 album “Lemon Parade” was a significant part of my musical experience. What are some of your fondest memories of that period?
Hart: I have a lot of great memories from that time, because were able to record in some of the best rooms in the world. Ocean Way and Sound City were legendary studios where so many classic records were made. Working with Jack Joseph Puig was amazing and we all walked away from those sessions as better musicians. He taught us all how to be better. He taught me not only how sing better, but to feel what you’re singing in a way that makes it believable. It’s sad, because Sound City is gone now, but being able to record there was memorable.
MNOD: “If You Could Only See” is a song that still resonates 23 years later. Did you have a feeling about that track early on or did it take some time to really blossom?
Hart: It took some time. I got married really young at 22-years-old and my mom didn’t want me to get married. I remember speaking to her on the phone and telling her ‘If you could only see the way she loves me.’ I wrote the song years before I formed Tonic and I think it took about 15 minutes to put together. I ended up putting the song away for a long time, because I thought it was too personal and vulnerable. I had no idea that it would end up being the stand-out. The president of Polydor at the time was the one who told me to include it on the record, because he said the personal nature of it was what people wanted. It’s a song that people still respond to in a big way and I still hear it every day. It’s insanity to me.
MNOD: Does your approach to writing vary depending on which project you’re writing for?
Hart: I know as soon as I write a song what it would be appropriate for. I usually split them up into piles. I have a Tonic pile, a solo pile, and an outside pile full of songs that I’ll pitch to other artists for consideration. There are certain things that I can’t say within the Tonic context, so I’ll use them for something else. On the other hand, there are pieces that I’ll send to the other guys and they’ll instantly say that it sounds like a Tonic song.
MNOD: You’re playing Artpark on July 9 with Sugar Ray and Better Than Ezra. Will you be playing with a band or by yourself?
Hart: I’ll be playing acoustically. It’s easier by myself sometimes, because I can just be me. It can also be more fun to work at my own pace. I’ve done it before and haven’t had any complaints.
MNOD: What is your relationship like with the other bands on the bill?
Hart: We have a good relationship. We actually have a side project with each other called Ezra Ray Hart that we bring out for corporate shows. We’ll play 75 to 90 minutes of hits and it’s a lot of fun. We’ve all written more than a few of them and we’ve been playing together for quite a while. We’re definitely pretty close.
Emerson Hart plays Artpark on July 9 as part of a triple bill with Sugar Ray and Better Than Ezra.